Parliament lays down red lines for Brexit negotiations

Manfred Weber opening the debate on Brexit. [European Parliament]

Access to the single market, border controls, the rights of European citizens in the United Kingdom and its exit bill all made it into the European Parliament’s Brexit roadmap, ahead of what may prove to be tough negotiations. EURACTIV France reports.

“The time for the divorce has come, now we have to start negotiating,” GUE/NGL group president Gabriele Zimmer said today (5 April) at the European Parliament’s Brexit debate in Strasbourg.

After the British government triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty last Wednesday (29 March), MEPs this week prepared a resolution setting out their stall for the negotiation process.

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British Prime Minister Theresa May admitted today the UK would both lose influence and not be able to ‘cherry pick’ the advantages of EU membership, as she briefed MPs in London on the two years of unprecedented negotiations with Brussels ahead.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, described the resolution, adopted by 516 votes to 133, with 50 abstentions, as “the first political position statement from a European institution since the reception of Theresa May’s letter”.

Cutting through the ambiguity

In today’s resolution, the Parliament laid down clear positions on several fundamental and potentially fraught negotiation chapters. “And we are prepared to use our veto if the conditions laid out in the resolution are not respected during the talks,” the Italian head of the Socialists and Democrats group, Gianni Pittella, warned.

MEPs will have to ratify any divorce terms reached between the UK and the EU after the two-year negotiating period is up. If they are not satisfied, they could reject the terms, sending Theresa May back to London without a deal.

“The beginning is today’s resolution, the end is the vote on the agreement with the United Kingdom in two years here in the Parliament,” Barnier said.

Some British MEPs were not overly impressed by the resolution.

“I am not saying we disagree with everything, just on certain essential points,” said Helga Stevens, a British Conservative MEP (ECR group). They criticised the Parliament’s “excessive demands”.

Gibraltar

One of the most sensitive issues of the debate was Gibraltar, an issue that has been at the heart of the recent tensions between the UK and Spain.

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Spain is likely to wield a veto over any Brexit deal for Gibraltar after the EU-27 backed Madrid in its draft negotiating guidelines for forthcoming divorce talks between the UK and the bloc.

Manfred Weber, the leader of the centre-right EPP group, told Spain: “You will not be alone when you negotiate with London over the status of Gibraltar.” The Rock fears the re-introduction of a border with Spain, which would have a dramatic impact on its economy.

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A Spanish warship sailed into disputed waters off Gibraltar yesterday (4 April), the British overseas territory said, at a time of high tension between London and Madrid over the fate of the Rock.

And the question of borders could create tensions further afield too. In Ireland, the re-establishment of a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland is seen as a possible catalyst for the revival of old tensions.

“We cannot accept the creation of new borders in Europe in the 21st century,” said Zimmer.

Trade agreements

Trade policy is another fault line between the Brits and the remaining 27 EU member states.

As trade is an exclusive competence of Brussels, the resolution expressly forbids the UK to engage in any kind of trade negotiations with foreign countries until its divorce from the bloc is settled.

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The European Union offered Britain talks this year on a future free trade pact but made clear in negotiating guidelines issued on Friday (31 March) that London must first agree to EU demands on the terms of Brexit.

Yet, London has already said it planned to bypass the EU and negotiate its own agreements, most notably with the United States. A stance that has gone down well in Donald Trump’s White House.

“It’s rather like saying you can’t guarantee yourself a dwelling for when you leave prison and I trust the British government will completely ignore you,” said former UKIP leader Nigel Farage.

Punishment

The triggering of Article 50 was largely hailed as good news among Eurosceptic MEPs, who see it as a beacon on the road back to national sovereignty.

But members of Farage’s EFDD and Marine Le Pen’s ENL groups also accused the EU of wanting to sanction the UK for its decision, in an effort to quell similar anti-EU movements in other countries.

This idea was dismissed by the majority of speakers, who called for negotiators to resist the urge for vengeance.

“We will of course negotiate in friendship and openness not in a hostile mood with a country that has brought so much to our union and will remain close to our hearts once it has left. No deal means no winners. Everybody will lose,” said Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

But calls for harmony were tempered by veiled threats that Britain should not expect to have everything its own way.

“London thinks we find a perfect deal which means we take the positive points and leave the negative points. This will not happen. Cherrypicking will not happen,” said Weber.

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