The EU will respect British sovereignty, and Britain must respect ours
On 31 January, the sovereign and democratic choice of the British people came into force. Brexit happened; it is now behind us. What did not happen, though, to our mutual relief, is a much-dreaded “cliff-edge”, “hard Brexit”, or “no deal”. In spite of all the drama of the past months, we managed to find a compromise together.
Now that the UK has “got Brexit done” I hope that, after such political and media passion, we can go back to reason and restore enough trust in our partnership to build an ambitious relationship. Now that the United Kingdom has left the EU, it has to deal with another fully sovereign power: the European Union. Now that the political phase of Brexit is over, our citizens, our businesses deserve a more pragmatic approach.
When we hear Boris Johnson explain with much emphasis how he intends to “take back control”, regain leeway and make UK interests prevail, how should we Europeans respond? Just like British politicians, our responsibility as European public decision-makers is to protect our citizens, who are legitimately concerned about the impact of Brexit.
Our 47-year proximity is, and will remain, de facto, a “special relationship”. The UK may seek to develop such ties elsewhere, but the bottom line is that our mutual relationship is irreplaceable. The UK companies I meet tell me just that. They do not want to sever their ties with the EU internal market and its 450 million consumers.
How do we meet the expectations of our citizens and industries? In choosing Brexit, the UK unilaterally decided to withdraw from the single market and from many European Union policies. Again it is your choice, but this choice comes with consequences.
Like any free trade agreement between sovereign partners, our future relationship has to be a balance of rights and obligations. Unfettered access to the single market can only be granted if balanced by a series of guarantees to maintain fair competition.
This is not ideological. Our aim is not to constrain UK sovereignty. Our aim is to provide fair competition to our companies, especially in the fiscal, social, environmental and agricultural domains. To put it bluntly, you do not want American chlorinated chicken entering your market, and we do not want it either.
If we want to achieve this together, first do not underestimate our unity as sovereign Europeans. I am not addressing you today as a French minister, but as a European voicing a European position. The 27 member states did not accept any “cherry-picking” or “mini-deals” from the UK side during the first phase of the talks. We stand and will stand behind chief negotiator Michel Barnier on this. The only way to reach a fair agreement is to deal with the EU as a whole.
Likewise, we think sustainability is more important than deadlines, and we will be very vigilant about including a sound governance mechanism, to mitigate any potential future violations. We will not lower our level of ambition to meet an artificial deadline. The 10-month deadline is only relevant in terms of the British political agenda. For Europeans, substance is more important than deadlines.
From now on, what we need most is mutual trust. It is a precondition for everything else. To us, an important signal in the coming months will be the implementation of the withdrawal agreement, including citizens’ rights, the Northern Ireland protocol and effective controls in the Irish Sea. We are talking about an international treaty: I have no doubt that the UK will fulfil its commitments.
We French are among your closest European neighbours. Take this other “special relationship” as an opportunity to build the UK-EU partnership. Let’s not create fake oppositions, let’s not revive artificial fights through the media. Our shared history shows just how much our two nations can achieve when we work together. Without the joint steering forces of France and the UK, we would never have had the Channel Tunnel or Airbus. On both sides of the Channel, we need to make sure that having such common ambitions will be possible in the future.
• Amélie de Montchalin is France’s secretary of state for European affairs
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