European Parliament kicks off Brexit debate

On April 5, the European Parliament held a plenary debate on the Negotiations with the United Kingdom following its notification that it intends to withdraw from the European Union and subsequently adopted a joint motion for a resolution on their position. 

By Christopher Ball

05 Apr 2017

Antonio Tajani (EPP, IT) said that this is the beginning of a complex negotiation and the motion for a resolution will set out the Parliamentary guidelines for the talks. He then said that as far as security is concerned, it knows no borders.

Manfred Weber (EPP, DE) noted that it is the turn of the European Parliament to have its say. Hopefully, the Parliament can show a sense of togetherness. First the divorce, then a future treaty will be the way forward. He said that citizens are not bargaining chips. He also mentioned the border in Northern Ireland. These are the first issues that must be dealt with. He noted that the fundamental question is what does leaving mean. Is staying in Europol an option? This is an EU agency. What about common research programmes? What about the single market? Does leave mean no access to the single market or no cooperation? There can be no cherry picking. This will not happen. A State outside the EU cannot have better conditions than a State inside.

On Northern Ireland, he noted that there are concerns about the Peace process. What about Gibraltar? The Prime Minister of a Member State has had to state that there are no military operations on the table. This shows that the debate has already gone in the wrong direction. He reassured Spain and Ireland that they have the EU behind them. Spanish and Irish interests are European interests.

He pointed out that the EU is an idea. The UK is walking away from this and from international debate. The UK is a friend, but it must accept that the EU will adopt a tough negotiating position.

Gianni Pittella (S&D, IT) noted that a former leader of the Conservative party raised the spectre of war between Spain and the UK. The Tories wanted a referendum and had no idea how to actually start leaving. The Tories wanted to take back control, but of what. Their lies have caused chaos in the UK. He welcomed the draft resolution and noted that the Parliament cannot accept a deal that does not respect it. A country outside the EU cannot benefit from the same conditions as a Member State. The values of the EU must be respected. The UK cannot become a maxi-tax haven. The City cannot have special treatment and workers’ rights must be protected. The peace process in Northern Ireland must be protected. As in any family, the UK must meet its financial obligations. The EU is not just a single market. It is a community of values. Brexit is a chance to move the EU forward.

Helga Stevens (ECR, BE) said that today, the process of shaping a better future for Europe and its people should begin. The UK leaving should not be a missed opportunity to change. Britain will remain an important partner and must remain a friend. This should be the start of a long and deep relationship. Work should begin on the future agreement now. If the EU fails to do this, history will judge it as petty. She criticised the draft motion for a resolution as excluding certain groups in the Parliament. Mr Verhofstadt should have consulted more. There are some positive elements in the draft including the focus on securing EU citizens’ rights. However, the Parliament should not make excessive demands. The 3 year limit on a transition seems arbitrary. The EU should emerge from Brexit renewed and able to build the trust of its citizens. There are alternatives to ever more Europe and she called for a decentralised EU. The EU needs a new direction with or without the UK.

Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE, BE) explained that the triggering of Article 50 was a sad moment. The relationship between the UK and the EU has never been easy. It was never a love affair, but rather a marriage of convenience. It is important to recall that it was the Tories that favoured joining the Union. The UK historically had concerns that the experiment was succeeding. When the UK finally joined, the headlines were festive in 1973. It was seen as a great day for the UK. It was however a short honeymoon. This is however history. It was perhaps naïve to believe that the UK could be united with the EU. Perhaps, it was never meant to be. Our predecessors should not be blamed for this. There will be one day, a young person who will try to lead Britain into the European family once again. A young generation will see Brexit for what it really is: a cat fight in the Conservative party that got out of hand. Brexit is regrettable, but it is important to remember what has been achieved over the last 40 years. It was not a failure for the EU or the British. Britain entered the EU as the sick man of Europe and came out the other side. Europe helped Britain punch above its weight. The EU also benefitted from the UK’s support for the single market and liberal values.

On the future relationship, he said that the ambition should be to have a strong and stable one, but noted that it will be very different. It is essential to remember that there is a shared common history and a membership of European civilisation. Brexit is not only about Brexit. It is about the capacity to give a rebirth to the European project. Brexit has happened for a reason. Europe has yet to radically change to become a real effective union based on the interests of its citizens. It must be a union that stands up against autocrats, such as those that close down universities, or put journalists in jail or use chemical weapons.

Gabriele Zimmer (GUE/NGL, DE) noted that there is an incredibly short time to negotiate the divorce and said that the Parliament must be actively involved throughout the process. Above all, the rights of citizens of all 28 Member States must be the priority. UK citizens living in the EU 27 and so-on must have their rights guaranteed. She welcomed the fact that the draft resolution refers to the peace process in Northern Ireland. A new hard border should not be allowed to emerge.

She then stressed the need for fundamental and social rights. These values must figure highly in the negotiations. The way in which the negotiations are conducted will have a decisive impact on the future of the EU. It is also important to look at how demagogues such as Farage have been able to turn the tables. This is due to a failure to provide benefits for the people of the EU.

Philippe Lamberts (Greens/EFA, BE) noted that May had a choice, but she chose the most extreme interpretation of the referendum. This encouraged the fringes across the EU to push forward their grandstanding brand of politics both in the UK and the EU. The British Prime Minister has dug herself into a hole. How can there be a hard Brexit without a hard border? How can there be free trade when leaving the single market? How can May claim to represent the entire UK with this position when 48 percent voted to stay? There must be common sense and those who shout and posture must be ignored. He then said that a stronger, fairer and better Britain is a fine aim, but this means facing down the Trumps and Putins and curbing corporate power whilst combatting climate change. He noted that no EU Member State is equipped to deal with global problems on their own. All Europeans have to act together. There is no such thing as absolute sovereignty in the 21st century.

