OPINION: Barnier grows frustrated as British government seems averse to compromise

The UK government remains firmly set against any extension to the transition period, regardless of the Covid crisis and Michel Barnier’s comments that “our door is open” to a one or two-year delay, writes Sue Wilson of Bremain in Spain.

OPINION: Barnier grows frustrated as British government seems averse to compromise
EU's Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier shows documents as he gives a press conference after a Brexit negotiations meeting. Photos: AFP

Before the EU/UK trade negotiations started last week, the political grandstanding had already begun. 

Throughout the trade negotiations, EU chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has told the UK some home truths. These include no membership benefits for non-members, no cherry-picking and no bending EU rules. Ahead of the latest talks, Barnier also reminded prime minister, Boris Johnson, of the commitments he made when signing the Withdrawal Agreement in 2019.

Specifically, Barnier told Johnson he must keep the promises of the Political Declaration (PD). The document, while not legally binding, clearly defined agreed goals for the future relationship between the UK and EU. Those commitments include maintaining a level playing field with the EU on standards, and an agreement about accessing British fishing waters.

Barnier stated: “We remember very clearly the text which we negotiated with Boris Johnson. And we just want to see that complied with, to the letter.” He went on to say: “If that does not happen, there will be no agreement.”

Before the talks had begun, the UK responded, without a hint of irony, that progress had not been made “because of the inflexible attitude shown by Mr Barnier”. A source close to lead negotiator, David Frost (below), said: “The EU needs to inject some political reality into its approach and appreciate that they cannot use their usual tactic of delay to drag the talks into the autumn. October is too late.”

On Tuesday 2 June, the talks began using video conferencing links. While enabling discussion, social-distanced negotiations are no substitute for face-to-face meetings. There’s little opportunity to observe body language and no informal chats over a coffee or something stronger. It is frequently during these informal discussions that progress occurs.

Before the first day of talks concluded, Downing Street dismissed speculation that the UK was preparing to compromise. They called such speculation “wishful thinking”. Meanwhile, the First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon, warned the UK government it would be “deeply irresponsible and reckless” to risk a no-deal. Following this week’s negotiations, that risk seems higher than ever.

At Friday’s press conference in Brussels, a clearly irritated Barnier announced there had been “no significant areas of progress” in this fourth round of talks. He drew attention to the PD, which he held up for the cameras, and accused his British counterparts of distancing themselves from the text. He said: “It is and will remain the only valid precedent in this negotiation, and it was agreed by both sides.” He asked that the PD be “respected and complied with” and reiterated that the joint PD clearly sets out the “terms of our future partnership”. He added: “This document is available in all languages, including English. It's not difficult to read.”

Concerning citizens’ rights, Barnier said the rights of EU citizens in UK and UK citizens in EU must be preserved. He pointed out that UK nationals living in the EU will receive a physical document, confirming their proof of status. The demand for similar proof for EU citizens in the UK is an ongoing issue.

In response to Barnier’s comments, the chief UK negotiator, David Frost, said that “positive” negotiations would continue but admitted that “progress remains limited”. British negotiators seem to be averse to compromise, maintaining that the EU’s call for “level-playing commitments”, which it insists are required for market access, surpass what has been expected of other countries.

Barnier expressed hopes that an agreement could be reached and said both sides would take stock, ahead of a European Summit in June and a meeting between Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission.

The UK government remains firmly set against any extension to the transition period, regardless of the Covid crisis and despite Barnier’s comments that “our door is open” to a one or two-year delay. With time running out, demands for a delay are now coming from every quarter.  

The Westminster government seems less concerned about leaving with no trade deal than the devolved governments, businesses and the majority of the British public. Many people argue that leaving with no deal has been the goal of the UK government all along. Whatever you believe, it’s hard to disagree with Barnier when he says: “We can’t go on like this forever.”

The world is going through the worst crisis in decades. The cost to wealth and health can only be estimated, but it will surely be worse than anything we’ve experienced in our lifetimes. A no deal Brexit, while harmful to Europe, would be considerably more damaging to the UK. Why suffer the additional pain of a second economic crisis when we’re recovering from the first?

Brexit is happening. Nothing can change that. Let’s do Brexit as well as possible by obtaining the best deal – to protect jobs, standards and citizens.

This is not just about getting the best deal with Europe. The UK wants good deals globally. That’s more likely to happen if the British government keeps its word. Trust takes a long time to establish but can be destroyed in a moment.

