He showed that he is no bland technocrat, joking from the start whether he should speak in English or French. He did both, commendably well, although he kept to French in answering all questions. He explained that his first vote as a 20 year-old was on the French referendum whether to agree to the UK’s accession. He had voted yes then and had not changed his mind since. He closed his opening statement with the quip “keep calm and negotiate”.
He explained that he had spent the last two months listening. He had visited 18 member states already and would complete his tour of national capitols by end January. He had regular dialogue with MEPs and the sherpas of the Heads of State as well as the ECB, EIB, Europol, ECY, CoR and EcoSoc. His Task Force would grow to 30 experts in all policies and they and the relevant DGs had screened all existing EU laws (the acquis communautaire) to identify the issues that would need to be discussed during the negotiations. When Article 50 was triggered they would be ready!
He acknowledged that time would be short and in reality they would have less than 18 months to negotiate, taking account of the time needed at the start for the European Council to set guidelines and 5-6 months at the end for the ratification process in the Council, EP and British parliament. This meant agreement would need to be reached by October 2018. He acknowledged that this would mean the UK would have departed before the June 2019 EP elections.
The principles guiding the negotiations would remain those set out by the 27, namely:
- Preserve the unity of the EU
- No 3rdcountry can have the same rights and benefits as a member of the EU
- No negotiation before notification
- 4 freedoms are indivisible – no cherry-picking
He also stressed that the Commission would respect the specific role and added value of each of the EU institutions and they would be at the disposal of the member states and European Council and work constructively with the EP.
Article 50 made clear that the orderly exit of the UK should take account of the future relationship between the UK and EU – what he called the new partnership. He would not speculate on what that partnership could be as that depended first on what the UK proposed and then what the EU27 was prepared to accept. What was clear is that this would be an agreement with a 3rd country, so signed after the UK had left and with a different legal nature than the withdrawal agreement.
He was asked if a transitional period would be an aim of the negotiations and replied that again depended on what future relationship the UK asked for. A transitional period could only be useful if it eased the path towards the new partnership. When asked about ideas floating about of the UK paying for some access to the single market, he pointed to the Norwegian model where access was accompanied by contributions to the EU budget – this is the closest model without actually being a member. He did not recognise the terms “hard” or “soft” Brexit – Brexit meant withdrawal in a clear and ordered manner in line with the Council guidelines.
He acknowledged the concerns in Ireland about the need to avoid the return of a hard border and pointed to his spell as Regional Affairs Commissioner in the Prodi Commission where he had been involved in the peace programme in Northern Ireland to support the Good Friday agreement. He would do everything in his power to preserve the success of that process.