Speaking at the briefing in Strasbourg on Thursday, the Belgian MEP who heads the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group, said he “really regrets” Brexit and that a “big and important nation is leaving the EU.”
With UK Prime Minister Theresa May fighting for her political survival amidst a flurry of resignations, he said, “This is a wound and I still hope there will come day when the UK will come back to the European family.”
On the draft Brexit withdrawal deal agreed by the UK and EU and approved by the British government cabinet on Wednesday, he said, “We have tried to make best of a very difficult situation.”
He said the draft text was the result of “intense cooperation” between the two sides and the “tremendous job” done by chief EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier to make progress in the talks.
“What has been delivered is the best agreement we could have obtained, taking into account the UK position and the integrity of the EU, the European project and single market.”
He told reporters, “I have to remind you that it is not we who are leaving but the UK and this agreement combines Brexit and the UK’s decision to leave with a scenario that avoids a disastrous disruption for the EU and certainly for the UK.”
He described the deal as an “important achievement” whose “key points” were that it “minimises disruption on both sides” and “avoids a hard border in Ireland.”
Verhofstadt said the deal, which on Thursday triggered a spate of resignations from May’s government, including that of chief UK Brexit negotiator Dominic Raab, will also “safeguard” the rights of citizens, both Britons in the EU and Europeans in the UK.
“What has been delivered is the best agreement we could have obtained, taking into account the UK position and the integrity of the EU, the European project and single market” Guy Verhofstadt
But he warned, “[The European] Parliament will continue to scrutinise the implementation of this. This will be very important in the Brexit consent procedure next year
“This has to be implemented by the UK Home Office and it must be done in the right way.”
BASIS FOR FUTURE EU-UK RELATIONSHIP
Verhofstadt said the deal represented a “good basis” for the future relationship between the EU and UK but there was “still ongoing work” to be concluded before EU member states “have a say on this” at a summit in Brussels, now scheduled to take place on 25 November.
Looking to the future, he said, “It is important that the European project and the four freedoms are safeguarded so there is no question of any cherry picking in the future.”
The “final say” on Brexit, he said, will rest with the European Parliament and the assembly aims to present a resolution soon which will make a “more detailed assessment” of the deal and proposals for the future trade relationship.”
He also gave his “sincere congratulations” to Michel Barnier and his team for their “tremendous work.”
Speaking alongside, European Parliament president Antonio Tajani told reporters, “Brexit is most of all about people. It is about safeguarding the rights of our citizens, preserving peace in Northern Ireland and protecting jobs affected by the UK’s departure.”
“This agreement reflects that any outcome will be inferior to full membership, while safeguarding EU27 interests. It demonstrates what the European Union stands for: solidarity and unity among its members" Antonio Tajani
He added, “We believe in democracy and respect the decision of the British people. The text agreed by the EU and UK is the first step on a long road. Nevertheless, I am optimistic that it will pave the way towards a close future EU-UK relationship. The UK is leaving the European Union, not Europe.
“This agreement reflects that any outcome will be inferior to full membership, while safeguarding EU27 interests. It demonstrates what the European Union stands for: solidarity and unity among its members.
“This is just the beginning of a new phase. The European Parliament will be called upon to approve the agreement and will therefore continue to scrutinise developments, ensuring that that our red lines are delivered upon,” he added.
With Brussels having to take in the frantic drama in London, further EU reaction to current events came from European council president Donald Tusk.
BREXIT NEGOTIATIONS ONLY ABOUT DAMAGE CONTROL
Speaking separately, he told reporters, ”Of course, I don't share the [British] Prime Minister's enthusiasm about Brexit as such. Since the very beginning, we have had no doubt that Brexit is a lose-lose situation, and that our negotiations are only about damage control.”
Given “extremely difficult circumstances” he said Barnier had “achieved our two most important objectives.”
First, it “ensures the limitation of the damage caused by Brexit and, second, secures the vital interests and principles of the 27 member states, and of the European Union as a whole.”
Tusk said, “If I weren't confident that Barnier did his best to protect the interests of the 27, I would not propose to formalise this deal.”
"Since the very beginning, we have had no doubt that Brexit is a lose-lose situation, and that our negotiations are only about damage control” Donald Tusk
He added, ”The agreement is now being analysed by all the member states. By the end of this week, the EU27 ambassadors will meet in order to share their assessment of the agreement. I hope that there will not be too many comments. They will also discuss the mandate for the Commission to finalise the Joint Political Declaration about the future relations between the EU and the UK.”
On the upcoming timeframe, Tusk said, “European ministers will be involved in this process. The Commission intends to agree the declaration about the future with the UK by Tuesday. Over the following 48 hours, the member states will have time to evaluate it, which means that the EU27 Sherpas should conclude this work on Thursday.”
He went on, “Then, if nothing extraordinary happens, we will hold a European Council meeting, in order to finalise and formalise the Brexit agreement. This will take place on Sunday 25 November.”
Concluding, Tusk added, “Let me say this to our British friends. As much as I am sad to see you leave, I will do everything to make this farewell the least painful possible, both for you and for us.”