European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker today (18 January) said that the executive was not looking to punish Britain in EU-UK negotiations over Brexit.
Juncker said the executive was not “in a hostile mood” the day after British Prime Minister Theresa May warned she would never accept “a punitive deal” from the EU.
In a landmark speech in London yesterday (17 January), May confirmed that Britain would leave the single market as well as the EU in order to have greater control over immigration.
“There are some voices calling for a punitive deal that punishes Britain and discourages other countries from taking the same path,” she said. “No deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.”
Punishing the UK would be a “calamitous act of self-harm for the EU”, May said, before threatening to slash corporate tax rates to draw investment away from the EU and to the UK.
“We want a fair deal with Britain but a fair deal means a fair deal for the EU too,” said Juncker, who spoke to May on the phone after her speech.
Juncker was speaking at a Strasbourg press conference after addressing the European Parliament with Joseph Muscat, the prime minister of Malta. Malta will chair the early divorce negotiations because it holds the rotating six-month EU Presidency.
Muscat told MEPs, “I do appeal to all the [EU] institutions to adopt a consistent approach aimed at safeguarding the European project and not punishing any particular country.”
At the press conference Muscat claimed that May’s comments were not “the sort of declaration of war” that some in the British media had depicted them as. Instead, they had clarified that Britain would leave the single market.
Speaking in the Parliament, Juncker promised there would be a “balanced” Brexit settlement.
“I will do everything to ensure the negotiations will be according to rules and yield good results,” said Luxembourg’s former prime minister.
Juncker said, “I welcome the clarifications given by Mrs May but I said to her last night that a speech alone will not launch the negotiations.”
“The negotiations are going to be of great significance to that country but also to the 27 member states,” he added.
The EU has repeatedly vowed that there will be no negotiations until the UK invokes Article 50, the legal process taking Britain out of the EU.
May has promised to trigger Article 50 by the end of March, which will begin a two year negotiation period. The EU will be represented in the negotiations by the Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. A final settlement must then be backed by all member states and the European Parliament
Ready as soon as UK is. Only notification can kick off negotiations. #Brexit
— Michel Barnier (@MichelBarnier) January 17, 2017
Muscat said that once the notification of Article 50 was made, an extraordinary European Council would be held in Brussels four to five weeks later.
This summit of EU leaders would agree guidelines for the Commission to follow in the divorce talks. The executive will continue to report on progress to the Council.
“It is quite a historic irony for a country that has been a British colony for two centuries, and also presides over the Commonwealth, to hold the EU Presidency at a time of the triggering of the process by which the UK will unfortunately cease to be a member of EU, which the UK supported us in joining,” Muscat told MEPs.
“We want a fair deal for the UK but that deal necessarily needs to be inferior to membership,” he said, “Thinking it can be otherwise would indicate a detachment from reality”
Being part of the single market was conditional on the acceptance of the free movement of capital, goods, services and people, he said.
“At this point there is unequivocal unity within Council. This stand doesn’t arise from antagonism but from belief in core principles of European project,” Muscat added.
He said May’s determination to leave the single market was a “somewhat positive development” as it confirms the EU 27’s position that access to the market could not be separated from the bloc’s commitment to freedom of movement.
Muscat, a former MEP, also warned that it was important that the European Parliament was involved in the Brexit talks. The Parliament will have a vote on the final Brexit deal.
“I am of opinion that not involving the European Parliament is not the best choice. It comes at its own risk and could even lead to the fairest of deals being at risk of being scuttled,” he said.
The Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, had reacted furiously after it emerged he would not be in the room for the divorce talks. Today, he told UKIP MEPs to go to Donald Trump’s inauguration rather than come to the European Parliament.
“An American president openly saying other countries will break away from EU. I have never seen it, never heard it, that is the wake up call to reform Europe,” he said.
Juncker said that the EU could “refound Europe”. Referring to Brexit and the migration crisis, he said, “Most of our citizens, and you, and the Commission, would have liked Europe to react more rapidly, and with much greater solidarity, to the events of 2016.
“We need to show those people who think that this is the time to deconstruct Europe and let it fall apart, we need to show them that they are wrong.”
He added, “I’d like 2017 to be the year we look forward, otherwise the citizens, and particularly the young, will turn their backs on Europe.”