Yesterday I attended a meeting at which Michel Barnier, the EU’s appointed Brexit negotiator, presented the current status from his point of view — and I had the opportunity to respond. On the plus side, he was measured and reasonable, insisting that his stance would be neither aggressive nor revengeful. And he set out his stall in clear and organised terms. But he also came up with a few propositions which might cause some consternation on our side of the Channel.
He said that his three tasks were to negotiate the UK’s withdrawal; to agree a future relationship; and to agree also a transitional relationship. Many Brits will bridle at the term “transitional deal”, but both Barnier, and the parliament’s Brexit spokesman Guy Verhofstadt, insisted that any such deal must be short-term. Verhosfstadt spoke of “sunset clauses”.
Barnier said that his key principles would be “the unity of the EU 27” (we can have no problem with that); and the “Fundamental Four Freedoms” (again, we can have no problem – provided he means amongst the 27, and not the UK, as I made clear in my response); and the third principle: Member-States must enjoy better terms that third countries (i.e. the UK post-Brexit). Our view is that being out represents better terms than being in, but let that pass.
He went on to mention four key areas of concern. First, the status of acquired rights, with respect to EU citizens currently in the UK, and of course vice versa. I believe that given a degree of goodwill, this should not represent a major problem (although so far Merkel has declined to confirm this to Theresa May).
Secondly – the sticking point – future financial commitments. Barnier argues that the UK has entered into future commitments with the EU, in the EIB, structural and agricultural funds, the Horizon Research programme, foreign aid and other matters, which will require us to continue to contribute to Brussels for years after Brexit. I responded that we had entered into these commitments as an EU member-state within an EU framework, and any such commitments were clearly null and void after Brexit. “We have a saying in England” (I said), “You must cut your coat according to your cloth, and let’s face it, you’re going to have less cloth”.
On the EU side Brexit is often referred to as “a divorce”. But as I know to my cost, divorce involves splitting the assets. “The EU has substantial real estate and other assets”, I said. “You would be astonished and affronted if the British government demanded payment for our share of these assets on Brexit. We are equally affronted by your demands to continued contributions after Brexit”. That said, I would not rule out joining some EU programmes after Brexit – perhaps Erasmus and Horizon – but it must be on a purely voluntary basis, and at a price that represents fair value.
Thirdly, the issue of borders, and Barnier cited Gibraltar, the Cyprus RAF base at Akrotiri, and Northern Ireland. As I see it, Gibraltar and Cyprus revert to the status quo ante. Northern Ireland does represent a problem in terms of the border, but I believe that with goodwill and creative thinking a satisfactory solution can be found.
And fourthly, climate policy, which Barnier seems to believe needs to be “negotiated”. I in return insisted that climate policy for the UK after Brexit would be entirely a matter for a sovereign British government. That government could decide to stick to EU policies and targets, but I hope it will not, and especially that it will not give the EU any say or status in UK energy policy.
Equally, I insisted that immigration and fisheries (within our internationally-determined territorial waters) were not matters for negotiation. A sovereign British parliament would decide. Again, that does not preclude a range of agreements to be negotiated voluntarily, for example visa waivers on immigration, or access for foreign fishing boats to our fisheries (at a price). But it does preclude the EU having any say in those areas.
Barnier said that if Britain wanted to control immigration then it could not be part of the EU Customs Union or Single Market, and would have to settle for a free trade deal. I responded that this was very positive news, and was exactly what we (i.e. most of the Leave side) wanted.
In addition to exchanges with Barnier, I also crossed swords with Manfred Weber, the German MEP who leads the EPP Group.
Manfred Weber, EPP “We negotiated with David Cameron earlier this year and offered the UK a very generous package of measures covering various items including reduced welfare benefits for EU immigrants”.
RFH, EFDD (somewhat later): “I’d like to respond to Manfred Weber. You said the renegotiation you offered to David Cameron was ‘generous’. It was no such thing. It was trivial and derisory. It did not start to address the legitimate concerns of the British people. It brought derision on Cameron. And it could well have been a significant factor in the Brexit vote. The British people thought ‘Well if that’s the best they can offer, we’re better off out'”.