Mayday: What Barnier’s words on Brexit mean for the prime minister

Michel Barnier's warning about the only deals on offer strikes a heavy blow—just as Theresa May was finally regaining some confidence on Brexit

December 17, 2017
Barnier has said there is "no way" the UK can have a bespoke deal. Photo: PA
Barnier has said there is "no way" the UK can have a bespoke deal. Photo: PA

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Barnier has said there is "no way" the UK can have a bespoke deal. Photo: PA

For the first time since she squandered her majority in June, the prime minister appears to believe in herself—and her ability to steer Britain through Brexit.

After finally unlocking the talks this month, she was able to withstand a Commons defeat without ruin, and navigate a potentially humiliating climbdown over her personal plan to enshrine Brexit day in law. Indeed, she boasts in two Sunday newspapers that she has “proved the doubters wrong.”

Today, however, Prospect reveals that the most important doubter of the lot remains unconvinced by all the optimistic talk that has come out of London since the EU agreed earlier this month to allow the Brexit talks to progress to the next phase.

In an exclusive interview, the European Commission’s lead negotiator Michel Barnier tells the distinguished French journalist and editor Christine Ockrent that there is “no way” that Britain will ever achieve the sort of uniquely advantageous, bespoke Brexit deal that May has continually implied should be possible.

No hope of a bespoke scenario

Immediately after the referendum, Turkey, Liechtenstein and Albania were all fleetingly talked about as potential models for Britain’s future engagement with Europe, but soon enough discussion crystallised on two: Norway and Canada.

Norway represents soft Brexit: it lives by nearly all EU rules, including on immigration, even though it doesn’t have a hand in writing them. As a result, it can trade in the single market as if it were an EU member.

Canada, by contrast, represents the hopes some hold for hard Brexit. An entirely independent state, in charge of its own rules on immigration and much else, it has nevertheless struck a deal with the EU covering free trade in goods and a few other ground rules of doing business, such as in government procurement.

A third way?

May’s whole approach to managing the Brexit process and her turbulent party has been to insist that the choice between Canada and Norway can be transcended.

She made clear in her Lancaster House speech at the start of this year that Britain wanted control of immigration and would not roll over and accept rules and jurisprudence from outside, as the Norwegians had done. Only today, the foreign secretary tells the Sunday Times that swallowing EU rules from the outside—the Norway option—would render Britain a “vassal state.”

But May denied with an equal ferocity that this would involve Britain drifting away from all the economic advantages of single market access.

Instead of a Norwegian or Canadian Brexit, Britain would negotiate its own tailor-made “red, white and blue Brexit”, offering the best of both worlds. The Brexit secretary, David Davis, has been most explicit in suggesting there can and will be a middle way, what he has called “Canada plus plus plus.”

“There won’t be any cherry picking”

Barnier could not be any more brutal in dismissing all of this: “They have to realise there won’t be any cherry picking,” he tells Ockrent.

“We won’t mix up the various scenarios to create a specific one and accommodate their wishes, mixing, for instance, the advantages of the Norwegian model, member of the single market, with the simple requirements of the Canadian one. No way. They have to face the consequences of their own decision.”

Having worked in close co-ordination not only with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker but also President Emmanuel Macron, we can assume he is not merely venting his personal opinion, but expressing the current thinking of the most powerful players on the continent.

So what now?

It is conceivable the mood could change—if, for example, Europe baulks at the economic damage it would do to itself if Britain feels compelled to leave the single market. But there is no guarantee that this mood shift will happen.

Indeed, Barnier explained to Ockrent why Brussels will be inclined to dig in, describing the departure of a member state as a unique situation, adding “I’ll do everything for it to remain unique!”

In Britain, Barnier has often been caricatured as an obsessive stickler for process. It isn’t, he insists, about punishing Britain (“You won’t find a single word about revenge”). Instead, it is about doing things properly.

“The British had the idea they could mingle everything: the price for past commitments, the financial issue and the future. We said: first we settle the past, like in any separation, then we start talking about the future”.

Looking ahead, the EU will keep a similarly firm grip on the timetable: “So parallel talks will start probably next March.”

Most ominously for Britain, “the actual negotiations on the future relationship”—the trade deal David Davis once suggested could be pulled off in minutes—“will only begin once the UK leaves the EU.”

A focus on the transition

That makes the transition absolutely crucial. Again, however, Barnier issues warnings: this is not yet in the bag, and will need to be strictly time-limited.

“There is no mandate to discuss the transition period yet, but it will be short and duly framed. Prime Minister May has stated it should take two years—it cannot last longer for legal reasons.” Boris Johnson, who has swaggeringly suggested the transition period must be “not a second more” might be delighted.

But May and other colleagues—including Davis, who recently let slip it might need to be longer by talking of transition of “about” two years—should be terrified.

The upshot is that the fateful final decision between Canada and Norway cannot long be dodged. “The clock”, Barnier pointedly says referring to London’s unilateral decision to invoke Article 50 last March, “is ticking. The deadline of March 29, 2019 is their own doing”.

As it ticks down, the red, white and blue thread holding this government together will surely snap.

Read Christine Ockrent's interview with Michel Barnier.


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