Britain’s political leaders should “get their act together” and tell the EU what they want from their divorce, European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans said in an interview with AFP.
Timmermans, the Dutch right-hand man to Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker, said Brexit was an “existential issue” for the rest of the European Union but the bloc had “enormous possibilities” to thrive.
“I follow closely what is happening in the UK and the political discussions in the UK, and perhaps they should first get their act together and tell us what they really want out of this,” Timmermans said.
“It’s not the 27 other member states who asked the United Kingdom to leave, on the contrary they pleaded with the UK to stay,” he added in the interview to mark Thursday’s publication in French of “Fraternite”, a book on Europe.
“The onus is on the country that decides to leave to tell us how they want to leave and I think that’s the starting point of the discussion,” said Timmermans, who was a key figure in negotiations with Britain before the referendum.
No ‘off the shelf’ solution
British Prime Minister Theresa May held a special Brexit “brainstorm” cabinet meeting on Tuesday amid reports on major divisions on how to proceed.
“The PM said that there were two related imperatives: getting the best deal for people at home, and getting the right deal for Britain abroad,” a spokeswoman for May said.
There was a “decisive view” that the model Britain was seeking would be unique rather than an “off-the-shelf solution”.
“This must mean controls on the numbers of people who come to Britain from Europe but also a positive outcome for those who wish to trade goods and services,” the spokeswoman added.
But she explicitly ruled out any second referendum, or any attempt “to sort of stay in the EU by the back door”.
Meanwhile the other 27 EU leaders will meet in Slovakia on September 16 to map out a way forward.
But Timmermans said the EU should not necessarily take a tough stance on Britain, as some leaders have suggested.
“The United Kingdom is not going anywhere, it’s going to be geographically where it is now, the Channel is not going to get any broader,” said Timmermans, referring to the stretch of water between France and England.
“So in that sense the UK will remain a European country even if it’s not a member of the European Union and that should be the basis, I believe, for the negotiations.”
Timmermans however warns in his book of a possible failure of the European project.
“The argument that won the Brexit campaign is the one that said take back control… which is another way of saying we want to control our destinies again,” he said in his interview.
“This is an existential issue for the whole of Europe not just for the UK because this sentiment is not limited to the United Kingdom.”
He also criticised the “hyperbole” during the Brexit campaign – now-foreign minister Boris Johnson compared the EU to Hitler – and expressed concern about a rise in hate crime in Britain after the vote.
“It hurts me when people like me who defend Europe are accused of wanting to complete the project of Adolf Hitler,” he said.
“I am sure Boris Johnson or Michael Gove or others didn’t intend to create this dynamic in British society, but it was created during the campaign,” he said.
Timmermans insisted though that there was cause for optimism in Europe.
“I still see enormous possibilities for Europe,” he said, citing EU initiatives in the digital economy and energy single market.
On Europe’s migration crisis, Timmermans cast doubt on Turkey’s demands for visa-free travel by October in exchange for curbing the refugee flow to Greece under a deal with the EU.
“Turkey has to comply with the benchmarks and a deal is a deal. We’ve said if you comply with the benchmarks the commission will make a proposal to the parliament and the council. But we’re not there yet,” he said.