Brexit negotiator eats the UK for lunch

Feb 09, 2018
Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier had a stark message for the UK after lunch last week; one they might not have expected after a nice meal. Eoin O’Shea takes a look.

On 5 February, EU chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, had lunch in London with Brexit Secretary David Davis and met with Prime Minister May. They discussed Britain’s interim (transitional) arrangements and their future relationship with the EU. As lunch was served, this meeting had more of a diplomatic, rather than grandstanding, feel.

Mr Barnier’s after-lunch statement was, however, exceptionally stark. Any UK plans to soften the man up have surely failed.

First, he ordered – and ‘ordered’ is exactly the right word – the UK to agree to the translation of the phase one Brexit deal they made in December into a binding legal text. This will be difficult for the UK because the December agreement requires them to remain in full regulatory alignment with the EU and for Northern Ireland to have an even closer relationship with the EU post-Brexit than the rest of the UK. These and other promises made will not be implementable by the UK on a practical or legal basis, so Mr Barnier’s first ask of the UK will, necessarily, fall upon stony ground. The situation will be difficult for the Irish government, who heralded the December deal as a breakthrough in post-Brexit Irish/UK/EU relationships. In truth, it merely represented a two-party fudge by the UK and EU to enable all parties to conclude phase one of the negotiations and move on to phase 1.5. 

Mr. Barnier’s second point was to record that Prime Minister May envisages the UK continuing to benefit from the EU single market and customs union for a transitional period post-March 2019. Mr. Barnier was clear that a transitional arrangement would involve the UK remaining, for all intents and purposes, within the EU and the EU legal system. The only difference the UK populace should perceive during a transitional period will be the absence of EU parliament elections in 2019 and the sight, periodically, of UK ministers attending rule-making meetings at EU meetings. Of course, said absences will simply mean the UK will not have any say in the adoption of EU law. The situation proposed by Mr. Barnier, and enthusiastically supported by the UK government, will simply be a total and complete abrogation of sovereignty by the UK populace during the period of an unspecified, but potentially interminable, period of time.

Mr. Barnier, by way of a last formal point, also stressed the need for the UK to explain what it actually wants in a future trading partnership with the EU. It was, and remains, a serious question. Prime Minister May has spoken about the need for the parties to have a “deep and meaningful partnership”, and of her personal wish to conclude the “best deal possible” with the UK’s ultra-major trading partners. However, the Prime Minister’s public wishes have not, actually, progressed beyond those well-meant phrases, perhaps because the UK does not know how to express what relationship it actually wants with the EU post-Brexit. The view of the UK’s business community is unequivocal – it wants the status quo. However, Brexiteers wish there to be a very visible and tangible parting of the ways between the UK and the EU on 30 March 2019. 

In the end, a simple lunch was held in London, and the EU’s Brexit negotiating boss offered three simple comments afterwards. Such post-prandial points are normally meant to be unremarkable, and indeed they were expressed in seemingly non-threatening terms by Mr. Barnier. As has been normal in these Brexit discussions from the very beginning, however, the EU’s wishes are firm, and the UK will have to agree to them, whether expressed in hard or soft terms so that a post-Brexit trading situation as close to the status quo as possible can be achieved.

Mr. Barnier will have returned to Brussels on the evening of 5 February a happy man. With a nice meal under his belt, he will have been pleased that his lunch afforded an opportunity to express the EU’s bottom-line position in as diplomatic as possible terms. 

Eoin O’Shea FCA is a practising barrister, specialising in commercial and taxation law.