ECR chief: EU27 Brexit unity only on the outside

President of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) Group Syed Kamall (L) speaks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker at the European Parliament in Strasbourg on 14 June 2017. [EPA/PATRICK SEEGER]

Some Central and Eastern European leaders are concerned that France and Germany are setting the Brexit agenda and might push for ‘no deal’, the head of the ECR group in the European Parliament told EURACTIV Slovakia.

Syed Kamall is a British Conservative politician.

He spoke to EURACTIV Slovakia’s Zuzana Gabrižová during the ECR study days in Bratislava.

With the March deadline approaching, nerves are probably increasing. Do you see much bluffing on both sides, applied as a negotiating strategy?

It started already a long time ago, actually in the time when we sat down to negotiations. As we are arriving to the end, there is no interest in finishing quickly. Anyone who has been in Brussels for some years has seen how many summits there are when the coffee gets cold, the sandwiches get stale, the French come at last minute and suddenly at three in the morning, the deal is announced.

I expect this will also go this way, the only thing difference could be that this might not necessarily go until March. When I speak to people, they want to have a deal done sometime this autumn to give the European Parliament and the Council the time to consider the deal. As one of the Commissioners said to me: ‘Well of course, as with every negotiation, there has to be some theatre’. There are still some discussions but I am optimistic, that there will be a deal.

Isn’t the question – who is better prepared for a hard Brexit? – also a kind of bluffing?

Of course. In every negotiation, you have to be prepared to walk away and have no deal. Up to now, both sides have been denying this, now you see both the European Commission and the UK government preparing papers on what a no-deal Brexit would mean.

You mentioned that the European Parliament would want some time to discuss what has been agreed. What time-frame would be acceptable for the EP?

The European Parliament could do this very quickly. But in Parliament, we have politicians and politicians who want to get some political capital. We have a particular person, Guy Verhofstadt, who is the coordinator and it is quite clear that he would like to use this and get some publicity. One or two things he probably has got up his sleeves, I would not be surprised if he tried to hold it up for one or two issues.

Similarly, the chair of the EP constitutional committee, Danuta Hübner, has said that she needs months to consider this. Clearly, they are politicians and they are playing for an audience.

You’ve had many notable disputes with Verhofstadt. The ECR also had reservations about an EP resolution on Brexit, saying that it is “attacking the unity” of the EU27 in the negotiations. But isn’t that legitimate? The EP has a role to play in the process, its consent needs to be won, the point being that it does not necessarily need to follow the position of the member states.

Sure. If you look at Article 50, it is the Council that has the mandate and it is the Council that gives the mandate to the Commission to negotiate on behalf of the Council. The Parliament approves or turns down the deal. It is as simple as that. What I am saying is that Guy Verhofstadt is not a negotiator, he uses the title, but I noticed that the press started to realise that he is the coordinator. Theresa May has been quite clear about this – British ministers regularly meet with MEPs, they know that the EP has a role and they respect that role.

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Does it come as a surprise in the UK and to you personally that the EU seems to be on the same page in the Brexit negotiations?

As a group leader, I meet a lot of individual prime ministers and they told me that publicly they uphold the unity of EU27, but privately there are discussions. For example, in this part of the world, some Central and Eastern European prime ministers are concerned that the French and the Germans are pushing the agenda and are worried that they might push a no deal.

My Polish colleagues are very concerned about the British cooperation in terms of NATO, colleagues in the Baltics are also concerned about bilateral relations. I met the British ambassador (to Slovakia) last night, he is trying to make sure that whatever happens at the EU level does not undermine the bilateral relations. There are a lot of Slovaks in my constituency, one of my neighbours is a Slovak lady. We know these issues and we do not want them to affect those bilateral relations.

What would be your message to Slovak citizens living in Britain at this point?

We have been much clearer on that than the EU on how it wants to treat UK citizens. Initially, they said they want to do it at the same time, then the EU changed its mind. I think it is quite sinister and unfair to say that it is up to the member states.

Anyone who is in the UK will have the right to apply to stay. They can apply for citizenship if they have been in the UK before Brexit. We are now working on an app to make it very easy. So far it is only available on Android, we are talking also to Apple to make it available on Apple devices as well. Once we have that up and running we should also reach people who are not technically minded to make sure that they can register as well and exercise their rights. Theresa May has also said that even if there is no deal, we will guarantee the rights of the EU citizens in the UK.

When you became the leader of ECR, you said you want the group to be where people come for ideas on a reform of the EU. What would you consider the biggest political victory of the ECR group in the EP so far?

We changed the binary debate in the EU. Before we emerged, the debate seemed to be that either you believe in 1950s project of integration of the United States of Europe or however you would like to call it – or you wanted to destroy the EU. We said: ‘Hey guys, there is another option’. We have to prepare for the future, prepare for the 2050s and we do not want to destroy the EU, we want to reform the EU and I think we have created that space in the Parliament and in the European debate.

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What would be a concrete manifestation of this approach in terms of policies?

In terms of particular dossiers, we worked cross-parties to actually deliver those majorities, where there might not have been, on some of the baking reforms and learning lessons from the financial crisis. We are rather sceptical about the Eurozone. We think that any single currency needs fiscal transfers and it seems a little bit odd for Slovakia to be paying to Greece when the Greeks are richer in many ways. We want to make sure that people understand what the implications of the Eurozone are. We have been also pushing on international trade deals, the commissioner Malmström said the ECR is probably the most pro-trade group in the European Parliament.

Will the ECR survive the departure of British Conservatives?

In 2009 and in 2014, a lot of the Brussels bubble predicted that it will be the end of us. When we were formed in 2009, all said it would be over by Christmas. And in 2014, we emerged as the third largest party. That is because we are constantly doing our homework, we are constantly talking to other parties, some in European Parliament, but we are also looking at what is going on in individual parties, looking at shifting dynamics. There will be new parties in 2019. With Macron coming now, some people are feeling very uncomfortable about the way Macron in going to push the liberals and the EPP and some from EPP might feel more comfortable coming to us.

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