Op-ed by Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s Chief Negotiator for the negotiations with the United Kingdom
The United Kingdom will leave the European Union on 29 March 2019. While we regretted the UK’s departure, we respect its sovereign decision. Our task is now to organise the disentanglement of the UK from the EU’s institutions and policies. And we also need to look towards the future.
After Brexit, the EU will remain a global player, with 440 million citizens, and one of the biggest world economies. The UK has been an EU member for 45 years. We share common values and have a number of common interests. The UK, which is a member of the G7 and the UN Security Council, can be an important partner of the EU, economically and strategically. In the current geopolitical context, we have an interest not only to strengthen the EU’s role in the world but to cooperate with the UK as a close partner.
How can we achieve a new partnership?
First, we need to make sure that the UK’s exit is orderly. 80% of the Withdrawal Agreement is agreed. We will protect the rights of more than 4 million EU citizens living in the UK and British nationals in the EU. This was our first priority and a major point of vigilance for the European Parliament. The UK has also agreed to honour all its financial obligations undertaken as an EU member. A 21 month transition period will give businesses and administrations time to adapt, as the UK would stay in our Single Market and Customs Union until 31 December 2020.
However, 80% is not 100%. We still need to agree on important points, such as the protection of “geographical indications”. This refers to the protection of local farm and food products like Scottish Whisky or Parmesan cheese, where EU protection has generated significant value for European farmers and producers. We need to find solutions for specific British territories, such as the UK’s sovereign bases in Cyprus, and Gibraltar on which bilateral negotiations are ongoing between Spain and the UK.
The biggest risk caused by Brexit is on the island of Ireland. We need to make sure that Brexit does not create a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, and that the Good Friday Agreement, which has brought peace and stability to Northern Ireland, will be protected. Today, the cooperation and exchanges between Ireland and Northern Ireland occur within the common framework of the EU. Since we will not know what the future relationship will bring by Autumn 2018, we need to have a “backstop” solution in the Withdrawal Agreement. The UK agrees with this, and both the EU and the UK have said that a better solution in the future relationship could replace the backstop. What the EU has proposed is that Northern Ireland remains in a common regulatory area for goods and customs with the rest of the EU. We are ready to improve the text of our proposal with the UK.
Secondly, we need to agree on the terms of our future relationship.
Let’s be frank: as the UK has decided to leave the Single Market, it can no longer be as close economically to the rest of the EU. The UK wants to leave our common regulatory area, where people, goods, services and capital move freely across national borders. These are the economic foundations on which the EU was built. And the European Council – the 27 Heads of State or government – as well as the European Parliament have often recalled that these economic foundations cannot be weakened.
The UK knows well the benefits of the Single Market. It has contributed to shaping our rules over the last 45 years. And yet, some UK proposals would undermine our Single Market which is one of the EU’s biggest achievements. The UK wants to keep free movement of goods between us, but not of people and services. And it proposes to apply EU customs rules without being part of the EU’s legal order. Thus, the UK wants to take back sovereignty and control of its own laws, which we respect, but it cannot ask the EU to lose control of its borders and laws.
But I remain confident that the negotiations can reach a good outcome. It is possible to respect EU principles and create a new and ambitious partnership. That is what the European Council has already proposed in March. The EU has offered a Free Trade Agreement with zero tariffs and no quantitative restrictions for goods. It proposed close customs and regulatory cooperation and access to public procurement markets, to name but a few examples.
On security, the EU wants very close cooperation to protect our citizens and democratic societies. We should organise effective exchanges of intelligence and information and make sure our law enforcement bodies work together. We should cooperate to fight crime, money laundering and terrorist financing. We can cooperate on the exchange of DNA, fingerprints, or Passenger Name Records in aviation to better track and identify terrorists and criminals. We are also ready to discuss mechanisms for swift and effective extradition, guaranteeing procedural rights for suspects.
If the UK understands this, and if we quickly find solutions to the outstanding withdrawal issues, including the backstop for Ireland and Northern Ireland, I am sure we can build a future partnership between the EU and the United Kingdom that is unprecedented in scope and depth.