En anglais uniquement! On 4 September 2017, the EP’s Constitutional Affairs Committee (AFCO) held an exchange of views with the EP’s Brexit coordinator, Guy VERHOFSTADT, who updated the committee on the state of play in the Brexit negotiations and the EP’s perspective on the developments. He recalled his idea of tabling a resolution at the October I plenary (on citizens’ rights, Northern Ireland and progress achieved) and announced the publication of a working document with the EP’s comments on citizens’ rights (here). In this area, the right to family reunification and the UK’s plans to have EU citizens submit applications on an individual basis remained key concerns. On two specific issues – protecting the further movement rights of UK citizens inside the EU and the right to participate in local elections – the EP also diverged from the EU’s negotiation position.
Mr VERHOFSTADT referred to the debriefing he had received on the third round of the withdrawal negotiations and noted that the assessment of Mr Barnier had been very clear – until now sufficient progress had not been achieved for being able to proceed to the second phase of the negotiations. He then elaborated on the state of play and EP concerns regarding the different topics on the agenda:
- The Commission and the UK had produced a joint technical note on which comments had been gathered inside the EP from the chairs of JURI, LIBE, EMPL and AFCO, as well as the representatives of the political groups represented in the Brexit steering group (i.e. the groups which had supported the EP’s Brexit resolution). ECR had submitted its own remarks. A document with these comments would be published on the website of the Brexit steering group on Tuesday (here). It would give an overview of the areas where the EP is in agreement and disagreement, not just with the UK side, but also on two specific issues with the current EU negotiating position (the EP supported the protection of existing free movement rights of UK nationals resident in the EU, as well as the right of UK/EU citizens to participate in local elections in their host state).
- In general, the current UK proposal for a settled status covered most of the rights that EU citizens have today, except for the right to family reunification, where improvements were needed. Apart from that, the main problem was not so much the content of the rights, but the way in which the system would work in practice, with the UK side willing to design a system whereby EU citizens would have to submit applications on an individual basis to prove their rights under the withdrawal agreement. The EU side – and certainly the EP – considered that there was a better way of dealing with the matter (considering that EU citizens inherently hold their rights), without creating a huge administrative burden.
- Based on the debriefing from the negotiations, progress has been made on the Common Travel Area and compliance with the Good Friday Agreement. However, it was also clear that on the main topic – how to avoid a hardening of the border compared to the current situation – there is no solution on the table which would be acceptable to both sides.
- No progress at all has been achieved on this issue. More worryingly, the UK in the last negotiation round called into question the legal basis of the EU’s position, with Mr Davis speaking at the press conference with Mr Barnier rather of possible moral obligations. Mr Verhofstadt recalled that the EP had indicated in its resolution that there might be legal obligations going also beyond 2019.
Regarding next steps, Mr Verhofstadt noted that the fourth negotiation round might be postponed to the fourth week of September due to an important intervention by PM May expected on 21 September. As regards the EP, he recalled his plan to propose to the Conference of Presidents tabling a resolution at the October I plenary (3 or 4 October), which would cover citizens’ rights and the question of Northern Ireland, as well as assessing the progress achieved before the fifth round of negotiations and the European Council meeting in October.
Main issues raised during the debate:
- Citizens’ rights: Mr SCHÖPFLIN (EPP, HU) wanted to know how the rights of EU citizens would be upheld and enforced after withdrawal, given the risks inherent in any unilateral system. Mr SCHOLZ (GUE/NGL, DE) stressed the need to provide citizens with certainty as soon as possible. Mr VERHOFSTADT explained in reply that the idea was to guarantee the rights in international law to have guarantees, while recalling – as regards ring-fencing – that the idea was to speed up the negotiations on citizens’ rights, while knowing that formally they would have to be part of the withdrawal agreement.
- Northern Ireland: Ms ANDERSON (GUE/NGL, UK) suggested that the Good Friday Agreement should be inserted as an annex to the withdrawal agreement, while Ms McGUINNESS (EPP, IE) took the view that the issue of the border could only get a satisfactory solution if the UK remained in the single market and customs union. She felt that this should be stated very clearly, despite any negative reactions this would provoke. Mr VERHOFSTADT suggested in reply that such ideas could be included in the forthcoming EP resolution.
- Financial settlement: Ms JAMES (NI, UK) suggested that if the UK’s rebate would be factored in, it would owe the EU only EUR 25 billion. Mr BATTEN (EFDD, UK) argued that the UK owed nothing as a matter of principle and in any case – with the rebate, money spent in the UK and payments until 2019 deducted, it would be quit of any debt by the time of withdrawal. While not commenting on the figures, Mr VERHOFSTADT explained in reply that the EU side had never called the UK rebate into question.
- Other issues: Some MEPs asked about the state of discussions on transitional arrangements and ECJ oversight. In reply, Mr VERHOFSTADT stated that in its resolution the EP had called for an oversight by the ECJ or a system in which the ECJ was involved. He suggested that any agreement in this regard would be very close to these EP demands. He also recalled that the EP had included the idea of transitional arrangements in its resolution and noted that the UK side – not just Labour but also individual members of the Conservative party – were now talking about this possibility. Regarding the transition itself, he took the view that it would have to be mainly – though not completely – what currently exists and the phasing out of these arrangements. There would be no time to develop something completely new.
- General developments: Ms JAMES suggested that the situation was not as gloomy as portrayed in the media, with progress achieved on 8 out of the 11 areas of negotiations. Mr SCHÖPFLIN and Mr CORBETT (S&D, UK) raised worries about a new discourse developing in the UK, with Brussels blamed for inflexibility and blackmailing. Some speakers also felt that public opinion in the UK was not being sufficiently prepared for the need to compromise and to reach a positive outcome.
In his concluding remarks, Mr VERHOFSTADT suggested to come back to the AFCO Committee when the draft resolution was ready.