Barnier cuts short Brexit blame-game

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, explained the negotiating guidelines for the next phase of divorce talks with the UK. [EPA]

During a 20-minute speech stuffed with examples and technical details, the EU’s top Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said protecting citizen rights after the UK leaves is a moral duty and refused to be drawn into a blame game with London.

Speaking at the European University Institute’s State of the Union conference in Florence he reiterated that the EU will not discuss any future relationship with the UK until the 27 member states are “reassured that all citizens will be treated properly and humanely”.

Barnier insisted that these guarantees would be written into a withdrawal agreement that will be subject to the jurisdiction of the EU’s Court of Justice (ECJ).

Even though he anticipated citizen rights would be easy to agree in principle, he conceded they would be hard to write into a legally precise text.

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More than half of British citizens oppose a unilateral guarantee for the rights of EU nationals living in the UK once the country leaves the bloc, according to a poll by Sky Data.

But “giving legal certainty to citizens is a question of respect”, he added, noting that only with facts we can have an informed debate.

Barnier refuted UK claims that EU member states are to blame for the continued uncertainty following last June’s vote, saying “the only cause of uncertainty is Brexit”.

“The only way to remove uncertainty and to protect rights properly is through an Article 50 agreement.”

“I will, of course, approach our British friends constructively and amicably on all issues. But I will also be firm, backed by European Council guidelines and Council directives. I will base my position on reliable evidence and on EU law,” he added.

The European Commission published the negotiating directives on Wednesday that will serve as the basis for the negotiations with the UK government. The text details the political guidelines adopted by the European Council on 29 April.

The document is expected to be adopted by the Council without major changes on 22 May.

As it was agreed by EU leaders, citizen rights and the financial settlement will be part of the first phase of the negotiations.

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To make the issue even clearer, he came up with a number of possible situations with which negotiators will be confronted.

Peter from Essex

He took the case of Peter, a PhD student from Essex, who receives a grant from his university in 2020. He then wishes to spend four months at the University of Turin in order to broaden his knowledge in regard to a collaborative project on Euroscepticism.

Since 2020 would be after Brexit, Peter would become a third-country national, whose EU social security and health insurance rights will no longer protect him.

To give legal certainty to Peter, Barnier offered the option that the UK could decide to continue to support university networking and joint projects as a third country after Brexit. But this would require a different legal and financial framework, he said.

Currently around 3.2 million EU citizens work and live in the UK, and 1.2 million British citizens work and live in the EU.

On balance, EU citizens contributed more than they benefit from the UK tax and social security system, Barnier underscored and regretted that this point fell on deaf ears during the referendum campaign.

The road to Brexit and beyond

The United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. But how did it get to this stage? And what happens next? As the negotiations fast approach, familiarise yourself with the all-important dates and events.

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