The EU's chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, attended the 540th plenary session of the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) to outline the EU's views on possible changes to the Brexit deal and to discuss the agreement and possible future scenarios with representatives of European civil society.
EESC president Luca Jahier congratulated Mr Barnier for the work done and underlined that although the UK would become a third country after Brexit, it could never be like other third countries after more than 40 years of EU membership. "We are strongly committed to UK civil society. The EESC is well prepared for any future scenario and will consolidate its relationship with our British counterparts."
At the beginning of his speech, Mr Barnier underlined that "Europe needs to be prepared for a 'no-deal' scenario. This is more important than ever. Even though I still hope that we can avoid this scenario."
The withdrawal agreement was drawn up, step by step, together with the UK, over 18 months of negotiations. Mr Barnier stated that, while it was important to respect the current debate in the UK, his responsibility was to highlight what was at stake, namely two possible scenarios:
- an orderly withdrawal on the basis of the 585-page agreement, negotiated step by step with the UK, or
- a disorderly withdrawal, which was the default scenario.
"While there seems to be a majority in the House of Commons opposing 'no-deal', opposing 'no deal' will not stop 'no deal' from happening, unless a majority for another solution emerges", the chief negotiator warned.
Whatever the outcome, the representatives of organized civil society will have a decisive role in raising awareness among citizens.
During the debate, EESC members called for a firm stance on the 'backstop', which some highlighted as being the second-best solution for Northern Ireland, the first being to remain in the EU.
Mr Barnier stressed that there was no hostility or punishment regarding the negotiations, but that his responsibility was to solve the problems for the EU. "We don't want to use the backstop. It's comparable to your house insurance – you pay it but you wish not to have to use it."
In his speech, Mr Barnier also pointed out that it was the UK that wanted to leave the union and that it was Brexit that was causing problems for Ireland and Northern Ireland. Furthermore, he argued that the backstop was not about trade and goods; it was about people who needed security. And finally, the border in Ireland was also the border of 27 countries and the border of the single market. Goods coming from Northern Ireland went to all European countries. This was therefore a European question.
Concluding the debate, Michel Barnier stated that Brexit had no added value. He also warned "not to confuse the consequences with the lessons of Brexit. Neither should we confuse populism and popular feelings. The worst thing is silence. We need to speak out; we need to open the debate. We may have different opinions, but must keep talking, because populists use silence against Europe."
There was a common agreement during the debate that "no deal" was not desirable since it would be destructive to both the United Kingdom and to the European Union.
Arno Metzler, president of the EESC's Diversity Europe group said: "As the House of European civil society, our first concern is for the welfare of civil society and citizens. For this reason, on 15 February our group will hold a seminar in Belfast to discuss the implications of Brexit for civil society and the peace process. Whatever future relationship between the EU and the UK finally emerges, we must keep the channels of communication with our British counterparts open. We are there for you today, tomorrow and the day after!
The Employers' group, represented by its vice-president Stefano Mallia, emphasised that "a lot of effort has been made to put together a well-balanced and fair Brexit deal. It is clear that a hard Brexit would be bad for both EU businesses and UK businesses. We ask for one final effort to bring this exercise to a successful conclusion. Of course, the UK must also help itself."
Gabi Bischoff, president of the Workers' group agreed that "we cannot allow any illusions, but should be prepared for 'no deal'. For the trade unions it is very important that we make sure workers and businesses in the Union are protected as much as possible."
On paper, Brexit (the UK's exit from the EU) had been sorted out: after months of negotiations, Michel Barnier, the EU's chief negotiator of the UK's divorce from the EU, had reached an agreement with UK Prime Minister Theresa May, an agreement which should have guaranteed both an orderly withdrawal of the UK from the European Union and the start of future close relations – in other words, a divorce in friendship.
However, the 585-page withdrawal agreement failed to win a majority in the British parliament (202 votes in favour to 432 against). The next vote on the divorce paper in the British parliament is scheduled for Tuesday 29 January and Mrs May has promised to come up with an amended deal.