politics

May Still Not Confronting Realities of Brexit, EU’s Barnier Says

Updated on
  • EU’s chief negotiator responds to prime minister’s speech
  • U.K. can’t get ‘advantages of partnership’ when not a member

Michel Barnier, chief negotiator for the European Union (EU), speaks during a news conference as Brexit negotiations resume in Brussels, Belgium.

Photographer: Dario Pignatelli/Bloomberg

European Union chief negotiator Michel Barnier ramped up the pressure on Theresa May a week before a crucial summit, telling her she still needs to face up to the cold realities of Brexit as he ruled out some of her biggest demands.

In a blunt response to May’s speech earlier this month, in which she set out her post-Brexit vision, Barnier said the prime minister still didn’t get that the EU wouldn’t accept her having the best parts of EU membership if she didn’t play by the bloc’s rules. The Frenchman’s curt remarks expose the vast divisions between the two sides with a year to go before the U.K. leaves the bloc, and demonstrate the difficulty in reaching a final trade accord.

Michel Barnier speaks on March 13.

Photographer: Frederick Florin/AFP/Getty Images

“It’s time to face up to the hard facts,” Barnier told the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France. “Clearly you can’t have the status of a third country and ask for the advantages of partnership” with the EU.

As negotiators rush to strike an agreement on a post-Brexit transition period that the U.K. insists it needs this month, Barnier poured cold water on May’s request to stick with some elements of EU membership while leaving its customs union and single market once the transition ends in 2021.

In her speech, May acknowledged publicly for the first time the U.K. wouldn’t get everything it wants in the negotiations. Barnier signaled she was still asking for too much.

It’s “rather surprising” that May thinks the EU would accept “convergence as sought by the U.K. and at the same time open up the possibility of divergence” when it gives Britain a comparative advantage, Barnier said.

And as for May’s plan for the U.K. to get observer status in some key EU industry regulators: “You can’t want to participate in our agencies without a legal commitment of applying the rules of the Union and jurisdiction of the Court of Justice.”

May has signaled she would accept ECJ oversight in some narrow areas.

Barnier added the U.K. can’t get mutual recognition of rules and standards if it’s based only on trust rather than legal commitments.

EU leaders will publish the bloc’s initial position on the future relationship at this month’s summit. They say it will only enable a broad agreement on a potential trade deal before the U.K. departs next year, with the full negotiations to come during the transition period. Britain still hopes for a fully fledged agreement before Brexit day.

Earlier in the parliament debate, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker demanded May give more detail about how the U.K. sees its relationship with the EU after Brexit.

“It’s obvious that we need further clarity if we’re going to reach an understanding on our future relationship,” he said. “It’s now time to translate speeches into treaties, turn commitments into agreements, and to move from the soundbite, broad suggestions and wishes on the future relationship to specific, workable solutions.”

— With assistance by Patrick Henry

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