Extending Article 50 is possible with unanimous EU agreement, says Minister

European Union – Brexit – Interview given by Mme Nathalie Loiseau, Minister for European Affairs, to France Inter (excerpts)

Paris, 16 January 2019

(…)

Q. – The British Parliament has voted, the result is brutal; it’s one for the history books, as Pierre Haski told us a moment ago. The Brexit deal negotiated by Theresa May was overwhelmingly rejected: 432 votes against. It isn’t a defeat, it’s a rout. A no-confidence motion put forward by Labour will also be voted on later. Firstly, how did you react to the result? Is this back to square one, or even worse?

THE MINISTER – Firstly, it’s bad news because this withdrawal agreement which Theresa May submitted for ratification, as you said, was negotiated over nearly two years. It’s a very good agreement and in fact the only one possible. A great many things were explored. Michel Barnier, the European negotiator, who has done a remarkable job, explored a great many options with the British before arriving at that withdrawal agreement. So it’s bad news that it has been rejected. What’s going to happen? That’s for the British to decide…

Q. – But do they know themselves what they want?

THE MINISTER – We can clearly see that there’s no majority for this text, but we don’t know which outcome will produce a majority. It’s quite troubling to see that there was a referendum with a campaign we all remember as being strange, that there was already a lot of disinformation back then, with a radical decision taken to leave the European Union. But leave to what end? To move closer to the European Union or much further away from it? This has never been decided.

Q. – Before going into the various options now open to the European Union and the British, it was two-and-a-half years ago, in June 2016 – ages ago – that the British voted for this Brexit. Since then they’ve discussed, negotiated, voted and nothing is happening. I’m well aware there are complicated divorces, but can you tell us why it’s taken so long, been so hopeless and so difficult to divorce the European Union?

THE MINISTER – Because I think a number of British people, including some British politicians, didn’t appreciate what it really meant to be a member of the European Union. For example, belonging to the so-called single market – for a long time it was called the common market and then it was made even more integrated, incidentally on the initiative of the British; the single market was an idea of Tony Blair’s –, meaning that we have the same rules, that businesses are generally highly integrated. Look at Airbus; Airbus wings are made in the UK and other Airbus parts are made in Germany and France. It means that people are permanently coming and going and that you can’t just say, “we’re taking back control, for example, of our trade policy, we can sign agreements with the rest of the world,” yes it’s possible, but all the same it’s much more worthwhile belonging to a group of countries of 500 million inhabitants. And many British people underestimated this. One of my interlocutors who resigned – because anyone dealing with Brexit generally hasn’t lasted long – said, the day before he resigned – he’d gone to Dover – that he hadn’t realized how much commercial traffic there was between Dover and Calais. It’s rather a shame to realize this afterwards.

Q. – So what are the options now? Theresa May has until Monday to present a text again, probably amended, to be voted on by MPs. Is there anything new to add? Is there anything not already on the table? Can the text of that deal be amended?

THE MINISTER – Well, the text can’t be re-opened because when you spend 17 months going back and forth between the European negotiator and all the European heads of state and government – a third of my job has been spent doing this since I became Europe Minister; that’s quite a lot because there are many things to be done in Europe other than dealing with a divorce, as you said earlier – every option has genuinely been explored. If we want an orderly separation which allows the UK to remain close to the European Union in the future, this is the text. The other options – and Theresa May made this very clear – are either no deal or no Brexit.

Q. – A moment ago Nigel Farage, the leader of Brexit, the person who has most championed exiting the European Union, said he thinks the UK is probably heading for a Brexit delay and a second referendum. When you hear Nigel Farage saying that, what do you say – has he got a nerve?

