French official stresses EU 27 "unity" on Brexit talks

European Union – Brexit/Turkey/Sahel/Defence Europe – Hearing of the Permanent Representative of France to the European Union before the National Assembly Foreign Affairs Committee (excerpts)

Paris, 26 October 2017


THE PERMANENT REPRESENTATIVE – We’re still in the first phase of negotiations. The negotiation framework set by the Twenty-Seven consisted in saying that the precondition for any work on the future relationship between the UK and the European Union is to resolve three basic issues which are essential for mutual trust and as orderly a withdrawal as possible by the UK from the EU. Those three issues are the situation of individuals, the Irish border and the balancing of Britain’s accounts. What’s important is that the conclusions of the 27-strong European Council express a message of unity: unity in confirming a commitment to the negotiating mandate; unity in recording that “sufficient progress” – to use the expression in the negotiation mandate – has not been made in each of those three areas; unity too in expressing and reiterating their confidence in and support for the single European negotiatior, our compatriot, M. Michel Barnier; and finally unity in expressing a gradual rapprochement, recognizing certain advances announced by Mrs Theresa May in her Florence speech. The way to encourage Mrs May in pursuing those advances isn’t to speed up the transition to the second phase of negotiations, but to show we want to be ready the day the British have travelled the necessary distance, by beginning work now, but solely internally, on what the UK’s future status could be.

We haven’t yet reached the end of the first phase, because progress on the three aforementioned issues isn’t sufficient. On citizens, as you pointed out, the challenge is to ensure that the existing rights of European citizens in the UK and Britons on European territory are maintained, because we’ve laid down a principle of reciprocity and symmetry. There have been a few steps forward in terms of defining the scope of rights and the make-up of families eligible for those rights, and we’re quite close to a result. On the other hand, the safeguards associated with exercising those rights – which absolutely must be provided to European citizens in order to ensure their validity – pose a problem, because the UK is still having difficulties with the idea that it’s not British law that grants those rights but the withdrawal agreement itself. Consequently, the UK doesn’t accept that the Court of Justice of the European Union should be the only jurisdiction with the power to guarantee the validity of those rights. That’s a tough point for the British, and from the point of view of the negotiations, it’s a significant difficulty.

On the Irish border, there’s a shared recognition of the problem and the desire to find a solution that doesn’t involve restoring a hard physical border, which would risk jeopardizing the Good Friday Agreement and the area of free movement associated with it. But beyond this shared assessment, the British believe it’s up to Europe to find a solution, while the Europeans believe the problem was created by Brexit and it’s therefore for the UK to resolve the problem. The situation is very sensitive for the Irish. The temptation for the British is to believe the issue could be resolved in the framework of negotiations on the future status. The Twenty-Seven reject this approach and believe this single issue calls for a specific resolution in the first phase of negotiations.

The third issue concerns finance. The approach of the Twenty-Seven is very simple: the UK has decided to leave the common enterprise, so it must settle its account at the time of departure. On this issue, Mrs May has made progress by announcing that the UK will pay its contribution to the European Union budget in 2019 and 2020 and will ensure that no member state has to endure more or receive less during those years because of the UK’s departure. Let me remind you that the UK’s departure represents a loss of roughly €10 billion in net receipts. However, Britain has been totally silent on the rest, particularly on the UK’s other commitments as a member state, which concern, for example, the payment of civil servants’ pensions and the balance to be settled, i.e. the past expenditure to be settled. So there’s a considerable gap between the figure of some €20 billion put forward by the UK and all the obligations the Twenty-Seven believe the UK should fulfil, even though we’re refraining from putting forward any figures.

Q. – Roughly how big is this difference?

THE PERMANENT REPRESENTATIVE – Figures have been quoted, among others an estimate of around €60 billion, so there’s a big gap. But once again, we’re being careful not to focus the discussion on a figure; we think it’s got to focus on the scope of the UK’s financial and legal obligations as a member state which has subscribed to commitments and has to contribute to clearing [accounts in line with] the decisions it has taken part in. The temptation for the British is to link settlement of this financial issue to negotiations on the future status.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said quite openly and explicitly that Britain’s payment may allow it to buy access to the internal market and the renewal of the European passport for financial activities. The Twenty-Seven and Michel Barnier’s reaction to this temptation is clear and strict: there’s no question of mixing up issues relating to the settlement of past commitments and those concerning the future status. This is one of the reasons we’re keen, with all our partners – who are showing the same firmness – to separate the two phases of the negotiations.

You asked me, Madam Chair, what happens next. The European Council expressed its willingness to record in December that sufficient progress has been made, but this will depend on what the British agree to as regards each of the three subjects and on the assessment our negotiator makes. Were this not to happen, a new meeting would be arranged for January or February next year, but clearly time will be more and more of the essence in relation to the fixed, imperative deadline of March 2019. No one is speculating today on the reality of the UK’s exit but on the conditions of its exit, with or without a deal. We’ve every reason to hope that a deal will be reached so that economic and legal chaos is avoided, even though the UK would suffer because of it more than the Twenty-Seven. (…)./.

Published on 13/12/2017

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