Richard North, 21/11/2017  

"Europe is today more necessary than ever" and, "the future of Europe is more important than Brexit". The EU is willing to cooperate with the UK, and it will be in the UK's interest to have a strong EU as a close partner. But that's as far as it goes.

So says Michel Barnier, back in the news again with a longish speech (2000+ words) yesterday on his favourite subject – Brexit. It comes to something when we see more of this French politician than we do our own Prime Minister, and he has more to say about the process than our own Brexit Secretary.

Another small but welcome difference with Barnier is that he seems to be able to speak in sentences, in a speech sectioned into paragraphs, instead of the endless stream of soundbites that characterises a British politician's effort.

For all that, there's not a lot new in this speech – not since the last one. Even M. Barnier is having to repeat himself and the "debate" stalls around a few limited issues with nothing intellectually challenging to fuel the discussions.

In deference to the title of the conference at which he was speaking – on the future of the EU – Barnier managed to put Brexit in its wider context, suggesting that it could be "a turning point in the European project" - a time of awakening, making 2016 "the moment when the EU realised that it had to stand up for itself".

Once the rhetorical flourishes had been dispensed with though, it was back to business with the EU's chief negotiator keen to tell us that the "no deal" is not our scenario. "Even though we will be ready for it", he says (which is more than one can say for the UK government), "I regret that this no deal option comes up so often in the UK public debate".

"Only those who ignore, or want to ignore, the current benefits of European Union membership can say that no deal would be a positive result", Barnier declared, then setting out the "three keys" to building a strong partnership with the UK.

These we heard recently and, despite the media's determination to make Brexit all about money, here they are again: citizens' rights; settling the accounts; and Ireland. And it doesn't matter how many times the media ignore the "Brussels Triangle", here it is, ready to swallow up not just the occasional ship or flight of aircraft, but whole nations.

Key amongst keys is, of course, Ireland and M. Barnier has long since run out of patience. "I expect the UK, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, to come forward with proposals", he says. "The island of Ireland is now faced with many challenges. Those who wanted Brexit must offer solutions".

As to the second key, that is the "integrity of the Single Market". Clearly, we are not the only ones tired of the superficiality of the public debate. Barnier says the debate "on what leaving the EU means needs to be intensified" – and not only in the UK.

Talking of sound bites, M. Barner observes that there are two such, emanating from ardent advocates of Brexit – mutually contradictory. The first is that the UK will finally "set itself free" from EU regulations and bureaucracy. The second is that, after Brexit, it will still be possible to participate in parts of the Single Market. Simply because we have been together for more than four decades, with the same rules, and we can continue to trust each other.

These views says Barnier, do not seem to offer "a sound basis for going forward". Not just for the English is reserved the art of the understatement. "The same people who argue for setting the UK free also argue that the UK should remain in some EU agencies", Barnier notes. "But freedom implies responsibility for building new UK administrative capacity". He declares:
On our side, the 27 will continue to deepen the work of those agencies, together. They will share the costs for running those agencies. Our businesses will benefit from their expertise. All of their work is firmly based on the EU Treaties which the UK decided to leave. Those who claim that the UK should "cherry-pick" parts of the Single Market must stop this contradiction.
I sometimes wonder whether Barnier reads the blog – him or his researchers. For he then goes on to says: "The Single Market is a package, with four indivisible freedoms, common rules, institutions and enforcement structures". Now where have we been reading recently about enforcement, other than in this piece.

The trouble is that the "ardent advocates of Brexit" don't do nuance. The idea that we are walking away from the "institutions and enforcement structures" of the Single Market hasn't percolated their brains. They think that, because we have regulatory convergence – for the moment – that we can continue as before. But, says Barnier, even walking away from the "four indivisible freedoms" "means that the UK will lose the benefits of the Single Market". This, he says, "is a legal reality" – and he doesn't even get as far as the institutions and enforcement structures.

But what he does say is that "The EU does not want to punish, once again". It simply draws the logical consequence of the UK's decision to take back control. For instance, "On financial services, UK voices suggest that Brexit does not mean Brexit". However, says the man, "Brexit means Brexit, everywhere". He continues:
They say there would be no changes in market access for UK-established firms. They say joint UK-EU Rules would be decided in a new "symmetrical process" between the EU and the UK, and outside of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. This would contradict the April European Council guidelines, which stress the autonomy of EU decision-making, the integrity of our legal order and of the Single Market.
"The UK will, of course", Barnier says, "have access to the Single Market. But this is different from being part of the Single Market. And a good deal on our future relationship should facilitate this access as much as possible. And avoid a situation where trade would happen under the WTO rules for goods and services". To achieve this, he says:
… there is a third key: we need to ensure a level playing field between us. This will not be easy. For the first time ever in trade talks, the challenge will be to limit divergence of rules rather than maximise convergence. There will be no ambitious partnership without common ground in fair competition, state aid, tax dumping, food safety, social and environmental standards.
But then, he says, it is not only about rules or laws. It is about societal choices – for health, food standards, our environment and financial stability. The UK has chosen to leave the EU. Does it want to stay close to the European model or does it want to gradually move away from it?

The UK's reply to this question will be important and even decisive because it will shape the discussion on our future partnership and shape also the conditions for ratification of that partnership in many national parliaments and obviously in the European Parliament.

This, Barnier says, is not said in order to create problems. He seeks to avoid problems. If we manage to negotiate an orderly withdrawal, fully respect the integrity of the Single Market, and establish a level playing field, he concludes that "there is every reason for our future partnership to be ambitious".

The EU will be ready to offer its most ambitious FTA approach and the future partnership should not be limited to trade. But the EU is not going to hang about waiting for the UK, he said, at which point came the warning that the future of Europe is more important than Brexit.

Most of this, though, will go sailing over the heads of the "ardent advocates of Brexit". Barnier's words will either be seen as a threat or they will be misunderstood in other ways. The chief negotiator is speaking but he is not communicating - because the other side isn't listening.

It doesn't want to hear.

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