Countdown to Brexit: 10 days – European Commission Brexit briefing ahead of EU Leaders summit on Thursday. No certainty of a delay being granted – even if the UK requests one
Time has scheduled on the agenda for the summit meeting of EU Heads of State on 21 March to ‘consider’ Brexit.
The official EU position is that they are waiting for Theresa May to Brussels on Thursday with a ‘clear statement’ about how she plans to proceed - and there will definitively not be any more negotiations about her deal.
There were two briefings to the European Parliament ahead of this week’s European Council. Speaking on behalf of the European Commission President, Jean-Claude Juncker, Vice-President Frans Timmermans addressed Parliament – and there was a statement from EU Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier.
They came in the context - reported by the BBC - of a widespread ‘hardening of hearts’ across Europe against giving yet more assistance to the UK. The feeling is that the situation is entirely of the UK’s own making.
Both Timmermans and Barnier reflected this view in their address to MEPs - stating that it set the scene for the leaders’ meeting in Brussels. We publish the verbatim presentations below – they make chilling reading.
In the meantime, House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow ruled out bringing back a deal that is “substantially the same” as the one that has been twice overwhelmingly rejected by Parliament.
His intervention does not stop Brexit from happening on 29 March - but it is "extremely unlikely" that the government has time to put an alternative deal and request another vote on it by tomorrow evening.
This makes it unlikely that the Prime Minister will be in a position to ask EU leaders on Thursday for a ‘short’ extension - which Mrs May had said she would do provided her deal was accepted by a majority in Parliament.
This in turn makes it more likely there will be a longer delay to Brexit – a position that causes constitutional, political and practical issues in the UK and across the EU. Not least of these that UK will legally be required to hold European Parliamentary elections on 23 May.
European Leaders – already exasperated with the UK – now hold the UK’s future destiny in their gift. The EU is faced with having a disruptive member state in their midst – a member who has no long term interest in the union having already voted to leave – for up to 2 years.
The European Council – which has to give unanimous consent to any extension to article 50 – may not find this unanimity. There are forces putting pressure on them to vote against or abstain. Without unanimous support the UK leaves the EU at 23:00 GMT a week on Friday. We have been warning about the ever-increasing risks of an accidental no-deal Brexit and advising business and citizens and advising them to prepare for this as a ‘worse-case’ scenario.
Barnier summed it up: “if the United Kingdom still wants to leave the European Union - and leave it in an orderly fashion - then this treaty that we negotiated with Theresa May's Government over the past year and a half remains the only treaty available.”
The constitutional crisis is entirely of the UK’s making – and is not in the Speaker’s position. Rather the lack of no-deal preparations, legislation, guidance and transparency from the Government.
Background – speeches and presentations in full
Frans Timmermans: “Having listened very carefully to this Parliament, I come to the conclusion that there is very, very broad support in this Parliament for the way the Commission is negotiating on behalf on the European Union, its Member States and this Parliament to try and reach an agreement with the United Kingdom on a withdrawal that would do as little harm as possible to both sides. This has been the intention of the Commission from the start. This has been the way Michel Barnier has been negotiating from the start and we feel strengthened in our approach by the debates here today.
Having listened to Mr Farage - [a sitting Member of the European Parliament drawing a full MEP’s salary and allowances] - and his colleagues - and seeing the hubris with which he stands here and the self-gratification of his position, I sometimes wonder: has he gone to Sunderland and talked to the workers at the Nissan plant and said to them 'It might cost you your job, but I will get my pipe dream of so-called sovereignty’ – has he done that? Has he gone to Oxford to the Mini plant and said 'I know what BMW are thinking if there is a no-deal Brexit - but I want it so badly that I really do not care about your job' – has he done that? That would have been the honest thing to do.
Has Dr Liam Fox ever said 'Well, I said it would be the easiest trade deal in human history - but on second thoughts, it is much more complicated than I promised before the referendum.'
Has Boris Johnson gone to the doctors and nurses of the NHS and said 'I did promise you 350 million extra Pounds a week - but sorry, I cannot deliver on that promise' – has he done that? I think frankly that we would need - if want to come out of this situation - a bit more modesty and honesty on all sides.
I also believe – I refer to a report by the UK government published in November last year – where it said that if there is a no-deal Brexit, this would cost approximately 9.3% economic growth. Are you willing to pay that price, I ask the Brexiteers on this side? Are you willing to pay that price? Are you willing to sacrifice all those jobs for your pipe dream of so-called ‘sovereignty’. What is that sovereignty going to bring to you if you live that pipe dream?”
At this point MEP, David Coburn, interrupted by shouting “Freedom is essential!” The Chair refused to accept any intervention - urging Parliament to “listen, and maybe learn”.
Timmermans continued by addressing Coburn directly. “Have the courage and go to Sunderland and talk to the workers in the Nissan plant. Talk to the workers in Oxford at the Mini plant and tell them 'My so-called liberty is more important than you jobs. ' Have the courage to do that, Sir. And then also go to Ireland and go to a place where since 1998 peace reigns and violence has disappeared and tell the people there 'My pipe dream is more important than your peace and quiet. My pipe dream is more important, and I will accept a hard border, if that gives me my no-deal Brexit.' Have that courage!
And I always hear – do you know the number 16.1 million? I never hear it mentioned. I always hear 17.4 million. Yes, but 16.1 million are also British citizens who voted to stay. They have not disappeared. Is it not at the essence of European democracy that we also respect the position of minorities in our countries? Is it not in the essence of democracy that we try to build bridges to find solutions that can be carried by most people in our society? Should that not be the next steps we take in this?
