Sunday 21 July 2019

UK must now set path to orderly Brexit, says Barnier

Negotiator speaks of 'profound' regret

European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: Reuters
European Union chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier. Photo: Reuters Newsdesk Newsdesk

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator says he "profoundly" regretted the vote by MPs on Tuesday to reject the Withdrawal Agreement hammered out with Brussels.

The British Government needs to explain how it intends to proceed with Brexit following the defeat of Theresa May's plan in the House of Commons, according to Michel Barnier.

Speaking in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, he said the vote showed the "political conditions" were not yet present in London to ratify the agreement.

"It is up to the British authorities today or tomorrow to assess the outcome of this vote and up to the British Government to indicate how we are going to take things forward on March 29 to an orderly withdrawal," he said.

The European Union told Britain it could have a different kind of Brexit - but only if London changes its key demands.

Mr Barnier defended the agreement struck with May that was crushed the previous evening by an alliance of British lawmakers on opposing sides of the Brexit divide, and warned that the risk of a disorderly withdrawal was now greater than ever.

But the EU executive would step up its preparations, he said, for a disorderly exit that would disrupt the whole of Europe.

Mr Barnier indicated that one way forward would be for Britain to accept even closer alignment with EU regulations to secure a very close trading relationship in future -- EU officials say London could, for example, abandon its determination to leave the EU customs union and single market.

Mr Barnier said: "If the United Kingdom chooses to let its red lines change in future, and that it takes this choice for its advantage of the ambition of going beyond a simple but not negligible free trade accord, then the European Union would be ready immediately to ... respond favourably."

That suggestion for a "deeper relationship" was echoed by the EU legislature's Brexit coordinator, Guy Verhofstadt.

But Mr Barnier and others lined up to highlight how the vote in London exposed only divisions, without shedding light on what Britain's could actually rally behind as a consensual position, just 10 weeks before the country is set to leave the bloc, potentially into a legal limbo for its citizens and businesses.

"Please, please, please tell us finally what you want to achieve," pleaded Manfred Weber, the centre-right leader in the chamber and an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.


But, he added, there was "no room for manoeuvre" in terms of renegotiating the current accord, which Brexit campaigners say leaves Britain too tied to EU rules, especially due to a "backstop" insurance clause intended to avoid throwing up a hard customs border across Ireland.

Mr Barnier insisted there could be no weakening on that issue.

"Right now it’s too early to assess all the consequences of this vote," he told a Strasbourg chamber that was sparsely attended for the early morning debate -- a fact that reflects a growing weariness in Europe with Britain's troubles.

"We have respected and we continue to respect the democratic parliamentary debate in the UK and I will not speculate on the different scenarios. What yesterday’s vote showed is that the political conditions for the ratification of the withdrawal agreement are not yet there in London."

Some EU lawmakers have called for Britain to put the question of remaining in the EU to a second referendum. The chair of EU summits, Donald Tusk, suggested on Tuesday that division in Britain could lead to Brexit being cancelled.

Frans Timmermans, the deputy head of the European Commission, citing a phrase often attributed to British fantasy novelist C.S. Lewis, suggested Britain should put its past tribulations behind it and seek a fresh start with the EU:

"You can't go back and change the beginning," the former Dutch foreign minister said, "But you can start where you are and change the ending."

But Nigel Farage, the former leader of the UK Independence Party which drove the campaign for the 2016 vote to leave, told fellow members of the European Parliament that any second ballot would deliver an even greater majority for quitting because Britons had been angered by the EU's stance in negotiations.


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