In an exclusive interview for Prospect, the EU negotiation chief says there is "no way" the UK will be allowed a bespoke dealby Christine Ockrent / December 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
A long time conservative politician—first elected in 1978, he became at 27 the youngest member of the French National Assembly—Michel Barnier, 66, is an even longer-time European. He dates his passion for Europe to the picture he saw as a child of General de Gaulle and the German chancellor Adenauer clutching hands to symbolize the reconciliation between their two countries.
Well-versed in the subtleties of the European machinery—he was twice a member of the Commission—he obviously enjoys the huge challenge offered to him by Jean-Claude Juncker, its current president, and the spotlights that go with it.
A few days before the Brussels summit that was to pass formal approval of the outline divorce settlement between the UK and the EU, the move which has enabled the Brexit talks to progress to the next stage, I had, as part of a bigger piece I am doing for Prospect magazine, the rare opportunity to discuss with the chief European Commission negotiator about his job, past and future.
“The Brexit negotiation is unique and extraordinary—it is the first time an EU member state has decided to leave, and I’ll do everything for it to remain unique! The process, complex as it is, has required us to take things in the right order, accurately, in order to achieve an orderly Brexit. I’ve always tried to approach the discussions without emotion, in a rational way, sticking to facts, figures and the legal basis.”
Being French and close to President Macron, another fervent Europhile, does he understand the suspicion expressed by some Brexiters that he has made his counterparts’ lives more difficult than necessary?
“My mandate and the platform I have proposed have nothing to do with punishment. You won’t find a single word about revenge or undue hardship in my statements, or in those of the French president and other heads of state. We all regret the UK departure. But no one should be surprised that the French, German, Dutch, Italian and other leaders are anxious the European project is not harmed or weakened by the UK departure. There is no reason for our values and principles to be damaged as a result.”
What about his determination to impose the sequencing of the negotiations rather than discussing immediately about trade agreements as the British government had hoped?
“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. So parallel talks will start probably next March. The actual negotiations on the future relationship will only begin once the UK leaves the EU.”
Insofar as Barnier is concerned, Downing Street decided on its own deadline by invoking Article 50 in March, a move which set a two-year clock ticking down, and drew its own red lines. He makes no qualms about the complexity of the forthcoming process—or what the British still need to grasp about it.
“The most difficult part remains to be done. It is also probably the most interesting. But the British have to understand it cannot be business as usual. We are ready to start working with the government on the three axes it has indicated: exit from the Union, exit from the single market, exit from the customs union. But the clock is ticking. The deadline of March 29, 2019 is their own doing”.
And at this point he moves determinedly to dash the hopes of many in Britain, including Theresa May, for a bespoke deal for the UK, something different from the relationship that the EU has with any other countries.
Barnier continues: “They have to realise there won’t be any cherry picking. 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.”
What about the transition period, supposed to smooth the cliff edge?
“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. But what matters is the time actually needed to negotiate our future relations.”
“Any change in the nature or the goals of this negotiation can only be decided by the 27 EU members + 1. The 27 know it is in their interest to remain closely united as they have clearly been in the first phase. And they will remain so.”
The political scene in London being in constant turmoil, to say the least, how might this impact the process?
“My attitude has been from the very start to listen, to watch and to follow the British political debate, which is quite stimulating. But I don’t make any comment. I don’t want to pass judgment on the British negotiators. It is not my role.”
Christine Ockrent’s full article will be published in the next print issue of Prospect. Subscribe now.
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