We must believe that Johnson signed up to the Political Declaration in good faith and aware of its contents and ramifications. Those standards – employee rights, food safety, animal welfare, the environment etc. – took considerable time and effort to achieve. The UK and the EU can rightly be proud of these standards, and Johnson agreed to maintain them. We must hold him to his promises. Our future depends on it.

By Sue Wilson – Chair of Bremain in Spain


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Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don’t want to return home

The majority of Britons who live in the EU, Norway, Iceland or Switzerland and are protected under the Brexit agreement feel European and intend to remain in Europe permanently, but many have concerns about travel problems, a new survey reveals.

Brexit: Brits in EU feel European and don't want to return home

The research also shows that problems exist and “travel is where most issues relating to the new status currently occur”. For instance, border officials are still stamping passports of UK citizens with residence rights under the EU UK withdrawal agreement, even though they shouldn’t.

“There is constant confusion around passport stamping. I was ‘stamped in’ to France on a short trip… but could not find anyway to be ‘stamped out’ again. I think I can only spend 90 days in other EU countries, but have no idea how anyone can check or enforce that – until someone decides to try. It’s a mess,” was one of the answers left in an open question.

“Every time I go through a Schengen border control, I need to provide both my passport and Aufenthaltstitel card [resident permit in Germany] and watch to check that they don’t stamp my passport. As I am currently travelling a lot that’s been 20-odd times this year…” another respondent said.

The survey was carried out by Professor Tanja Bueltmann, historian of migration and diaspora at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, between October and November 2022. About 1,139 UK citizens replied.

Of these, 80 per cent found acquiring their new status easy or very easy, 60.7 per cent feel their rights are secure, while 39.3 per cent have concerns about their status going forward.

Staying permanently

More than three quarters (76.6 per cent) of respondents said they plan to live permanently in the EU or the other countries of the European Economic Area and Switzerland. In fact, 65.7 per cent said that Brexit has increased the likelihood of this choice.

For some, the decision is linked to the difficulty to bring non-British family members to the UK under new, stricter immigration rules.

“My German wife and I decided we no longer wanted to live in UK post Brexit referendum. In particular, we were affected by the impact of immigration law […] We cannot now return to UK on retirement as I cannot sponsor her on my pension. We knew it was a one-way journey. Fortunately, I could revive an application for German citizenship,” was a testimony.

“My husband is a US citizen and getting him a visa for the UK was near impossible due to my low income as a freelance journalist. We realized under EU law, moving to an EU country was easier. We settled on Austria as we had both lived there before… we could speak some German, and we like the mountains,” said another respondent.

Professor Bueltmann noted that the loss of free movement rights in the EU could be a factor too in the decision of many to stay where they are.

Citizenship and representation

Among those who decided to stay, 38.2 per cent are either applying or planning to apply for a citizenship and 28.6 per cent are thinking about it.

A key finding of the research, Bueltmann said, is that the vast majority of British citizens do not feel politically represented. Some 60 per cent of respondents said they feel unrepresented and another 30 per cent not well represented.

Another issue is that less than half (47.5 per cent) trust the government of their country of residence, while a larger proportion (62 per cent) trust the European Union. Almost all (95.6 per cent) said they do not trust the UK government.

Feeling European

The survey highlights the Brexit impacts on people’s identity too. 82.6 per cent of respondents said they see themselves as European, a higher proportion than those identifying as British (68.9 per cent).

“Brexit has really left me unsure of what my identity is. I don’t feel British, and I certainly don’t identify with the mindset of a lot of British people who live there. Yet, I am not Danish either. So, I don’t really know anymore!” said one of the participants in the survey.

Professor Bueltmann said the survey “demonstrates that Brexit impacts continue to evolve: this didn’t just stop because the transition period was over or a deadline for an application had been reached. Consequently, Brexit continues to shape the lives and experiences of British citizens in the EU/EEA and Switzerland in substantial, sometimes life-altering, ways.”

Considering the results of the study, Professor Bueltmann recommends policy makers in the EU and the UK to address the issue of lack of representation, for instance creating a joint UK-EU citizens’ stakeholder forum.

The report also recommends the UK government to rebuild trust with British citizens in the EU introducing voting rights for life and changing immigration rules to allow British-European families to return more easily. 

This article was prepared in cooperation with Europe Street News.