When it comes to a Brexit transition, Brussels is confident it holds all the cards — and on Monday, the EU’s chief negotiator played them.
Michel Barnier, visibly confident and upbeat at a news conference shortly after EU27 ministers approved directives for the next phase of negotiations, effectively dictated the transition terms. His performance immediately drew objections from London, where officials insisted key elements of a transition deal were still up for grabs.
Swatting aside demands articulated in recent days by his British counterpart David Davis, Barnier said the U.K. during the transition would have to obey all EU laws and regulations, including new policies adopted after Britain’s EU voting rights terminate on March 29, 2019.
“The decisions will apply, and the U.K must know these rules of the game and accept them in the first place,” he said.
Barnier and other EU officials repeatedly noted that the transition was essential to the U.K. — and indeed requested by it — to reassure businesses and citizens and avoid potentially catastrophic disruptions to its economy.
At the news conference, Barnier also said that London would be barred from implementing any new trade deals or other international agreements without the EU’s permission and said that Britain would have to fulfill all obligations of existing accords. At the same time, he could not guarantee that the U.K. wouldn’t lose the benefits of them.
“As part of the transition the U.K. will remain bound from the obligations stemming from all existing EU international agreements, for instance for trade and aviation,” Barnier said. “This is crucial for the good functioning of the single market and the customs union.”
“But,” he added, “we cannot ensure in Article 50 that the U.K. keeps the benefits for these international agreements. Our partners around the world may have their own views on this.”
U.K. officials worked aggressively to spin the developments, saying the EU’s new directives effectively gave Prime Minister Theresa May everything she had demanded when she first expressed the need for a transition, or as she called it “implementation period,” in a speech in Florence in September.
“I am quite clear this is the beginning of a negotiation,” May’s spokesman said. “We are pleased that the EU has now agreed its position which is clearly well aligned with the proposal made by the prime minister in her Florence speech.”
In Florence in September, May clearly acknowledged that the U.K. would lose its voting rights in the EU after the official withdrawal date — although Davis has been less clear on that point in recent days.
“We will no longer sit at the European Council table or in the Council of Ministers, and we will no longer have Members of the European Parliament,” May said.
But in that speech, May also seemed to suggest the U.K. would have more latitude in starting new agreements. “Our relations with countries outside the EU can be developed in new ways, including through our own trade negotiations, because we will no longer be an EU country, and we will no longer directly benefit from the EU’s future trade negotiations,” she said.
Pressed on Davis’ insistence in recent days that the U.K. should retain a mechanism for dealing with new EU rules that it finds objectionable — something he described last week as “very, very important” — Barnier said the EU position was firm.
And he adopted a near-mocking tone as he reiterated that while the U.K. could start negotiating new agreements, it could not implement any of them without permission.
“Yes, during the transition period, in which the U.K. wishes to benefit from the economic status quo, it will be able to initiate discussions with third countries,” he said. “Clearly. It’s a short period of time, and you have got to remember, the day on which the U.K. leaves, based on its decision on the morning of the 30th of March, it will leave behind 750 different international agreements — 750 international agreements.”
“Legally, that’s an automatic mechanism,” he continued. “That means that it will need to use all the time it has available to construct relations with third countries, which will subsequently have to cooperate. So, we understand that they may wish to use this time for negotiations. However, no agreement with a third country committing the U.K. can be implemented during the transition period without the agreement of the 27 member states.”
Crystallization of the EU’s terms for transition — and the U.K. government’s willingness to accept most of them — provoked a furious backlash among the Brexiteer caucus in May’s Conservative party.
Veteran Euroskeptic Bill Cash tabled an urgent question in the House of Commons on Monday afternoon in response to the publication of the guidelines, which he branded “a new EU ultimatum.” Fellow Tory Edward Leigh coined a new term — BINO, “Brexit in name only” — and asked for assurance from Brexit minister Robin Walker that this was not government policy. Walker replied by re-stating (again) that the government intended to leave the EU, the customs union and the single market.
But the two-year prolongation of the EU acquis, without voting rights, appears unlikely to ever win Brexiteer support. It has been described by Brexiteer figurehead Jacob Rees-Mogg, chair of the 60-strong European Research Group that coordinates Brexiteer maneuvering, as “vassal state” status.
Their opposition threatens May’s authority within the party, but the government’s pursuit of the standstill transition has emboldened ‘soft Brexit’ Conservatives.
“When are the government going to stand up against the hard Brexiteers,” asked Tory Brexit rebel Anna Soubry, “and see them off to ensure that we get a sensible Brexit?”
EU ministers, who approved the new negotiating directives at a meeting on Monday of the General Affairs Council, also portrayed the EU terms of the transition as effectively non-negotiable.
Appearing with Barnier at the news conference because her country currently holds the EU’s rotating presidency, Bulgarian Foreign Minister Ekaterina Zaharieva pointedly said: “The U.K. will no longer participate in the institutions and decision-making in the EU.”
Another senior EU official said neither Barnier nor the U.K. were given any wiggle room.
“We gave Michel Barnier today a mandate to explain rather than to negotiate,” the minister said. “On transition, it isn’t really a negotiation.”