Nigel Farage (EFDD, UK) stated that hundreds of millions of people cheered the triggering of Brexit all over the world. He then said that the UK did not join the EU, it joined an economic union, not a political union. He also said that the EU has tried to hold the UK to ransom. He tried to put forward the argument that the UK is free to negotiate future trade deals in the next two years. On the Gibraltar issue, he said that national self-determination means that Gibraltar is British. The EU is behaving like the mafia. The UK is free to go.

Antonio Tajani intercepted to say that equating the Parliament to the mafia is unacceptable.

Nigel Farage continued by saying that “no deal” will hurt the EU far more than it will the UK. It will risk the jobs of hundreds of thousands of people in the EU.

Marcel De Graaff (ENF, NL) congratulated the UK for having regained its freedom. The EU bureaucrats will try to make the UK pay and comply with EU standards and accept thousands of migrants. Do not give in to these demands, he said. He then quoted Churchill to say that the UK should defend itself whatever the cost.

Steven Woolfe (NI, UK) argued that the Parliament has no real role in the negotiations. He argued that the British fought for Europe to be free. The UK has paid for the EU and spends far more than it receives. The EU has forgotten the sacrifices that the UK made.

Ian Borg, representing the Maltese Presidency of the EU, called for a non-hysterical debate with the right to speak freely. A positive outcome will only be possible if the best interests of citizens and businesses are held in mind. Everything possible must be done to ensure that the EU is protected against the losses that Brexit will cause. The EU27 are united and have a single voice on this. This unity must be preserved until the guidelines are adopted by the Council. There will be a Council meeting on April 29 and this will lead to the adoption of the guidelines for negotiations. He also agreed that the European Parliament must play a strong role in the talks. Both the Council and the Parliament agree that a financial settlement and the rights of citizens are important issues that must be dealt with. Once the guidelines have been agreed in Council, the Council will then immediately authorise the beginning of negotiations. Formal talks will begin towards the end of the Maltese Presidency. He then said that whilst Brexit is on the table, it is also important for the EU not to stop working. The EU has a positive agenda on the table and must continue working on legislation to deliver positive answers for European citizens.

The Rome Declaration cannot be forgotten as it will play a role in determining Europe’s future. Arrangements are currently being made in the Council to ensure that work can be carried out in an efficient fashion.

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker noted that the Parliament will have to approve the final agreement. The EU27 must remain united and all institutions must sing from the same hymn sheet. The stronger the single voice, the stronger the negotiating position will be. He then said that the Parliament will get to know Michel Barnier even better than it already does. He then called on the Parliament to ensure that a third country cannot have a better deal than a Member State. The EU will negotiate in an open and friendly fashion. In the negotiations, what is at stake is not just treaties and paragraphs, it is a question of the lives of millions of people. Millions have links to the UK and have placed their faith in the working of the EU. They have built lives that they expected to be able to continue. The EU must work on their behalf. Workers, students and pensioners must not pay the price for Brexit. They are not negotiating chips. Brexit must not throw people into uncertainty. This also applies to those involved in European projects. Commitments already entered into must be respected. He pointed out that “no deal” would be the worst-case scenario for many people and families. It would damage research, cooperation and trade. No deal means no winners. This is why the EU will work to reduce the possibility for this to happen. The EU will miss the UK but without naivety. It is the UK that is leaving the EU and not vice-versa. The divorce lawyers will now look into the details and divide up the achievements of the last 40 years. This is a precondition for the future relationship. There must be a clear sorting out of the past relationship before the future can be dealt with.

The choice of the UK to leave the EU is a sad choice, but it does not fit into the march of history. There will be a new birth of an EU with 27 members. This is already up and running with numerous meetings already having taken place. This work will continue. The EU must now make a choice on where it wants to go in the future. The Commission White Paper on the future of the EU should be the basis for a cross-EU debate with national parliaments and civil society. The future of the European people is now what is on the table and history will judge the politicians of today on this, he concluded.

Michel Barnier, EU Lead Negotiator, noted that the Parliament resolution will be the first political reaction to the triggering of Article 50 and this means that the Parliament will set the tone of the debate. The shared objective is a successful negotiation. This means that unity of the EU27 is essential. The fundamental principles and values of the EU must be protected. He warned the UK that a disunited Union could also lead to no agreement. This would have serious consequences, primarily for the UK, but also for the EU. The EU does not want a no deal scenario, but success with the UK and not against them.

There must be truth and transparency on what Brexit means. The talks should also help the EU remember what it has actually achieved. He explained that the Commission intends to negotiate in a transparent fashion. Legal certainty is also fundamental, as Brexit creates legal uncertainty for citizens, projects funded by the EU and at the EU’s borders. Continuity and the reciprocity of law will be a fundamental value of the talks. He then pointed out that these will have to be very detailed talks. On the financial settlement that will be required based on the UK’s commitments to the EU and the EU’s commitments to the UK, he said that this is not about punishment, it is only about asking the UK to deliver on its commitments. It is just about settling accounts.

Moving on to the question of borders, he said that arrangements will have to be found that do not upset the Good Friday agreement. He warned that these solutions will have to be compatible with EU law. He then said that in order for the talks to succeed, the first part must be focused on the principles of the exit. This is an essential condition to maximise the opportunity to reach an agreement within the two year period. It will also help build trust. The second phase will be about scoping a future agreement. The sooner the talks on the principles of leaving progress, the sooner the other talks can begin. The EU wants free and fair trade and cooperation in security and defence.

He then pledged that the role of the European Parliament will be fundamental in the talks and promised to work with them throughout.

His full speech can be found here.

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