Mr Barnier confident about Brexit deal

Mr Michel Barnier, Chief Negotiator – Task Force for the Preparation and Conduct of the Negotiations with the UK, expressed confidence at the opening of the Bled Strategic Forum that agreement on the first stage of the UK’s exit from the EU is within reach.

“Realistically, we are able to reach an agreement on the first stage of these negotiations in 6-8 weeks,” Mr Barnier said. According to him, roughly 80% of the draft agreement currently under negotiation is already finalised.

The UK had set 29 March 2019 as the date of its exit, which meant a deal had to be reached before November anyway if it is to be ratified by the British and European parliaments.
Asked which remaining issues were toughest, Barnier listed agriculture, governance of the Brexit treaty, and Northern Ireland.

Agriculture is difficult in particular because of protected geographical indications, of which there are about 3000 in the EU and which the EU wants to keep protected.

Northern Ireland is “one of the stickiest and most complex issues,” according to Mr Barnier, who noted that the current stability on the island, achieved with the Good Friday Agreement, was underpinned by 140 types of cross-border cooperation supported by EU law, EU funds and EU policies.

Moreover, the key point for stability is the fact that there is no border but the EU is obliged to implement controls on its external borders to check goods coming into the single market. He said efforts were now being made to “simplify and diversify” controls on the border as part of the Brexit negotiations.

Mr Barnier also said he had great respect for UK Prime Minister Theresa May and said her recently released Brexit plan, referred to as the Chequers Plan, was a good basis for talks. “I think that Chequers is useful, because it clary defines what are the issues for the UK,” he said.

Mr Barnier’s team is now in the process of benchmarking the Chequers plan to the mandate he has received from the 27 remaining EU member states, and Mr Barnier said that “many points of convergence” had already been found, including in defence and security, external security.

But Mr. Barnier was also quick to point out he did not want to comment on or get involved with the UK’s internal affairs, even if he talks to everyone involved in Brexit, including former UK Independence Party (UKIP) leader Nigel Farage, with whom he had a “very stimulating meeting.”

Asked whether Brexit was a major blow to the EU, Mr. Barnier said Brexit was at heart a negative negotiation. “There is no winner, it is a lose-lose game, there is no added value to Brexit, so far nobody has provided any proof of added value for Brexit.”

Nevertheless, he indicated there was no cause for pessimism, as the EU tends to survive crises, even if it is often slow to react. Quoting the French politician Jean Monet, Barnier said that “I am neither pessimistic nor optimistic, I am determined.”

Delivering the keynote address as an introduction to the talk with Mr Barnier, H. E. Mr Borut Pahor, President of the Republic of Slovenia, said that Brexit demonstrated “the standstill of the EU” as evident in a return to national policies.

“A standstill does not mean that everyone is waiting, standing in place. It is obvious that those who are not in favour of the future strengthening of the EU are moving on. And those of us who are in favour of such strengthening are standing still,” he said.

He said that those who believe in a strong EU do not have a clear vision, and it they fail to offer some sort of vision within a reasonable time, “the European idea may not only experience a standstill in the next five or ten years, but even a decline.”

“The standstill experienced by the EU will turn into a crisis if nationalist politics begins to prevail. For now, this is not yet the case. However, it is becoming stronger than ever.” Pahor called for political risk-taking, despite lingering reservations such as the fear of strengthening nationalist powers in Europe.

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