In a Wednesday debate in Strasbourg, Members of European Parliament discussed upcoming Brexit negotiations, praising the European Council for its speed and unity, while calling for reform of the European Union.
European Council President Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, and Chief Brexit Negotiation for the European Union Michel Barnier travelled to Strasbourg to present and discuss with the Parliament new negotiation guidelines that were adopted by the European Council during its April 29 meeting, its first meeting as 27 member states since the Brexit referendum result in June 2016.
“What was and remains most important for me is that our conduct in these talks will show the European Union at its best, in terms of unity, political solidarity and fairness towards the United Kingdom,” European Council President Tusk confided to Members of European Parliament (MEPs), and thanked the parliamentarians for their guidance and assistance in the negotiation preparations.
The guidelines set out the need for a “phased approach” to Brexit negotiations, establishing three priorities that must be addressed in a first stage of talks: the fate of nearly EU citizens living in the UK and British citizens living in Europe, estimated at 4 million people; an agreement on financial commitments undertaken by the UK while still a member of the EU 28; and measures to preserve peace in Northern Ireland, including ensuring there will not be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, as set out in the Good Friday Agreements.
“Only once there is sufficient progress on these priorities can we proceed to the next phase of the negotiations about our future relations,” Tusk insisted, adding “and it will be for the European Council of 27 to decide if and when we have achieved sufficient progress.”
Jean-Claude Juncker praised the European Council President for the speed of the guidelines being agreed, before complimenting EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnes for being “up and running across Europe to make sure every voice is heard.”
“The process shows how united and prepared the European Union will be; it underlines how deep our commitment to transparency already is,” the European Commission President declared.
Responding to the EU leaders, MEPs underlined the importance of maintaining the unity found in preparation for Brexit negotiations.
“We are determined to remain united, we are resolute, and I think we can be very proud of what the EU 27 has done hitherto,” exclaimed Manfred Weber (Germany), on behalf of the European People’s Party, praising the consistent and clear message the EU has been able to communicate for its upcoming negotiations.
“We can see that the engine room of the European Union is functioning strongly, we can see that we have good priorities, sound priorities for the future of Europe,” he asserted.
Weber’s point of view was shared by his Italian colleague, Roberto Gualtieri, speaking on behalf of the Socialists and Democrats: “Those who would have thought that we would be split got it wrong. We now have a clear, balanced, fair line as far as Brexit is concerned and an excellent negotiator who we fully back.”
Despite the strong welcome of European unity, however, many MEPs insisted that Europeans still expected change, and that the divorce proceedings should be seen as an opportunity for reform.
“We are now seeing a fresh impetus that the winds of change are blowing through Europe and we need to capitalize on this, we need to make the absolute most of this,” Manfred Weber appealed to the Strasbourg hemicycle.
Raffaele Fitto (Italy), speaking on behalf of the European Conservatives and Reformer’s group, thought the negotiations “should be based on creating a relationship with the UK which allows us to review the way that the EU works and to understand why the British people thought they would be better off outside the EU than in it.”
“It’s about taking this opportunity of these negotiations between London and Brussels to actually reflect about ourselves, to discuss about ourselves, and about where the EU is going,” he stressed.
Guy Verhofstadt (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, Belgium), lead Brexit negotiator for the European Parliament, thought it would be a mistake to concentrate all energy on Brexit, at the expense of reform.
“It’s really time to use this Brexit negotiation for a new vision and for a new future for Europe, a future that our young people want,” Verhofstadt declared. “Look to what is happening throughout Europe, in more than 100 cities, over all in Europe in the squares, young people are coming together asking for more and a democratic European Union.”
Michel Barnier, responding to MEPs, thanked the Parliament and the Presidents of the European Council and European Commission, for putting trust in him as lead Brexit negotiator for the EU.
Promising transparency, Barnier promised to be available to MEPs, and to hold discussions with the European Parliament and other institutions before each round of Brexit negotiations.
“Our aim is to achieve an agreement; I certainly don’t intend to have no agreement, no deal or a bad deal,” assured the chief negotiator.
He also insisted that he saw no reason to punish the UK for its choice to leave the EU, but that the phased approach was intended to help solve urgent problems, removing uncertainty as quickly as possible.
“We want to conclude a deal with the UK, not against the UK,” he stressed, before adding: “I would very much appreciate if on the side of the UK you could have the same spirit, to reach a deal with the EU, not against the EU.”
A set of negotiating directives, proposed by Michel Barnier and based on the adopted guidelines, are expected to be adopted by the European Council on May 22. European leaders have agreed that Brexit negotiations should begin as quickly as possible following British general elections on June 8.