Meeting with Michel Barnier, European Commission Chief Negotiator

The big news from today’s European Parliament Plenary session is undoubtedly the election of a new President to succeed the outgoing Martin Schultz. From an Irish perspective, however, arguably the bigger news vis-a-viz Europe was the Theresa May speech on Brexit.

It was significant then that even as the vote to elect the new president was going through the motions, 11 Irish MEPs held a meeting with the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, Frenchman Michael Barnier.

Present were Independents Luke Ming Flanagan, Marian Harkin and Nessa Childers, along with four Sinn Féin MEPs (Lynn Boylan, Liadh Ní Riada, Martina Anderson and Matt Carthy) and four the four Fine Gael representatives (Deirdre Clune, Brian Hayes, Sean Kelly and Mairéad McGuinness).

While Mr Barnier afterwards expressed his satisfaction with the meeting, Luke Ming Flanagan was far less impressed.

‘Our focus obviously was on the effect Brexit was likely to have on Ireland, on our trade with Britain and of course on the border. On the trade negotiations, one point stands out for me: the UK is told that they can’t have a free trade agreement without having an agreement on free movement of people but given that the same European Commission is in the process of pushing CETA through the ratification process, how can that be the case? The CETA deal involves free movement of trade, the removal of all barriers, but it does NOT include the free movement of people between the EU and Canada. Why then can’t a similar deal be reached with the UK, which is a much bigger economy and is a hell of a lot closer to Europe and especially, to Ireland? Is it because people like Michel Barnier are negotiating on the basis of spite, of trying to exact revenge on the UK, of trying to make an example of them so that others won’t try to do the same thing, and leave the EU, in particular his own country, France, where Marie Le Pen is threatening to take them out of the eurozone at a minimum if she wins the upcoming elections? Time will tell on that but time will also tell on whether the EU actually gives a damn about Ireland and all the negative effects a hard negotiation would have on us’.

MEP Flanagan also had serious misgivings about Mr Barnier’s reluctance to accept any responsibility for the UK vote on Brexit.

‘On three occasions Mr Barnier stated that we – the EU – were not responsible for Brexit, which suggested to me that he was blaming the breakup entirely on the UK. I don’t agree with that. If one partner in any relationship becomes more and more dominant and domineering, if that dominant partner keeps on assuming more and more rights and responsibilies for itself – as the EU is doing with all Member States – then surely, when the other partner says ‘enough!’, they have to look at themselves? If the EU won’t do that, if Mr Barnier can’t see that it too has to share the blame for this, if he won’t admit that the European Commission drive for ever-closer union was what tipped this vote over the edge, then I think we’re in trouble.’

Of final concern for Mr Flanagan was the statement by Mr Barnier that there will be no negotiations in advance of Article 50 being triggered. If that’s just for public consumption, if in fact negotiations are even now being held behind the scenes, fine; butif – as appears to be the case – Mr Barnier is actually serious in what he says, then again, even more trouble.

‘Something needs to be done far in advance of this – that’s just simple common sense. I had begun to despair of ever seeing peace in the Six Counties but right through the 90s, even as every official in Westminster and in Whitehall was denying that any talks were taking place, we all know what was happening. And that HAD to happen, that was a major reason why we eventually had the Good Friday Agreement. Let Mr Barnier continue to say that but in the background, he’s GOT to be talking to London, he’s got to be talking to Dublin, he’s got to be talking to Belfast, so that when Article 50 is finally triggered a lot of the groundwork will already be done. In the meeting I articulated all these concerns; whether he takes note of it or not, I don’t know. During the meeting he used phrases like ‘no aggression, no punishment, no threats. If we’re to believe all that then you would be encouraged, but do I believe that? Do I believe the EU will now just deal with the UK as a potential major trading partner without adding the qualification of freedom of movement for people, and that Ireland will be treated as a special case? I'm afraid I don’t.’

EuropePaul Cotter