Barnier’s red lines cut across May’s

by John Wyles | 23.03.2017

The last time European leaders were confronted by a British woman prime minister, they were caught unprepared. Margaret Thatcher needed around two years to persuade her nine other heads of government that she was up for a fight, and another three to secure her budget rebate. As Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, demonstrated yesterday, Britain’s second woman prime minister will find a European leadership much better prepared than they were in the last head-to-head with the UK.

Theresa May’s counterparts greet the triggering of Article 50 next week with some relief after the long, empty and surreal interlude since the referendum. They have witnessed a British government that has been slow to grasp the enormity of the task handed them by the voters. They have also witnessed a prime minister forced into a u-turn on major budgetary policy by the ferocity of opposition to the measure inside her own Conservative Party. This is a reminder, if one were needed, that May is tethered by red lines on sovereignty, immigration control and legal independence that the party’s dyed-in-the-wool eurosceptics will die in the last ditch to defend.

Once he is handed his guidelines by the European Council in a few weeks time, Barnier will also be constrained by red lines. May’s negotiating hand is weaker because failure to make a deal means “falling of the cliff” into the abyss of total breakdown and rupture. Significantly, in his speech to the Committee of the Regions yesterday, Barnier listed some of the bitter consequences of crash and burn for the UK, from queues of lorries in Dover and disrupted air traffic to nuclear fuel shortages.

His tone was emollient but firm that the negotiations could not move onto trade issues until the principles of an “orderly withdrawal” had been settled. This means the UK will have to accept that the EU’s agenda priorities are for London to settle its financial obligations (the much headlined but not officially confirmed €60 billion).

It also means the fate of the rights of the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK and the million Brits living on the continent will need to be sorted out. Barnier made clear the issues are complex, covering “residency rights, access to the labour market, pension or social security rights, or access to education”. There would be no quick fix. Resolving them would take several months.

Future trade deal

If endorsed by the European Council, this approach leaves little room for doing any kind of trade deal inside the two years – in reality 18 months – available under Article 50.

What’s more, Barnier’s approach to such a future trade deal will set some alarm bells ringing in Downing Street. Not only has he made clear that it would be “less favourable” than the current arrangement. He said it would need ratification by all member states and their parliaments – raising the possibility of a repeat of the agony that Canada experienced when its trade deal ran into trouble with the Walloon parliament.

Barnier also said that the EU would be alive to “regulatory dumping”, the possibility that Britain could compete by slashing regulations. A bold and ambitious trade deal of the sort May is looking for would have to be ambitious in the areas of social, tax, environmental and consumer standards. Hardline Brexiters are likely to see this as an attempt to tie Britain up in Brussels red tape after we quit. But the prime minister has only herself to blame after suggesting that we might turn ourselves into a Singapore-style tax haven post-Brexit.

As if this was not bad enough, Barnier said that any transitional arrangements that are necessary to smooth our departure must be subject to “the framework of European law”.  In other words, there will be no escaping the European Court of Justice which May’s most militant supporters detest.

It may be that, after the French and German elections, the EU will want to wrap up Brexit rapidly so it can focus on other pressing issues such as regenerating its economy. But the red lines that are being drawn by both sides don’t augur well.

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    Edited by Hugo Dixon

    4 Responses to “Barnier’s red lines cut across May’s”

    • An arrangement that must, a priori, be ‘less favourable’ to Britain can only also be less favourable to Britain’s former EU partners.

      Let’s be pragmatic, please. Let’s not cut our collective noses to spite our faces – pour décourager les autres qui seraient tentés de voter Le Pen.

      • You don’t get it Margot, don’t you ?

        the very moment the EU takes away all the opt-outs and rebates from the UK for accessing the Single Market, and without even having a vote anymore, it’s already a “less favourable” deal to the UK, and it costs nothing to the EU.

        and if the UK exits also the Single Market and asks to be treated as a third country (by rejecting the ECJ jurisdiction, engaging in social, fiscal or environmental dumping), then the “less favorable” terms will keep on piling with the only option left for UK be to beg/pay to get some crumbs out of whatever it asks other countries (EU included).

        The UK for all its wealth and influence is not an indispensable country. And outside the EU, it has even less of each.
        time for english voters and Brexiteers to take responsibility for their government’s actions …

    • Brits don’t have the same attitude to the EU as the Europeans. To us it’s a club all about trade – nothing else. To the 27 it’s about security. Yes trade is important but not in the same way as the UK.
      Thatcher proved this when negotiating the rebate – at a loss of “power” – which she didn’t really understand until after the deal. We are no longer the great nation we were 100 -200 years ago and it’s probably going to be pay back time with the rest of the world. There is no such thing as a “FREE” trade deal – India, Australia are keen to to trade – subject to freedom of movement of their citizens. We are just swapping 1 for another. Time will tell – if Brexit is a success then Johnson, Fox, Gove, ID’S etc will be hero’s – if they fail they will blame everyone else but themselves!

    • There is no deal that can be obtained which will be better than the deal we have by being a full member of the EU. I agree absolutely with “Nigel”, that when the full realisation that Britain is no longer a world power and the mess they have got the country into dawns on the hard-liners, Fox, Davis, Gove, Duncan-Smith et al, and of course not forgetting the dishonest hypocrite Johnson, who was willing to attach himself to any campaign which furthered his own selfish career, will be looking for scapegoats to blame. I suspect they will continue to rant on about the EU and somehow blame the rest of Europe.