And to be very clear: Why does the Commission stand so firmly for the integrity of the Internal Market? Why do we not simply say, let us have open borders? I give you one example: If for some reason the United Kingdom would decide to have a trade deal with the United States on their terms, and chlorinated chicken would be coming into the United Kingdom, and we would not be able to check that at the European border, then we would not be able to say to European citizens 'We can protect you against something that you do not want.' We could never do that. That is why we always have to protect the integrity of the Internal Market.
And we have been bending over backwards and we have spared no effort – and I do pay tribute to Michel Barnier – we spared no effort to try and reconcile Madame May's red lines and her demands with our firm duty to protect the European Union and the integrity of the Internal Market. The Withdrawal Agreement is the best and only possible solution to that dilemma. And I hope this is something that will be well understood. This is a position the Commission defends on your behalf. The vast majority of this Parliament supports this. And we will continue to do that, to protect the interests of European citizens, whether they live on the continent or in the United Kingdom.
Statement by Michel Barnier at the European Parliament Plenary session
“The vote in the House of Commons [rejecting Theresa May’s deal] prolongs and worsens the major uncertainty that was created almost three years ago now by the sovereign decision – which we respect but regret – of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. This uncertainty affects, of course, the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland in particular, but also each of our countries and ourselves.
I would like to recall that the responsibility for taking the decision of Brexit lies solely with the United Kingdom. And today, it is the United Kingdom who has the biggest responsibility in finding a way out of the impasse in which we find this negotiation. This is what the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, recalled clearly and forcefully last night immediately after the vote.
During this negotiation, we worked together to find solutions to each problem – of which there are many created by Brexit: human and social problems, technical and legal problems, economic and financial problems – and to manage all the consequences to ensure that the United Kingdom leaves in an orderly manner.
From the first day of this negotiation, the European Union's objective has indeed been to reduce this uncertainty by ensuring the United Kingdom's orderly withdrawal, and on the basis of trust created by this orderly withdrawal, taking the time – time which will be necessarily limited to between 21 months and 4 years – for another negotiation, which I've always said is more important, on the future relationship which we want to build with the United Kingdom, who will in all circumstances remain our friend, ally and partner.
That is what we did while negotiating over the past months – with and never against the British government – a Withdrawal Agreement that is in the interest of citizens, businesses, and all stakeholders on either side of the Channel and Irish Sea.
I would like to simply recall to everybody: if the United Kingdom still wants to leave the European Union and leave it in an orderly fashion, then this treaty that we negotiated with Theresa May's government over the past year and a half remains the only treaty available.
Once again, alongside this treaty, we have done a lot of work these last days at the request of the British government to explain, clarify, and to guarantee, through two documents on which we reached an agreement on Monday evening, Mr. President, here in the European Parliament, which welcomed us. Ms. May had also clarified that she wanted to publish a unilateral declaration on the UK side.
What was this final discussion between the EU and UK government about? To give the British Parliament new clarifications and assurances on the temporary nature of the backstop. We went as far as we could to help the British government get the support of the House of Commons.
Our permanent worry, which I also expressed on your behalf, is to preserve in all scenarios peace and stability on the island of Ireland, to respect in all dimensions the Good Friday / Belfast Agreement. And to preserve the integrity of our Single Market, i.e. to preserve quality and safety, particularly in food, which our consumers have a right to, to preserve national budgets and the European budget, which requires fiscal controls, and to preserve the safety of our businesses when it comes to the respect of rules and standards on imported products.
This is not a theoretical or dogmatic question, but an extremely practical question which affects peace in Ireland, which must be permanent, and the protection of the Single Market. Any product, or live animal, that enters Northern Ireland after Brexit, coming from Great Britain, also enters Poland, Slovenia, Belgium, Germany, in each of our countries. We therefore need to find the way to operationalise these controls for the three aspects I mentioned: consumers, budgets, businesses, obviously without recreating a hard border.
On last night's vote, I noted that certain MPs who want a second referendum or prefer a “no-deal” scenario both belittled the legal guarantees that we agreed on in our discussion with Theresa May. But these guarantees were significant - and we agreed them with the support of the British government on Monday evening.
President Juncker also said it: there will be no additional assurances or interpretations. We cannot go any further.
It will be for the British government to tell us – I hope positively – how it wishes to proceed, to finally bring together a constructive majority for a proposal. It is the UK's responsibility to tell us what it wants for our future relationship, what its choice is, what its clear line is.
We must now ask that question before asking about any possible extension. Extending the negotiation: for what reason? The Article 50 negotiation is now over. We have the treaty. It is here.
We are in a very serious moment because the risk of no-deal has never been higher, including an accidental no-deal. I recommend that nobody underestimates this risk or its consequences.
Together, we call on all persons concerned to prepare. And on our side, we are preparing.
We do not want this scenario, we have always worked for a deal and an orderly withdrawal, but the European Union is ready to deal with this situation.
I would like to recall that in the absence of an agreed solution, it will be a no deal situation, by the simple operation of the treaties.
As I am asked: ‘Are you disappointed by this vote?’ - our answer shall always remain the same. We remain respectful of the UK and its people. We remain determined, calm and united. And we will remain respectful, calm, determined and united until the end of this extraordinary negotiation. We shall defend the Union's interests and that of all of its citizens. This will remain the line of your negotiator.”
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