Brexit: ‘Most difficult part is still to come’, warns Barnier

EU Chief negotiator for Brexit, Michel Barnier, gives a press conference at the end of an European general affairs council on Article 50 in Brussels, Belgium, 29 January 2018. [Stephanie Lecocq/EPA]

Progress is being made but ‘the most difficult part is still to come’, EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said  in an interview with European press agencies including EURACTIV’s partner Ouest-France, as well as La Repubblica, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Le Soir and El Espanyol.

Is Brexit irreversible?

We are at a key point in negotiations, right at the halfway point. On 29 March 2019, the UK will leave the EU. We are slowly getting there, with stage agreements in December and March. But we are still not fully there and we mustn’t underestimate the difficulties tied to the remaining 25% on which agreement has still to be reached.  The most difficult part is still to come.

For example?

There is still the issue of the protection by both sides of geographical indications, appellations of origin and trademarks. One million trademarks benefit from protection in the EU 28. This is an issue that needs to be addressed as soon as possible. Then there are two key areas, for there to be an agreement: there needs to be a solution on the governance of the deal and the role of the European Court of Justice, and a practical solution on Ireland which, safeguards the Good Friday Agreement and upholds the integrity of the European single market.

Do the two parties’ red lines on Ireland appear incompatible?

We must not lose sight of the fact that Brexit causes a risk in Ireland. It was the UK’s decision to leave the EU, but it is not obliged to leave the single market and the Customs Union because it is leaving the EU. There are countries that are not members of the EU but are part of the single market. The UK says that it wants to leave the single market because it doesn’t want to abide by the rules, and the Customs Union as they want to regain full independence on trade matters, and this is the decision that causes problems in Ireland.

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Are solutions forthcoming?

Yes, we have an agreement on the political framework, reiterating our joint commitment to the peace agreement on Northern Ireland, there was no alternative. There could be no other option than safeguarding in its entirety this peace agreement, of which it is the 20th anniversary today. In December, three solutions were put forward, first  a solution will come out of the future relation with the UK after December 2020, second, the UK undertook to find specific solutions, and finally the solution the we put forward.

Would the solution create a border between Northern Ireland and the UK?

No I don’t think so. It would involve customs checks on certain types of goods, such as already exist in Belfast at present for certain goods from the rest of the UK. Checks on animal and plant health already exist. We won’t settle for anything less, they can be implemented in accordance with the UK’s domestic legal order. If the UK comes up with a better solution we will take it, but there needs to be a workable solution for Ireland in place in order for the agreement on withdrawal to go ahead in October.

What is your timeframe?

The UK will leave the EU on 30 March 2019. The UK will not leave the Single Market and the Customs Union until 31 December 2020. At this point in time everything seems to suggest that this timeframe can be met. It would make sense for things to be settled by October. Along with the treaty on withdrawal, we want a clear statement on future relations, so that everyone has a clear idea. From October 2018 to December 2020 there is not a lot of time to finalise an agreement and translate the legal framework for future relations into one or more treaties or international agreements.

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How do you see future relations?

On free trade things are clear. The March roadmap, taking account of the UK’s red lines means that we will be working on a model similar to the agreements with Canada, Korea and Japan. At the same time the structure of future relations will be underpinned by four pillars: a trade agreement, a pillar on specific cooperation relating to universities, aviation and research, a pillar on judicial and police cooperation and another one on defence and security. Current events should not distract us from the work on this long term agreement.

The UK opposition is said to be in favour of remaining in the Customs Union.

We are open to all options.

Including the Norway+ option? That would allow the UK to remain in the single market like Norway, and in the Customs Union like Turkey.

Yes as it is the only option that would not result in frictions and checks, all other options will require checks on norms, standards and rules of origin. This option is on the table as I’ve always said.

Is the UK willing to go back on everything it said over the past year?

It won’t change its mind on freedom of movement, and its independence on trade matters.

Any openings?

I am aware of the debate in the UK, but for the moment I have not seen any change in the government’s attitude.

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Could Brexit have any impact on the 2019 European elections?

What we are working on is a treaty, this involves legal precepts, facts and figures and we must act separately from the political context. Brexit will surely be a factor in the election debate, I should think so. However, European elections won’t change anything when it comes to the negotiations.

But it will be part of the backdrop.

I  believe that people will be made more aware of the advantages of being a part of the EU.  This could change over time but I don’t see what the added value of Brexit is for the UK.

Was the complexity of Brexit underestimated ?

I don’t know, what I can say though is that on the 30 March the UK will be automatically withdrawing from 750 international agreements, Euratom, Europol, the European Defence Agency, and trade agreements. This is irreversible even if there is a 21 month transition period to avoid a sudden exit. But from a legal perspective the UK is leaving.

British fishermen are up in arms, and French fishermen are worried, how does this affect negotiations?

All common policies will remain in place until the end of the transition period, on 31 December 2020. Fishing negotiations will take place within the framework of the future trade agreement. We will work on the basis of an agreement balancing access to British territorial waters with access to the European market for British products.  We make extensive use of British territorial waters but 60% of the UK’s fishery products are sold in the single market. There is therefore mutual interest in finding a balanced agreement.

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