Verhofstadt: Brexit immigration controls risk destroying single market and EU

MEPs will not back a Brexit deal that does not include a 'backstop' on the Irish border. [ALDE/Flickr]

The European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator today (4 October) warned that agreeing to British demands for access to the single market while introducing tougher immigration controls risked destroying the EU.

Guy Verhofstadt was speaking in Strasbourg after UK Prime Minister Theresa May’s announcement that she would trigger Article 50, the legal process taking Britain out of the EU, by the end of March.

May said in a speech on Sunday that the UK wanted access to the single market if possible. “But let me be clear. We are not leaving the European Union only to give up control of immigration again,” she said.

But Verhofstadt, the leader of the liberal ALDE group in the European Parliament, said that tariff-free single market access would only be possible if the freedom of movement of people was accepted.

That position increases the chance of a ‘hard Brexit’, a complete break with the EU. May’s speech was interpreted as backing that option, and MEPs will have a vote on the final divorce terms for Brexit.

“For everybody in the European Parliament, the four so-called fundamental freedoms that underpin the Union are key and you cannot start to make a distinction between them and to split them,” Verhofstadt told reporters.

“There is free movement of goods, there is the free movement of services, there is the free movement of capital and there is the free movement of people and labour. That makes one package which is the four fundamental freedoms that underpin the Union.”

“If you start to make a split between them, you destroy in fact the Union and its internal market,” the former prime minister of Belgium added.

May today told British broadcasters, “Of course we’ve got to go through negotiations, it won’t all be plain sailing. There will be some bumps in the road, but I’m convinced we can get the right deal with the EU.”

New International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, who backed Brexit, had earlier claimed that the UK’s trade with the EU would be “at least as free” after the UK leaves, as it is now.

No pre-negotiations

Verhofstadt echoed other EU chiefs in welcoming the announcement of May’s Brexit timeline.  But he warned that there would be no preliminary talks with the Brits until Article 50 was triggered.

“For us, it is clear there can be no pre-negotiations,” he said in an echo of the European Commission’s insistence there will be “no negotiation without notification”.

If the EU sticks to its guns, the refusal to enter into preliminary talks will make it difficult for May to be sure that her Brexit plan will be accepted by the EU and its member states.

Verhofstadt said that European Parliament committees will scrutinise EU legislation in their fields. That research will feed into a resolution that will outline the “negotiating lines” of the Parliament.

MEPs will vote on the resolution after Article 50 is triggered, but before the following European Council meeting of EU leaders in June, Verhofstadt said.

This would mean the European Parliament’s views will be heard before national governments at the summit.

Verhofstadt offered an olive branch to the British, who in June voted 52% in favour of leaving the bloc.

“I strongly believe the future relationship between EU and UK must remain close,” he said.

“That is in the interest of the citizens of the EU and the citizens of the UK, especially the 48% who wanted to remain in the Union.”

Verhofstadt added that it was important to finish the Brexit talks before the 2019 European Parliament elections.

“It would be very strange that the UK would have to organise European elections in 2019,” he said. “For us, it is important that we can have a fresh start in the new legislative cycle.”

British voters backed quitting the European Union in a 23 June referendum. The choice to Brexit led to the resignation of UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who had promised the vote if he was elected in May 2014.

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