Michel Barnier : “This is the only possible divorce treaty”
Michel Barnier listens during a debate on Brexit at the European Parliament, Wednesday, January 16, 2019 in Strasbourg, eastern France. / Jean-Francois Badias / AP
Michel Barnier, the Chief European Union negotiator for Brexit received Le Monde and two other European newspapers (Rzeczpospolita and Luxemburger Wort) on Tuesday 22 January in his office on the 5th floor of the Berlaymont building, the headquarters of the European Commission in Brussels.
“Calm” and “lucid” at now 65 days from Brexit, the ex-Internal market Commissioner and former French minister for Foreign Affairs , explains why the treaty which he negotiated for 17 months with London in the name of the 27 “remains the only divorce treaty possible” despite the fact that this massive volume and the declaration on the “future relationship” which accompanies it, was brutally rejected by the British members of parliament on 15 January.
Do you think, given your own red lines and the political chaos in the United Kingdom, that the elements of the November 2018 agreement are still valid?
The British are facing a moment of truth. When you listen to their parliamentary debates, you realise that there are in fact two majorities. One which was clearly expressed on 15th January last against the agreement signed between the 27 members and Mrs May’s government. I think there is also a majority against the ‘no deal’.
Mrs May and the British political leaders must now build a positive majority and bring to fruition the debate which the British parliament is seeking. They need time and we need to respect this democratic time. But I think that an ordered agreement will be globally in keeping with the treaty which is there (he indicates a large volume on his desk, the treaty signed in 2018). It is not simply a speech but 600 pages of elements of legal security. This is the only possible divorce treaty.
The treaty signed at the end of 2018 has nevertheless been rejected by a very large majority in Westminster!
The treaty can still be upheld if it is put in perspective. This is where the “future relationship” with London comes in. If the British government wishes to raise the perspective of the future relationship, and be more ambitious (for the time being, Mrs May maintains that she wants to leave the single market and the customs union) then it would be possible to agree on the global package (treaty and future relationship) and the question of the ‘backstop’ would become relative. If I understand the British debates aright; there is a desire to find a way. But if the government and the MPs don’t move their lines, we are going inevitably into ‘no deal’.
Yesterday, Theresa May, who had promised a Plan B to her parliamentarians, after their rejection of the agreement with the Europeans simply announced “the pursuit of “consultations” and once again demanded concessions on the highly controversial Irish “safety net”. Do you maintain that you are not ready for it?
This safety net (or backstop) is part of the withdrawal treaty, nothing has been left to chance. This is an assurance to maintain peace and stability in the island of Ireland, the assurance that in no circumstances, will a hard frontier be re-built, the Good Friday agreements will be ensured and the “common travel area” (enabling people to travel freely between Ireland and the United Kingdom).
When one meets the different Irish communities, one understands how sensitive this question is. The peace is fragile. I passed through Dungannon (Northern Ireland) in May 2018 and I was very struck by my meeting with some twenty women. Two of them were in tears; they explained how frightened they were that the troubles (between Unionist and Catholic communities) might begin again.
The backstop also concerns the whole of Europe: a product which enters Northern Ireland, coming from the United Kingdom, because of the freedom of movement in the internal European market is treated as if it was entering Poland, France or Luxembourg! We have an obligation to control these products; they must conform to the standards of the internal market.
The British demand that this assurance be for a limited time. They are frightened that it will trap them in a permanent customs union with the European Union. Why not accept their demand? Even the Polish Minister for Foreign Affairs supported it by suggesting a backstop for a period of 5 years.
The backstop which we are discussing today (Northern Ireland will remain in line with the rules of the internal market, and the United Kingdom as a whole will be maintained in a customs union), is imposed on us by Brexit. And it is the one chosen by the United Kingdom.
We proposed a simpler version (in December 2017, only Northern Ireland remained aligned on the internal market), but the British government refused this solution and suggested one of their own in the context of the Chequers White Paper (July 2018) and in other proposals.
I have listened to all the proposals wherever they come from and all the concerns of the Member States have been taken into consideration, those from the Irish in the same way as those from the Polish with their 900,000 citizens resident in the UK. But the question of limiting the backstop in time has already been discussed twice by the European leaders, in November and in December 2018. This backstop is the only one possible because an assurance is no longer operational if it is for a limited time. Imagine if it were to be limited in time and the problem arose after expiry: it is useless!
