Michel Barnier is impatient for Britain to get its Brexit points in order – The Economist
MICHEL BARNIER, the French diplomat who will lead the European Union’s Brexit negotiations, is keen to project an air of strength and stability. Asked if he is worried that the talks could blow up, he wanders over to his desk and picks up a mug emblazoned with the mantra “Keep Calm and Negotiate”, declaring: “There won’t be any drama from my side.”
Speaking to eight European newspapers, including The Economist, in his first interview since securing the Brexit job last July, Mr Barnier refuses to be drawn out on the chaos unfolding across the English Channel after last week’s general election, in which the ruling Conservative Party failed to win an overall majority. But he expresses his concern that no talks have taken place in the two-and-a-half months since Theresa May, the Prime Minister, triggered the two-year process for Britain’s withdrawal under Article 50 of the EU Treaty. “We haven’t negotiated, we haven’t progressed,” he says. “Time is passing quicker than anyone believes.” On June 12th Mr Barnier met British officials in Brussels for talks about talks, but because of the political uncertainty in Britain, there is still no firm date for the negotiations proper to begin. “I need on the other side of the table a British delegation… that is stable, accountable and that has a mandate. That’s my preoccupation.”
If Mr Barnier hints at any frustration, it is over the failure of Britain’s politicians to confront the reality of the choice they put to British voters a year ago. “Very few people in charge explained what Brexit meant,” he says. “Lots of people underestimated [the] consequences.” As the aftershocks of the Brexit vote have worked their way through Britain, Mr Barnier has spent the past year travelling across Europe meeting ministers, parliamentarians and businesspeople, listening to concerns and seeking to ensure that the rest of the EU hews to a common line before the talks begin. “We’ve built [EU unity] together for six months, it wasn’t easy,” he says. “I know it’ll be challenged.” When Mr Barnier was appointed, some European officials doubted whether he possessed the attention to detail which the job requires. But there are few complaints so far. “Barnier has been very sure-footed,” says one Brussels-based diplomat.
One early challenge for Mr Barnier might be dealing with a potential shift in Britain’s negotiating stance. Some in Britain hope that Mrs May’s electoral humiliation will force her government to retreat from the “hard” Brexit proposal she placed before the electorate. Perhaps Britain might seek to retain membership of the EU’s single market via an arrangement similar to that enjoyed by Norway; perhaps it would ask to stay inside the customs union, like Turkey. Mr Barnier declares himself open to all options. “Quitting the EU is one thing, quitting the single market is another, quitting the customs union is a third thing.” There is no rush to decide, he adds: under the agreed sequencing of the Brexit talks, “divorce” matters such as the rights of EU citizens in Britain and its exit bill must be tackled before the future relationship can be discussed.
But each version of a “softer” Brexit involves difficult trade-offs for any British government committed to leaving the EU. Some in Britain, including the opposition Labour Party, still flirt with the idea of staying inside the single market while imposing limits on EU immigration. But Mr Barnier insists, as have European leaders like Angela Merkel ever since Britain’s referendum, that membership of the single market implies acceptance of its four fundamental freedoms (the free movement of goods, services, capital and people). “It’s not a supermarket,” Mr Barnier says. “It’s a community, a space of economic and social and human life.”
Mrs May’s insistence on ending free movement of people reduced her ambitions for Britain’s future relationship with the EU to a free-trade deal, rather than deeper integration with its single market. Yet even this, warns Mr Barnier, will bring difficulties. “This free-trade agreement [with Britain] is of a unique character… in European history,” he says. Previous EU trade deals, such as those with Canada or South Korea, have aimed to harmonise regulatory regimes in order to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade. “In the case of the UK, it’s the opposite…We are going to diverge.”
Here Mr Barnier points to an issue badly understood in Britain: the EU’s demand, as expressed in its Brexit negotiating guidelines, that any future trade deal maintain a “level playing field” between British firms and their European rivals. “What becomes of this divergence?” asks Mr Barnier. “Is it controlled, inspected, checked? And by whom? Or does it become a tool of regulatory competition, with consequences for social, environmental and consumer rights? These are questions I’m asked during meetings at every national parliament.” (All 27 of these parliaments will have to sign off on a Britain-EU deal, assuming one can be negotiated.) Some European governments are extremely sensitive to British attempts to undercut their firms’ competitiveness via a regulatory race to the bottom. Another European Brexit negotiator thinks that the “level playing field” issue may be the hardest of all to negotiate.
But in order even to begin talks on a trade deal, Mr Barnier’s mandate says “sufficient progress” must be made on the divorce talks. He hopes to announce that this has been achieved in a recommendation to the 27 governments by October or November this year (other Eurocrats think that timing optimistic). Given that national parliaments will need around five months to ratify the final deal before Brexit day on March 30th 2019, that leaves the best part of a year to forge what Mr Barnier calls a “political agreement” on the framework of the future relationship. If time runs short, might the 27 governments agree to extend the two-year negotiating window, as Article 50 allows? “I see neither the usefulness nor the interest of pushing back this date,” says Mr Barnier. “Every extra delay is a source of instability.”
And what if the two sides are simply unable to find the common ground needed for an orderly separation? Mrs May earns applause in Britain when she says that no Brexit deal would be better than a bad one. David Davis, the Brexit minister and Mr Barnier’s likely interlocutor, has repeated the threat since the election. Mr Barnier says his team is preparing for all eventualities, but that a definitive collapse in the talks would be “grave” for the UK and carry “big consequences for the EU”. The responsibility of avoiding such a catastrophe rests, in part, on his shoulders.