The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today (22 March) warned of serious repercussions for both Britain and the EU if the divorce talks fail without a deal being agreed.
Michel Barnier said that more than four million EU citizens in the UK, and British expats in the bloc, would face uncertainty over their futures. He raised the prospect of long queues of lorries at Dover if customs controls are reintroduced if Britain leaves without a Brexit deal.
Supply problems in the UK would disrupt value chains, there would be serious air traffic disruption to and from the UK, and an overnight suspension of the movement of nuclear material in the UK, due to it leaving EURATOM, Barnier told a plenary session of the Committee of the Regions in Brussels.
“Brexit will have important human, economic, social, judicial and political consequences,” he said, “It is worth bearing in mind that a lack of agreement will have even more serious repercussions.”
“More than four million British citizens in the EU and EU citizens in the UK are confronted with total uncertainty about their rights and their future,” he added.
“The reintroduction of obligatory customs controls will lead to situations such as we once saw: queues of lorries at Dover.”
The French politician and former Internal Market Commissioner said, “The United Kingdom would be seriously affected by this situation: two thirds of its trade is currently framed and protected by the single market and the free trade agreements concluded by the European Union with more than 60 partner states.
“But the EU, our Union would also be affected, even though we will continue to benefit from the single market of 27 and our free trade agreements in all cases.”
The UK is set to trigger Article 50, the legal process taking the country out of the EU, on 29 March. That will fire the starting gun on two years of negotiations to finalise the terms of the split.
If a deal is not reached within those two years, Britain will crash out of the bloc in what some have termed “the hardest of Brexits”.
Barnier said, “This scenario of a non-agreement, a no deal, is not ours. We want an agreement. We want to succeed.”
EU leaders will hold a special summit on 29 April to adopt Brexit guidelines aimed at making the split the “least painful” for the bloc, Council President Donald Tusk said on Tuesday (21 March).
He moved to calm British fears over being slapped with a punitive Brexit bill for quitting the EU. Some reports have floated the figure could be as much as €60 billion.
But Barnier insisted that Britain would have to settle all the financial commitments it has made as a member of the EU.
“When a country leaves the Union, there is no punishment,” Barnier said. “There is no price to pay to leave. But we must settle the accounts, no more, no less.
“We will not ask the British to pay a single euro for something they have not agreed to as a member.”
Citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU would be the Commission’s first priority in the negotiations, Barnier said.
“We can and we should agree – as soon as possible – on the principles of continuity, reciprocity and non-discrimination so as not to leave these citizens in a situation of uncertainty.”
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At the centre of the Brexit deal would be a free trade agreement, he said. British Prime Minister Theresa May has called for such an agreement as it will give the UK access to the single market, while allowing it to introduce curbs on the free movement of EU citizens.
“The Brexit creates a different situation, since our standards and rules are perfectly integrated at the very beginning of the negotiations,” Barnier said.
“What is before us, therefore, is not the prospect of regulatory convergence, but the risk, the likelihood of a regulatory divergence that could harm the internal market.”
Barnier said the agreement would be killed off before it was signed if Britain tried to undercut EU standards. That was likely a response to British threats to cut corporate tax rates to attract investment away from the EU if slapped with a punitive deal.
“We will […] be vigilant that this regulatory divergence does not turn into regulatory dumping,” he told representatives of local government from across the EU.
“This agreement, which will undoubtedly be a mixed agreement, will in any case have to be ratified by all the Member States and their national parliaments.”
He added, “We agree with Theresa May when she calls for a bold and ambitious free trade agreement. Yes to that ambition but that ambition also applies to our social, tax and environmental standards.”
The tight timeframe for the Brexit talks have raised the possibility of a transitional deal to allow the UK and EU to finalise a free trade agreement. Such agreements often take many years to finalise.
“A number of transitional arrangements may be required. It is too early to say,” the Brexit boss said.
“In any case, these possible arrangements would necessarily be governed by European law and the associated judicial system.”
That could prove problematic for May, who has insisted that Brexit will mean that the UK is no longer subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
Barnier appeared to take a swipe at May, who has often said “Brexit means Brexit”.
“We need to tell the truth, and ladies and gentlemen we will tell the truth to our citizens about what Brexit means,” he said.
Barnier, who called for “success not against the British but with them”, said, “Our intention is to succeed in this negotiation. We will be firm, friendly, and never naive.”
The Brexit chief expressed solidarity with British authorities as news broke of a possible terrorist attack near the Houses of Parliament in Westminster. He also invoked one of Britain’s most iconic figures.
“If I may quote with humility one of the greatest men in European history, Winston Churchill, the price of greatness is responsibility. That holds true for Britain and also for us,” he said.