Anti-Brexit campaigner holds a placard as he demonstrates outside the Houses of Parliament in central London on January 22, 2019. / TOLGA AKMEN / AFP
Your arguments have obviously not been understood on the other side of the Channel. Has there not been a problem of communication on the part of the Europeans?
It is not a question of communication or of dogmatism. We have been pragmatic and attentive. But the conditions of the peace in Ireland and the need to keep the single market demand the absence of a hard frontier. From the moment when the United Kingdom said they wished to leave the Customs Union and the internal market we had to seek a pragmatic and operational solution.
I will repeat it: the backstop is not an assurance; it is not there to be used. It will no longer be required when a specific agreement for Ireland, or when the future global relation between the European Union and the United Kingdom has been found which will settle for once and for all the question of the absence of a frontier.
We are not dogmatic, we are protecting the interests of the Union. Our strategy – I mean the 27 members – has always been clear as from the days following the British referendum: we wish, as a priority, to preserve the foundations of the European Union and its principal asset, the single market. The departure of a member State cannot undermine these foundations.
You were saying that they had to be allowed time: are we going straight to a postponement of Brexit?
This decision would have to be taken at the request of the British and be approved by the 27 by consensus. The European Parliament will also have its word to say. I cannot pre-judge their decision. But if this question were to be asked, the Heads of State and the governments would ask three questions. For what reason? For how long? They would also have a third concern: that this possible prolongation might interfere with the democratic working of the European elections. We also have a democratic debate and European elections in the month of May.
The position of the Europeans is nevertheless paradoxical; they firmly defend the principle of an Irish ‘backstop’, but what will happen if there is ‘no deal’: will the physical frontier come back in Ireland?
We will be obliged to take unilateral emergency measures and in this specific case (Northern Ireland, part of the United Kingdom, automatically leaving the single market) we will be forced to check the products arriving in Northern Ireland. With my team, we have done considerable work to study the dematerialisation of the controls and their decentralisation which will be useful in any event. But even if there is no agreement, we will remain on our positions and we will do everything possible to ensure there is no hard frontier in Ireland.
What will happen to the 3.5 million European citizens resident in the United Kingdom?
The best guarantee for the citizens is the one in the withdrawal agreement: there is an almost total guarantee for all the expatriate citizens (that they will be able to continue to reside in the United Kingdom and to enjoy the rights they have accumulated), for their family and for their lifetime. This question will obviously remain a priority in the event of a no-deal.
There are points which depend on the Union: the directive on the status of long-term residents could apply to expatriate British citizens. And there will be rights which will have to be granted in coherent fashion at national level. There will be means to be ambitious, on condition obviously that the United Kingdom grants reciprocity to European citizens.
Banners are tied to railings on the roadside near parliament in London, Tuesday, January 22, 2019. / Kirsty Wigglesworth / AP
Will the British still have to pay?
Concerning the European Union budget, we have always put it very simply: the totality of the commitments of the United Kingdom, as long as the country is a member of the European Union, will be respected. It will be more difficult to have them respected in the case of a ‘no deal’ but we will continue to insist: these commitments are of a legal nature in international law and I do not imagine that the British will not respect their international commitments.
Are the 27 ready for a ‘no-deal’? Will they succeed in the event of this catastrophic scenario to maintain their remarkable unity?
They are all making preparations and they will be ready. The General Secretary of the Commission is in charge of these questions and he has speeded up the work at community level. The Netherlands, for example, have created 700 customs officers, France 1,000, Belgium 400. In the case of ‘no-deal’ action will of course be taken to ensure that planes can land but … But the ‘no-deal’ cannot be a sum of mini deals and be a situation of ‘business as usual’. Even an agreement for an ordered Brexit will cause disruptions and have serious consequences. The ‘no-deal’ even more so.
There are people in Brussels who would like to see you succeeding to Jean-Claude Juncker at the head of the Commission. What do you think?
This is not an issue. I have said from the beginning that I would carry out this mission to its end and, as you see, we are far from having finished. I have decided not to get involved in the process of Spitzenkandidat for the European People’s Party (in the autumn of 2018), even if many people urged me to do so. It is a question of responsibility and of honour.
(Traduit du français par Kristin Couper)