Michel Barnier’s big BUT

Jon Danzig |

Last week, the pound briefly jumped 1% against the US dollar when the EU’s Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier said, “We are prepared to offer Britain a partnership such as there never has been with any other third country”.

His comments boosted hopes that a Brexit deal can be struck after all – maybe even along the lines of Theresa May’s beleaguered Chequers plan.

Under that plan, the UK would benefit from a kind of cherry-picked, quasi-access to the EU’s Single Market for our traders in agricultural and industrial goods only, along with a friction-free customs border.

But the reality soon dawned when Mr Barnier gave more details in an interview with the German radio station Deutschlandfunk. He told the station:

“We have been willing to form a strong relationship from the beginning.

“Twenty-seven heads of state and government, including Angela Merkel and the French president and other heads of state, have proposed a unique partnership with the United Kingdom.”

The new arrangement between the EU and the UK could be unprecedented, he said, in that it went further than just an agreement on tariff-free trade.

The new arrangement could also take in areas from “aviation to university and research cooperation, to internal and external security and foreign policy”.

And then came Barnier’s big BUT:

“It cannot be built to the detriment of who we are. The internal market, the home market, is indeed our most important asset…

“We respect all the red lines of the United Kingdom. They do not want to abide by the rules of the court of justice, they do not want to follow our legal framework, they do not want to pay, they do not want freedom of movement.

“All of these are the cornerstones of the single market and the EU.

“So we have to preserve and protect what makes us.”

This should come as no surprise. At the beginning of August, Mr Barnier already explained at a press conference that Theresa May’s proposals for a new customs arrangement and trade in goods represented a threat to the integrity of the EU.

Essentially, Mr Barnier forensically tore apart the Prime Minister’s white paper into little pieces – and in doing that, he has the solid and unanimous backing of all the other EU27 countries (of course he does: he was appointed by them and works for them).

So where does that leave Mrs May’s Chequer’s proposal?

It’s ‘dead’, wrote Daniel Boffey in The Guardian, their Brussels bureau chief. ‘The zombie white paper just doesn’t know it yet,’ he added.

There are others who don’t know it yet, most especially Theresa May herself. Writing for today’s Sunday Telegraph, she insisted that she will, “not be pushed into accepting compromises on the Chequers proposals..”  The Telegraph ran the headline:

‘Theresa May declares she won’t surrender to Brussels over Chequers plan’ 

That approach was reflected last week in a speech in France by David Lidington, Theresa May’s ‘de facto’ deputy Prime Minister, who warned EU leaders to accept the Chequers plan, or face the UK leaving the EU without any deal.

The Guardian ran the headline:

‘No-deal Brexit is only alternative to Chequers plan, says Lidington’

Reported The Independent: ‘His speech marked part of a concerted effort by the UK government to persuade EU member states to back the Chequers plan despite opposition from officials in Brussels.’

During the summer, the Prime Minister sent her cabinet ministers across the EU to sell her Chequers Brexit plan, but it really was to no avail.

What our government – and many Brexiters – simply don’t get, or don’t want to get, is that it’s pointless going around the backs of the EU Commission officials to try and do a side-deal with the heads of EU states.

That’s because the Commission is the servant of the EU, not its master. Their masters are the EU27 (along with the European Parliament) – so whatever the stance of Michel Barnier, it’s what the EU27 have instructed.

This was confirmed earlier last week by French President, Emmanuel Macron, when he gave a speech to a gathering of French ambassadors from around the world. Mr Macron told the diplomats:

“Brexit is a sovereign choice which must be respected, but it is a choice which cannot be made at the expense of the European Union’s integrity.

“It is what the British people have chosen for themselves, not for others, and France would like to maintain a strong, special relationship with London, but not at the cost of the European Union breaking up.”

He added:

“…we have to defend the integrity of our values, of our foundations and of the European Union.”

(All accurate, except for two key points:

Brexit is NOT the ‘sovereign choice’ of the UK – our Parliament in Westminster has never actually debated, or voted, on the specific question of whether the country should leave the EU.

 Brexit is NOT “what the British people have chosen for themselves”. Most voters in the UK did not vote for Brexit – only a minority of voters chose ‘Brexit’ for Britain).

So, here’s the bottom line (which I have written many times before, and post it here again, because nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed):

Last May in Parliament, Theresa May, summed up her promises for Brexit: “no hard border on the island of Ireland” and “as frictionless trade as possible with the European Union”.

Of course, we already have that now. And of course, this cannot be delivered after Brexit.

The Brexit promised by Theresa May and her government – to offer the same benefits of EU membership as an ex-member – is impossible to deliver

The EU27 are not going to allow an ex-member to have the same or better benefits as themselves (something that Theresa May actually said before the referendum).

Their Union, their Single Market, their customs union, that took decades to create, is more important to them than it is to us. And that’s something many people in Britain, especially Brexiters, simply don’t understand.

The only countries that enjoy frictionless trade with the EU are those countries that are EU members, or part of the EU Single Market, or in its customs union.

The EU has already stated from the start that the UK cannot cherry pick.

If the EU allowed the UK frictionless access to its market, without being subject to all the EU rules and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (all red lines of the government), it would unravel the entire raison d’être of the European Union, and put at risk all its existing agreements with other ‘third countries’.

It’s not going to happen.

Of course, the UK could have a free trade agreement with the EU similar to the ones it signed recently with Canada and Japan. The EU has already offered us that.

But those agreements don’t include frictionless access to the EU’s cherished Single Market, and those agreements don’t cover all the goods that go between the UK and the EU, and they don’t cover services, or free movement of people.

All vital to tens of thousands of British businesses and hundreds of thousands of British jobs.

It begs the question as to why we are leaving, as clearly we already have the best deal now, as a full member of the EU.

So, let’s repeat it, and shout it loudly. EU membership is best.

It’s not too late for Britain to agree to a democratic U-turn on Brexit. All we need is a #PeoplesVote.


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