THE MINISTER – Yes, but we’ve known that for a long time. After all, this is someone who got himself elected as an MEP, who’s still an MEP and is paid a salary by the European Union, to hurl abuse at the European Union. (…)

Q. – And now he wants a second referendum.

THE MINISTER – And now he appears to be saying he wants a second referendum. For the moment, the situation as we speak is that neither Theresa May nor really Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader, have come out in favour of a new referendum. Farage, some in the Labour party and the First Minister of Scotland do, but this hypothesis remains just that. (…)

Q. – Moreover, what question would be put to a referendum? Is that a genuine problem?

THE MINISTER – What question would be put to a referendum? Perhaps, “do you or do you not want the withdrawal agreement as it is? If not, do you want to remain or do you want to leave?” And then the answer… Of course, there are polls, but let’s remember that at the time of the first referendum the polls were wrong.

Q. – And on the idea of putting back the date, is this an option for you, Paris, Brussels, the Europeans?

THE MINISTER – As we speak, this is also only hypothetical because, once again, Mrs May has never asked for this, nor has anyone in her entourage. Legally, technically it’s possible. The British need to ask for this and there needs to be unanimous agreement from the 27 European Union member states to say “OK, you yourselves chose to leave on 29 March, you’re asking us, OK we’ll put it back”. But the question…

Q. – Today France is saying, “yes, why not”?

THE MINISTER – How long for and what for? Because if it’s to tell us that there have to be more European concessions, that will be awkward.

Q. – But doesn’t there come a time when you say to yourselves, “OK, that’s it, it’s over, we’ve been negotiating for three years, now it’s no deal”, they leave and there’s no agreement?

THE MINISTER – Well no one thinks no deal is a good solution. But we Europeans, we French in particular, are preparing for no deal. The bill I put forward to give the government the possibility of taking all necessary measures to ensure that we’re prepared in the event of no deal should be adopted later on in the National Assembly. And so we’ll be prepared, it’s our political responsibility to ensure that French people returning from the UK, if they want to, and British people living in France – and we value them living in our country – and businesses working with the UK aren’t impacted by no deal.

Q. – I don’t know if you speak fluent Donald Tusk, but this is what the President of the European Council said (…): “if a deal is impossible”, we’re still talking about Brexit, “and no one wants no deal, then who will finally have the courage to say what the only positive solution is?” (…) What does that mean?

THE MINISTER – I understand his carefully chosen language, what he’s actually saying is what we’re all thinking: the decision to leave the European Union has been taken by the UK, but the Europeans regret it. The best, closest relationship you can have with European countries is by being a member of the European Union. So Donald Tusk is saying, “if you want to go back on your decision to leave the European Union, you’re welcome to.” (…)

Q. – But that’s what you’re saying in actual fact, you’re saying it without saying it: yes, there needs to be a second referendum…

THE MINISTER – We’ve always said the door is open. (…) What’s a bit complicated in the negotiation is that from its outset, the British have told us that, “we want to leave, we want to take back control, but we don’t want to lose any of the intensity of relations we have with you either.” And that’s quite complicated. Brexit inevitably means a downgrading of the relationship between the British and us, it’s inevitably less good, there are losers on both sides whatever happens… (…)

Q. – A quick final question (…): if a request is ever made to delay the Brexit date, how long would it be delayed a priori on paper? (…)

THE MINISTER – The first question is: what would it be delayed for? If it’s to tell us that the solution planned for Ireland must have an expiry date, we’ve already said this isn’t possible, we need assurance that the Irish solution is solid. What for? How long is needed for this? That’s for the British to say; I don’t know if Mrs May has a plan B. British MPs have asked her to prepare a plan B and present it next week. If this goes beyond the European elections, it means the British would have to elect new MEPs at the very time they’re thinking about leaving, which seems very complicated to me…

Q. – Is Theresa May part of the problem?

THE MINISTER – Theresa May is the leader of the British government, she was elected, democratically elected. So I for one respect people who are democratically elected. Let’s not forget, in this confusion or this somewhat irksome situation, that the UK is our partner (…), a great partner of France, a great trading partner, a great partner in terms of research, a great partner in terms of defence. It’s in our interest for the relationship to remain close. (…)./.

Published on 18/01/2019

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