By Aline Robert
(EurActiv) — The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, has reflected on what can and what cannot be negotiated between the EU and the United Kingdom, with only 65 days until the scheduled severance date.
In an interview with French newspaper Le Monde, Polish newspaper Rzeczpospolita and the Luxemburger Wort, Barnier confirmed that there is room for manoeuvre when it comes to the UK’s future relationship with the EU.
However, when it comes to the political declaration accompanying the 800-page withdrawal agreement signed in December 2018, it is very much a closed case.
While there is currently a majority of British MPs who oppose the text, there is also a majority rejecting a no-deal scenario, the Frenchman added.
“The treaty can be supported if it is put into perspective,” said Barnier, who encouraged UK PM Theresa May not to leave the Customs Union and the single market, which could allow an agreement to be reached on a “global package”.
The European Commission is therefore considering reworking the political declaration prior to the treaty in order to move in this direction. “But if the government and the MPs don’t shift their lines, we will mechanically arrive at a no-deal Brexit,” Barnier warned.
Barnier dismissed May’s comments on the Irish issue and that she wants to revisit the backstop.
“The backstop also concerns the whole of Europe: for a product entering Northern Island from the rest of the United Kingdom, it is as if it was entering Poland, France or Luxembourg,” he cautioned.
This arrangement, which is the focus of Brexiteers’ rejection of the deal as it forces the UK to stay in a form of customs union with the rest of the EU, is the “only possible” one, Barnier insisted.
He reiterated that the backstop is intended to act as an insurance policy, rather than being used.
France’s former foreign affairs chief also said that an extension of Article 50 would only be conceivable if the UK formally requests it, the other 27 EU member states agree and the European Parliament ratifies it.
Barnier acknowledged that it would be more difficult to make the UK honour its commitment to pay the Brexit bill, some €50 billion in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
“But these commitments are of a legal nature from the standpoint of international law and I can’t imagine that the British won’t honour their commitments,” the chief negotiator said.