Thursday 22 August 2019

John Downing: 'Barnier gets his retaliation in first as Europe holds the line'

  

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. Photo: PA
The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier. Photo: PA
John Downing

John Downing

Asked what he thinks of Boris Johnson, Michel Barnier said he had only met him once, at the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics. Then the wily EU chief Brexit negotiator added diplomatically: "We will work with him. I think he is clever."

At least the two men would be able to mix their conversations in a perfect mix of French and English. But against that, not yet a full day in the job as new UK prime minister, and already the strains are beginning to show.

Mr Barnier got his retaliation in first by insisting a Brexit crash out would not be his idea. "The 'no deal' will never be the choice of the EU, but we are prepared.

"We will work all along the next few weeks or months with the new UK government in the best possible way, in a very constructive spirit to facilitate the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement," the EU negotiator added smoothly.

Earlier, Mr Barnier had briefed the European Parliament's Brexit steering group, under former Belgian premier, and another visitor to Ireland, Guy Verhofstadt. The MEPs also stuck to Brussels' line that Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement will not be renegotiated.

The MEPs again said they would support EU leaders if they decide to rewrite an accompanying non-binding political declaration to seek "a more ambitious future EU-UK partnership".

A closer future relationship could ensure "the Irish backstop would not be necessary", the group's statement said. Across the water, Mr Johnson insisted the backstop must be removed from the Withdrawal Agreement.

The group congratulated Mr Johnson, but warned that recent statements during the Conservative Party leadership campaign have greatly increased the risk of a no-deal outcome, which would be "very damaging".

"Such an exit will not be mitigated by any form of arrangements or mini deals between the EU and the UK," the MEP group added. That included no transition period without a withdrawal deal. It all made for very ominous stuff indeed.

Donald Tusk, who has chaired all the EU leaders' summits over the past five years, never made a secret of his dismay at Brexit. He helped secure delays to Brexit day and said he hoped UK leaders and voters would change their minds.

Now he has written to the new PM insisting on "detail" and recalling a previous outburst when he declared that there was a "special place in hell" for those who urged UK voters to back Brexit "without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely". Yes, Boris Johnson was one of those.

So, the battlelines are drawn. Mr Johnson wants Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement reopened. He says he does not want a return of the Irish Border but does not say how this can be avoided.

The EU is not for bending - in fact the opposite is clear.

Irish Independent

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