Jean-Claude Juncker struck a largely emollient tone on the subject of Brexit talks on Wednesday (12 September), which he said were being “masterfully handled by my friend Michel Barnier”.
With only six months before the UK is scheduled to leave, Juncker said the UK “will never be an ordinary third country for us”. “The United Kingdom will always be a very close neighbour and partner, in political, economic and security terms,” Juncker told MEPs in Strasbourg during his State of the Union speech.
He also gave Prime Minister Theresa May’s blueprint for future EU-UK trade relations a warmer welcome than many in her own Conservative party, remarking that “we agree with the statement made in Chequers that the starting point for such a partnership should be a free trade area between the United Kingdom and the European Union.”
Juncker’s remarks were quickly welcomed by May.
“I want to say to our closest allies in Europe – you will never be an ordinary third party for us,” May told the UK Parliament shortly after Juncker’s speech.
But deep divisions lie just underneath the warm words.
Juncker repeated the message that the UK would not be allowed to ‘cherry-pick’ its future relationship with the bloc.
“If you leave the Union, you are of course no longer part of our single market, and certainly not only in the parts of it you choose,” he said.
The Commission chief also stuck to his guns on the Irish border question, which remains the main obstacle to completing the UK’s Withdrawal Agreement.
Juncker said the EU would “always show loyalty and solidarity with Ireland when it comes to the Irish border. This is why we want to find a creative solution that prevents a hard border in Northern Ireland. But we will equally be very outspoken should the British government walk away from its responsibilities under the Good Friday Agreement”.
“It is not the European Union, it is Brexit that risks making the border more visible in Northern Ireland,” he said.
For her part, the British Prime Minister hinted that the UK would be reluctant to pay the €35-39 billion settlement that is part of the proposed Brexit transition deal.
“We are a country which honours our obligations, we believe in the rule of law and therefore we believe in abiding by our legal obligations,” she told MPs.
“However … the specific offer was made in the spirit of our desire to reach a deal with the European Union and on the basis, as the EU themselves have said, that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, without a deal the position changes.”