Mr Barnier, you love the mountains. Were you free to leave this summer?
I hiked in my homeland, in the Tarentaise, in the Savoy Alps. I grew up near Grenoble and represented this area in the French parliament for almost twenty years.
What did you have in mind when you were at the summit?
It was very nice. You feel a sense of serenity. I need nature, trees, forests and mountains. I need this for me personally. You spent a lot of time in closed negotiation rooms. I negotiate with passion and energy because I know that I can go back to nature afterwards. When you know the mountains, you need stamina and you have to divide your strength. You also have to watch where you put your feet so you don’t step into a hole or roll over. And you can’t go too fast to keep your rhythm. It helps if you keep an eye on the summit.
Are you talking about Brexit already?
I have always believed that we must broaden our political horizons. I had this experience when I supported and co-organized the 1992 Olympic Games in Albertville. The head of a team has to see the next horizon. If, on the other hand, you lower your eyes, everyone sees only himself. In Europe it is the same: we all remain who we are, with our culture, our language, our traditions. But we have a common horizon that relativises conflicts and differences. That is why I very much regret that the British are leaving the Union.
Is there nevertheless a broader horizon in the exit negotiations that you lead for the EU heads of government?
This can be seen in the unity of the 27 Member States, which from the outset have followed a clear, uniform line, together with Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and the European Parliament. The Brexit electric shock, the attitude of the Trump government towards Europe, our difficulties with Russia, the stability of the Middle East, the challenges of migration, and ultimately the instability of the whole world – all this has caused a feeling of common responsibility and seriousness to grow among the heads of government. When they look at all these challenges and threats, one has to ask oneself: How are we going to face it? Every man for himself or all of them together? That’s the common horizon.
And it lasts until the end of the negotiations?
(Barnier digs a chart out of his records.) Here is a table showing David Cameron around five or six years ago, when he was Prime Minister and I was Commissioner for Internal Market and Services. It shows how the economic performance of the eight strongest countries will develop with normal growth. In 2016 there were four Europeans in the top 8, in 2030 there will be three, in 2050 only Germany; in seventh place behind India, Indonesia and Brazil. I have changed this table somewhat, adding together the economic strength of the EU-27 instead of the individual states. And lo and behold, the EU-27 will still be in fourth place in 2050! The United Kingdom, on the other hand, is completely out of the rankings.
The British nevertheless remain in Europe, as they themselves repeatedly say. And the negotiations are also about future relations. Is a common horizon developing for this?
Our perspective is an ambitious partnership such as has never existed before with a third country. We offer the United Kingdom a free trade agreement, cooperation in the fields of security, foreign policy and defence, police and judicial cooperation, research, transport and transport. We respect the fact that the British want to regain their national sovereignty completely. We expect them to respect our sovereignty as EU-27, our common market and what we stand for.
Now the British conservatives, both in government and in parliament, have different ideas about future relations with the EU. There are even two White Papers, the official one of Prime Minister May and an alternative one, which was written under the former Brexit minister Davis. Under these circumstances, how can we negotiate a common future with London?
We know, of course, that the situation in the United Kingdom is complicated. We are following the debates there and I am talking to all kinds of people, including the British opposition. In the referendum on the resignation, many consequences were concealed. But now we are sticking to the decision of the British alone, the position of Prime Minister Theresa May and her chief negotiator.
David Davis, as chief negotiator, had other priorities than Theresa May, as it turned out.
This is a negotiation with the British Prime Minister. In their view, the vote in the Brexit referendum means that the majority of British no longer want to respect the role of the European Court of Justice, no longer want to pay membership fees, no longer accept the four basic series of the internal market and conclude their own trade agreements. We respect that, and our proposal for future relations does justice to the restrictions chosen by London itself.
Mrs May has given the EU a written commitment on Northern Ireland: If it is not possible to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland by consensus, Northern Ireland can remain in a customs union with the EU. In mid-July, the House of Commons decided that Northern Ireland should not become part of a separate customs territory. This means that this recidivist position, which was fought over hard in December, is now off the table again!
Mrs May tells us that this decision is not in contradiction with the commitment she made to us in December and which she reinforced in March. We’ll see! I kept to the word of the Prime Minister, for whom I have great respect.
Much has been said in recent weeks about the failure of the negotiations. The head of the British central bank has classified the risk as “unpleasantly high”, the Chancellor of the Exchequer has quantified the economic losses for the kingdom at eighty billion pounds a year. The EU Commission and now also the British government point out the consequences of an unregulated withdrawal in “technical notes”. What does that mean? Is there now a real risk that the negotiations will go wrong?
At my first press conference as chief negotiator in October 2016, I said that the Brexit will have many consequences: human, social, economic, technical, legal and financial. This applies to an orderly withdrawal as to a disorderly one. We need to prepare for all scenarios. We have therefore published 70 papers on all consequences of the Brexit. It’s high time the British did the same. When I meet British entrepreneurs, I tell them no matter what happens, there will be no business as usual.
Are the other Europeans well prepared?
I’m not more worried today than I was a year or two ago. Since then I advise everyone to use the time of the negotiations to prepare. However, it seems to me that sometimes the consequences are underestimated.
What does that mean in concrete terms? Which deficits do you mean?
