French Minister on Brexit: "The ball is in the UK’s court"
United Kingdom/Brexit – Interview given by Mme Nathalie Loiseau, Minister for European Affairs, to BBC Radio 4¹
London, 31 January 2019
Q. – Nobody suggests that the European side in the Brexit negotiations is about to roll over, but Theresa May’s more optimistic supporters do think that there is still business to be done on the Northern Ireland backstop, the backstop that guarantees no hard border in Ireland, the backstop that the British government was very keen on – indeed arranged – but now has decided it no longer wants. On the line is Nathalie Loiseau, who is France’s Europe Minister. Good morning to you.
THE MINISTER – Good morning.
Q. – Can I put to you something the Polish Prime minister said yesterday? He said, “together with the participation of all EU countries, we should try to prevent a hard Brexit”. Do you agree with him?
THE MINISTER – Well, I certainly agree with him and with the British Parliament that a hard Brexit is not desirable. This is the reason why we’ve been working so hard for more than 18 months to reach an agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom, and we’ve reached a good agreement that allows for a transition period, that allows for a number of provisions that are necessary, including a backstop for the Irish border, which is necessary unless and until we find a better solution in our future relationship.
Q. – And if Theresa May comes, then, to Europe with those words of the Polish Prime Minister in mind, if Theresa May comes to you and says, “Look, I cannot get that deal that I arranged with you through the House of Commons, I need something different”, you’ll provide it, won’t you?
THE MINISTER – We are waiting patiently, even if the clock is ticking, for suggestions from the British Prime Minister. We have a deal which not only she accepted but, as you said earlier rightly, the backstop which is included in the withdrawal agreement was the British version of the backstop. The EU negotiator had tried a number of options and we finally agreed on the British version of the backstop, which is a concession from the European Union. Nobody likes the backstop, nobody wants to use it, but we need it as a safety net in case we are not able to find a better solution. So we are waiting for the Prime Minister’s suggestion. The ball is in the UK’s court.
Q. – And if the Prime Minister suggests that the backstop be time-limited or that there be some sort of unilateral right for one of the parties to leave that backstop with due notice, is it remotely possible that either of those things could be agreed?
THE MINISTER – You know, this was already discussed in Salzburg and in December at the European Council, and it is considered as not possible. We agreed, the 27, to be linked by the backstop. This notion, which I read in the British press, that the UK would be stuck in the backstop – nobody wants to trap the UK, but we need commitment and we are making, ourselves, a heavy commitment because one should not consider that the backstop, as it is drafted, is a comfortable solution for the European Union. It is not.
Q. – But there can be no change, in your view, no legal rider, no set of words that could be added to be backstop discussion in the withdrawal agreement that could be done at this stage?
THE MINISTER – All this has been discussed already and all this led to very clear decisions from the 27 in December that there should not be an additional, legally binding description of the backstop.
Q. – Knowing what you know about our debate here and how tortuous it is, is it your view, would it be generally right to say it’s the view of the European side in these negotiations that actually Theresa May, if you don’t offer her much now and she goes back to Parliament, that we will end up with Parliament overruling her – in other words, the threat to both the UK side and the EU side of Britain leaving with no agreement is actually not as great as some say?
THE MINISTER – Well it is possible that there is no deal. We don’t want that, but it is possible and we are getting prepared for it. We passed a law in Parliament in France some weeks ago and we are now implementing this law in order to be fully ready, so as to smoothen or diminish the consequences of a hard Brexit. This would not be good news for the European Union but it would not be chaos or catastrophe on our side. But there is a much better outcome of months of loyal and thorough discussion between the UK and the EU, and it is the withdrawal agreement. It provides for a transition period which will help all of us work on the future relationship. If there are questions or concerns about the future of the relations between the UK and the European Union, we are ready to hear them and consider these questions and concerns. But about the withdrawal agreement, I think it’s about time that we dedicated our energy and our negotiations to working for the future./.
¹Mme Loiseau spoke in English.