MEPs endorse EP red lines on Brexit
By Eszter Zalan
The European Parliament on Wednesday (5 April) adopted its position on Brexit, by 516 votes in favour, 133 against, and 50 abstentions, setting out its red lines for the upcoming discussions.
"The UK and Council now know the red lines of the parliament can now take them into account in their negotiations," Belgian liberal MEP Guy Verhodtadt, the parliament's point man on Brexit, told a news conference after the vote.
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The parliament will not directly participate in the talks. However, when the two-year negotiation time-frame comes to an end, the institution is legally required to give its consent for the final Brexit deal. For this reason, the institution's positions will have to be taken into consideration by the negotiators.
Verhofstadt summarised the parliament's position as "citizens first".
MEPs are setting out their red lines and mirroring the principles set out by the EU-27 member states. They are looking to find a swift solution for the rights of EU and UK citizens caught up in Brexit, avoid a hard border in Ireland, and for the UK to settle its financial obligations to the EU.
Among other issues, the parliament states that no bilateral trade agreement is to be discussed by the UK until it has formally left the bloc, and that security cooperation cannot depend on the future agreement between the UK and the EU.
The parliament also proposes that any possible transitional arrangement after Brexit should last for three years.
The resolution goes on to stress that access to the European single market would require participation in the EU budget, as well as the acceptance of the EU's "four freedoms” - the free movement of people, services, goods and capital.
The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, told MEPs that the parliament is setting the tone for the talks, since the resolution is the first institutional political action of the EU in the wake of the UK launching Brexit negotiations last week.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker highlighted the need for a deal.
“A disorderly separation is the worst possible case. No deal would be the worst case scenario for families, business - it means there will be no winners, and everybody will lose,” Juncker said.
“A no deal scenario is not the one we are looking for. We are looking for success, success not against the UK, but with the UK,” Barnier added.
He said it is a "risky" approach by the UK to pursue a parallel negotiation on the divorce and future relationship.
Barnier defended the EU's position on structuring the talks in phases, saying that its pre-condition of concluding the divorce agreement first is not a tactical step, but is instead an effort to build trust.
"The sooner we agree on the principles of an orderly withdrawal, the sooner we can prepare our future relationship," Barnier said.
While the parliament's president, Antonio Tajani, tried to contain the debate before the vote in the plenary, MEPs engaged in a shouting match over Brexit, with Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage accusing the EU of trying to keep the UK hostage.
Manfred Weber, the leader of the centre-right European People’s Party’s group, said that the EU will have a “tough” and united negotiating position.
He said the 27 member states will stand up for the interests of Ireland and Spain - with regard to avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland and clarifying the status of Gibraltar after Brexit.
“Let me tell Spain and Ireland, you won’t have to deal with London alone. […] Irish interests are not just Irish interests, but European interests, and Spanish interests are not only Spanish, but European interests,” Weber told fellow MEPs.
He questioned what kind of Brexit UK prime minister Theresa May was really aiming for.
"May said the UK is not withdrawing from Europe, but the EU is an idea. When the EU foreign ministers are discussing Ukraine, Syria, the UK will be excluded, the UK is walking out of these international discussions,” Weber highlighted.
MEP Helga Stevens from the conservative ECR group, which also includes the UK Conservatives, argued against a “nasty breakup”, and warned that the UK “is an island, not a boat, it will remain where it is, remain one of our key partners."
Verhofstadt recalled that UK's membership of the EU was "never an easy relationship".
Marriage of convenience
“It was never a love affair, it was a marriage of convenience,” Verhofstadt remarked.
He said Brexit was “a catfight in the [UK] Conservative party that got out of hand". He also argued to radically change the EU, as it is not “rescued yet” from the crises.
Anti-EU MEP Nigel Farage retorted by saying that Brexit will make the UK an "independent, democratic country” that governs itself.
The former Ukip leader claimed that "hundreds of millions of people cheered around the world”, when Brexit was officially launched last week.
Farage called the EU’s wish for the UK to pay its previous financial commitments a “ransom demand”, and that the EU should be making an offer to the UK not to leave.
Barnier answered by saying all the EU wants is to settle the accounts.
Farage also claimed that the EU's demands for the UK not to begin trade negotiations with other countries until it has left the bloc has "no basis in Treaty law", and that he trusts the UK government will ignore this.
He accused the EU of being “nasty”, and “vindictive”, and behaving like a Mafia.