More needs to be done in the transport sector and in the value chains between the United Kingdom and the rest of the European Union. This is, of course, the responsibility of the companies. Many products move back and forth in the manufacturing process between the UK and the EU. Outside the internal market and customs union, there are customs formalities and controls that hinder just-in-time production to a great extent. Or take the topic of rules of origin. In order for EU car manufacturers to benefit from the customs benefits of the EU-Korea Agreement, only a certain part of the services may have been provided in a car in a third country. The companies must therefore ensure that in future they will not install too many parts from Great Britain in their vehicles. Such rules of origin would also have to be agreed in a future free trade agreement between the EU and the United Kingdom. If the British Government were to decide on a customs union with us, which is still possible, then much would be easier. Because in a customs union like the one we have with Turkey, there are no rules of origin. In any case, I recommend the industry to make its value chains “Brexit-proof”.
Another problem arises at the borders. If every truck in Dover has to be handled individually, with customs forms, the British government estimates that the traffic will accumulate several dozen miles back because there is not enough space in the port. The same problem exists on the other side of the canal in Calais. Are the authorities prepared for this?
We are working on making controls as simple as possible with modern technology. But there will have to be border controls when the United Kingdom leaves the customs union. There’s no way around it. The Netherlands employs 700 additional customs officers, Belgium 400, France 1000. 440 million consumers, 22 million companies and the single market must be protected by our external border controls. Let me be clear: Brexit does not add value, it creates problems and new bureaucracies.
On the island of Ireland, both sides want to avoid a hard border. But if Northern Ireland cannot remain in a customs union with the EU, that will be difficult. The British government has proposed that it impose customs duties at its borders not only on goods that remain in the kingdom, but also on those destined for the EU – this revenue would then be passed on to Brussels. This should facilitate all trade in goods and at the same time be a solution for the Irish island. Why do you refuse?
For two reasons. We cannot transfer control of our external borders and revenue there to a third country – that is not legally possible. Incidentally, infringement proceedings are under way against London because, in the Commission’s view, Chinese textile imports have not been properly cleared through customs. Moreover, the British proposal is not a practical course, because it is impossible to determine exactly where a product ends up, on the British market or on the internal market. Sugar, for example, is transported by the ton in 25 kilo bags, so you can’t track every bag to its destination. This would only be possible with an irrational and unjustifiable bureaucratic effort. That is why the British proposal would be an invitation to fraud if implemented.
Since then, the British Government has been determined to prevent a hard border in the Irish Sea, i.e. between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, from replacing a hard border on the island of Ireland. Isn’t that legitimate?
There is no such thing as a hard border in the Irish Sea, as we have never proposed. Of course we respect the unity of the United Kingdom. We are only looking for a practical solution that does justice to the special situation of the island of Ireland. There are already certain controls in almost all areas, in particular veterinary and plant health controls for goods and raw materials brought to Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. That’s all we’re talking about, no more.
The other major challenge besides Northern Ireland concerns the future trade in goods and services. Mrs May wants to establish a close regulatory link for goods, but not for services – she also recognises that British service providers will have less access to the European market. Isn’t that in Europe’s interest? Finally, the European Union has a huge surplus in trade in goods with the Kingdom, while in services itself it has a considerable trade advantage.
The interest of Europeans is to preserve the integrity of the common market. This is our special strength and the reason why we are respected all over the world, even in the United States. We have a coherent market for goods, services, capital and people – an ecosystem of our own that has grown over decades. You can’t play with that by picking parts. There is another reason why I am strongly opposed to the British proposal. Services are in every product. In your mobile phone, for example, it is 20 to 40 percent of the total value. .
. . but this is only the case with electronic devices, not with agricultural products.
You’re mistaken! As former Minister of Agriculture, I can tell you that agricultural products are produced under laws that regulate hygiene, health and environmental issues in the production process. Every litre of milk and every apple contains services. We must therefore prevent unfair competition if the United Kingdom has weaker legislation than we do. Otherwise we would be disadvantaging and weakening our own companies.
So the long-term protection of the internal market goes beyond short-term benefits that could be achieved in trade in goods with the UK?
That’s how it is. A great French politician, Pierre Mendès France, said that the future must never be sacrificed to the opposition. By the way, the British have a choice. They could remain in the binary market, like Norway, which is not an EU member either – but they would then also have to adopt all the rules and contributions to European solidarity associated with it. It’s your choice. If, however, we allowed the British to pick the raisins out of our set of rules, the serious consequences would be obvious. Then all kinds of other third countries could also insist that we offer them the same benefits. That would be the end of the internal market and the European project! I’m often accused in the United Kingdom of being dogmatic. But in fact, I’m only looking out for our fundamental interests.
If the problems are so serious, how is an agreement to be reached with London in the next two months?
About 80 percent of the resignation contract has been negotiated. We are close to our goal when we find a pragmatic and realistic solution for Northern Ireland. In addition, there will be a political clarification setting out the framework for future relations. We haven’t written a text yet, but we’ve done a lot of work. There is a great deal of agreement on foreign and security policy, as is internal serenity. We will be able to start writing this declaration in the near future. The conflict concerns the picking of raisins in future trade.
How do you envisage the political explanation? The British White Paper is a hundred pages long.
The decisive factor is not the length, but the content. My mandate, those are the guidelines of the European Council of March 2018, which are only a few pages long, but very precise. The aim of the negotiations is to identify the similarities between the position of the EU-27 and the British government. I think it could fill 15 to 20 pages.
If there is not enough time and all 28 states agree, the negotiations could be extended beyond 29 March. Are you considering this as an option?
The British have decided to leave the EU. Ms May herself chose the term in her letter of resignation and also enshrined it in British law. If there is a deal by then, we agree that the UK should be treated as a member for a transitional period until the end of 2020, albeit without voting rights. If we take account of the time taken to ratify the withdrawal agreement by the British Parliament and the European Parliament, we must conclude negotiations by mid-November. That’s possible. We don’t need more time. What we need are political decisions!
Thomas Gutschker spoke with Michel Barnier.