Michel Barnier interview: ‘It is important to respect the democratic will of states’
EU’s Brexit negotiator hints that a future UK government could get more Brexit leeway
Michel Barnier: “It is not easy to work with this pooled sovereignty of the 27. We are not a federal state. We do not want to be a federal state.” Photograph: Francisco Seco/AP
The door is not quite closed yet. As the UK moves into election mode, the EU chief Brexit negotiator has hinted that the union may yet be willing to give the UK more Brexit leeway, at least on yet another extension.
Michel Barnier is quick to warn, however, that there are no realistic alternatives to the current withdrawal agreement.
Would the EU be willing to consider another extension, he was asked by journalists. “We’ll have to see what a British government wants: if it emerges,” he says. “The 27 have said that there will be no negotiations during the current three-month extension.”
But could they then reopen the withdrawal agreement text for discussion? “Whatever the context, the problems and solutions remain the same. In the context of the withdrawal agreement, a divorce agreement necessitated by legal uncertainty that Brexit creates, we have found the solutions . . .”
The political declaration on the future relationship, he said, was another matter that “the EU would always be available to work on a more ambitious relationship with the UK”.
Barnier, chief Brexit negotiator and head of the EU’s Task Force 50 team, was speaking on Tuesday in his 5th floor Brussels office to a small group of European newspapers, including The Irish Times, Le Figaro, the Guardian, Gazeta Wyborcza, and El Pais.
On the wall, a photo recalls October 17th, 1986 – “an important date for me” – the day he had been told by the International Olympic Committee that the team he chaired had won the Winter Olympics for the town of Albertville. By a strange coincidence, he says, that was also the date this year that the Brexit deal was sealed with Boris Johnson.
Barnier has just been appointed to head a new task force that will finish work on the withdrawal agreement and co-ordinate the various teams who will conduct negotiations with the UK on the various aspects of its future relationship with the EU – “we are ready to start immediately after ratification”. Among those teams – “in the front row”, as Barnier puts it – is Phil Hogan, the EU’s new trade commissioner.
Responding to the House of Commons’s decision on Tuesday night to hold a December 12th election, Mr Barnier said that “The EU27 have agreed to the UK’s request for an extension. The purpose of this extension is first and foremost to ratify the fair and reasonable agreement we reached on October 17th. I hope that that will be the case between now and the period immediately following the general election.”
Barnier warned that the UK has to understand that there will be a price for any insistence in the future trade talks on going its own way and breaking with regulatory alignment on “level playing field” commitments. A free trade deal may be the ambition, but how free will depend on maintaining common rules to avoid unfair competition.
“The trade accord we hope to discuss will be based on zero tariffs, zero quotas and zero dumping. But access to our markets will be proportionate to the engagements made to our common rulebook.”
So, he is asked, any economic dumping by the UK, taking advantage of regulatory disparities in its favour, will inevitably result in tariffs and quotas? “Market access will be proportionate,” he says.
The UK already has a unique relationship with the EU, which should ease the way for an ambitious trade deal, Barnier argues. Unlike other big trading partners such as South Korea, Canada, and Japan, the UK is next door and has been in the single market for the last 45 years. The result is a strong economic interdependence.
“These will be the first set of trade talks with a country diverging with us, not converging, and the issue will be the extent to which it will be diverging,” he says, pointing to commitments in the political declaration to “no regression on regulations” in areas like social and environmental rights, state aids and taxation.
“It’s in the UK’s interest to have such strong relations with us,” he says.
Barnier’s mandate was to “negotiate and reach agreement on a treaty – a legal document – to organise an orderly withdrawal of the UK”.
The context, he said, was “their decision to leave the EU, the customs union and the single market”. It was a decision “we regret but respect. It is important to respect the democratic will of states.”
The Task Force 50 team “operated on the basis of facts and figures and realities”, he said, at a “remove from the sensibilities of the British political debate”, although it followed that closely. The challenge was to deal with the problems that Brexit threw up.
‘Peace in Ireland’
Crucial, he says, was a “perspective”, a “horizon” – “beyond Brexit what does that constitute? Firstly peace in Ireland, our collective responsibility, secondly the defence of the interests of the union and its single market, foundation stones of the European project, and thirdly the future relationship – rebuilding a relationship with that great country that is the UK.”
“Our accord with Boris Johnson respects those principles,” he argues.
He says he became convinced it would be possible when Johnson came to lunch in Luxembourg in September and the British PM said “I want an agreement” – “I believed him to be very sincere ” . That was followed by the “important” meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Liverpool.
Five days of intensive talks followed and a deal.
But, surely, that was based on the reopening of the text of the withdrawal agreement, something member states had said should not happen?
“Boris Johnson’s new government, which took office in July, asked us for two new things: he wanted no talk of a customs union, which Theresa May had left the door open to in both the withdrawal agreement and political declaration . . . And instead he was proposing a basic free trade agreement. If we had said no there would have been a breakdown and finally a no-deal Brexit.
“We remained committed to our red lines: peace in Ireland, no hard border, an all-Ireland economy and respect for the integrity of the single market. And to the idea that the North of Ireland should remain part of the British customs territory.
“We found a solution which squared that circle.”
The critical difference between the May and Johnson deals “is that we abandoned the temporary backstop – the ‘until and unless’ – a sort of insurance policy.”
That was possible, he says, thanks to the work of the Taoiseach and Johnson, particularly the idea of “consent as a democratic validation”.
The approach in Ireland is “operationally long-lasting and can be put in place tomorrow morning, or at the end of 2020 . . . Its long-lasting character sustained by the democratic mandate regularly endorsed by the people most affected, the people of Northern Ireland. This is not a temporary solution like the backstop.”
Emphasising what he said was his top priority of preserving peace in Ireland, Barnier rejected unionist contentions that customs controls in the Irish Sea were tantamount to a border. “They had them before,” he said, referring to regulatory controls that exist but will be strengthened under the proposed withdrawal agreement. That reality should be explained to those who are worried, he said.
Barnier refused to comment on – but did not deny – a report that he had declined French president Emmanuel Macron’s offer to nominate him to the French vacancy in the European Commission if he resigned his membership of the European People’s Party.
The challenge of ensuring the ratification of any future agreements is a central preoccupation, he says. The new task force will have special unit for liaising with 27 national parliaments and several regional assemblies which will have a say. “Do not underestimate the challenge of ratification of any trade or association agreement in national parliaments,” he warns.
He accepts that the likely transition period for the UK after it leaves, if it leaves on January 31st, at 12 to 13 months, is unlikely to be enough to complete the elaborate future relationship talks, but it can be extended if necessary for one or two years if the UK requests it. However, he argues that it should be possible to make very significant progress on priorities like trade and security co-operation.
What are the key lessons of Brexit?
Above all, he says that “unity is possible, a unity built on the pressure felt after the referendum. There are other contributing pressures: the new approach of the US to Europe, the new context in the Mediterranean and the challenge of migration. All of that contributed to the imperative that it is better to be together than to go it alone.”
It is not true that Europe is stagnating, he insists. “The economy is growing. Greece has come out of crisis, as has the euro zone. The [Jean Claude] Juncker investment plan has been launched successfully, and the first steps are being taken in terms of the defence policy of the union. A frontier force has been established.
“All of that is not easy. It is not easy to work with this pooled sovereignty of the 27. We are not a federal state. We do not want to be a federal state. There is not one European people, but 28, 24 languages, there are national identities . . . But we have demonstrated over Brexit that our unity can be used for other things, for a positive agenda.”