Guy Verhofstadt, chief Brexit representative for the European parliament, appeared before the Committee for Exiting the European Union. I asked him about the Irish border, and EEA and EFTA.
Stephen Kinnock: The British media today is reporting the draft conclusions of the 29 June European Council summit, where the European Council is saying it expresses its concern that no substantial progress has yet been achieved on agreeing a backstop solution for the Irish border. Do you think that the 29 June summit is going to make any significant or substantial progress at all, in terms of these Brexit negotiations?
Guy Verhofstadt: The progress is what I have indicated in the beginning. That is that common statement that has been made by Mr Davis and Mr Barnier, yesterday, I think, where they indicate the progress in the withdrawal agreement in seven specific fields. I do not expect more than that, no, to be realistic.
Stephen Kinnock: This issue of the Irish border seems to be the fundamental stumbling block, not least because it connects the withdrawal agreement to the political declaration. It is the umbilical cord between the two. The European Parliament has advocated an association agreement. Do you see an association agreement being a basis for resolving the Irish border issue?
Guy Verhofstadt: An association agreement does not solve all problems, naturally. An association agreement is a framework in which you can create a relationship based on one governance, one ratification cycle, with democratic institutions covering everything that you want. It is not a miracle. You cannot say, “We have an association agreement and now the border issue between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic is solved”.
You still need to decide on the content, on what you put in the trade and economic pillar of the association agreement. What will it be: single market, customs union, EEA, less than EEA, only a bespoke trade deal? You still need to fill that in in such an association agreement. An association agreement does not take away the hard political choices that have to be made between the two negotiating parties, but it creates a framework that is foreseen in the treaties, that is understandable, creating governance structures to manage this future relationship between both.
Stephen Kinnock: Is time not a major factor here? The reality is that we have a very narrow, and narrowing every day, window of opportunity. The reality for resolving the Irish border issue is now there has to be an off-the-shelf solution, and that has to be the EEA plus a customs union. Is it not now just time to inject some honesty into this discussion and recognise that is the only realistic solution on the table?
Guy Verhofstadt: It is for you to conclude on that, not for me to conclude on that. If the UK had no red lines then I see it is very easy to find the single market as the solution, for example. That is for you to decide on this. Even when I have understood it I do not know if it is true. People said to me, “Do not use the word ‘EEA’”. I said, “Why can I not use the word ‘EEA’”? “That is a toxic word in Britain”. A toxic word? Are there other toxic words in Britain?
Stephen Kinnock: It has the word “Europe” in it. It contains the word “Europe”. That is why.
Guy Verhofstadt: Is the word “Europe” also toxic?
Stephen Kinnock: Yes. Stay away from that.
Guy Verhofstadt: Then I have to go out. Again, from the European Union side, there is no problem talking about any solution that is put forward by the British side. It can go until the single market and so on. We want as close a relationship as possible. If your question is, if the British Government come forward with a proposal where they mix, merge a little bit some policies, an approach like EEA with, for example, a customs union, would there be opposition from the European Union, there would be no opposition and no problem with the European Union.
The problem is not the European Union. The problem is how you marry the red lines of the UK with what Michel Barnier is always calling the ecosystem of the European Union—the rule-based system of the Union. You cannot ask us to have a fantastic solution that gives up our system. We will not do that.
Stephen Kinnock: Going back to the idea of the association agreement, one of the criticisms levelled at the European Economic Area is this thing about going from being a rule-maker to a rule-taker. Is it not the case that, under an association agreement, that would be even more problematic?
The EEA countries do actually participate in the shaping of European regulations and directives through expert committees and through the EEA joint committee. You also have the EFTA court. These are well established institutions, whereas with an association agreement you have far less of a stake and far weaker leverage, in terms of the actual making and shaping of the acquis.
Guy Verhofstadt: My answer to this is that the association agreement has an enormous flexibility. You can put a lot of fields in it or only limit yourself to one or another field.
Second, you will put in place a governance system where we will have a governance structure between the UK and the EU on senior level, on ministerial level and on leadership level. It will be a bespoke system where we will have two times a year, one time a year—I do not know—a summit between the EU and the UK, or we have joint association councils between Ministers, British Ministers and EU Ministers responsible for the European Union, governing that agreement, and at the same line on the level of senior officials. It is not possible to compare it immediately, saying, “It is that type or that type of influence that the UK side will have”. It is bespoke.
Stephen Kinnock: What you are setting out sounds very attractive in terms of its bespoke nature. Do you think that it is realistic that we would have the leverage, given how little time there is and how much goodwill has been burned already, to create something new—to, if you like, pull a rabbit out of the hat?
I think that is what you are suggesting really: that is you can have a very wide-ranging association agreement in draft format in the political declaration, and that Members of Parliament here would then be expected to vote for that, in the hope that we would then be able to strike a deal that both gives us the kind of access to the single market that we want but also deals with this issue of sovereignty and being a rule-maker or rule-taker. What you are talking about here sounds attractive but vague.
Guy Verhofstadt: It is not a rabbit out of the hat now. I should say the rabbit is already a long time out of the hat, because we have already, months and months and months ago, said that an association agreement was the way forward; that is the first thing. Secondly, we are very precise in our resolution of how it would work. Yesterday, in this intervention in Vienna before the Fundamental Rights Agency, I gave more details about the governance structure of such an agreement.
If you go along that line, the main attractive point is that you have then a system where you have one governance and one ratification cycle to manage all this, instead of what, in my opinion, would be a disaster. That is that we follow the Swiss example in our future relationship and we are making 10, 20 or—I do not know—100 deals. Some are mixed, others not mixed, and we would enter into a period of two types of uncertainty about the ratification of all this. We are law-makers. You are law-makers. We need to be very prudent on that. We need to have a system that works from day one. There the association agreement solves it, but it does not solve all the problems.
We still need to have a discussion on how far co-operation on trade and economic matters will go. There, you have the different types and proposals and possibilities that you have mentioned in your intervention. It does not solve all the problems but it creates an understandable and comprehensive framework in which, in my opinion, it will be easier for both parties to come to a conclusion, rather than turning around the principles and turning round, little rounds, around the red lines.
Stephen Kinnock: I have one final question. Have you received any specific feedback on that proposal from the UK Government?
Guy Verhofstadt: I am told that a number of people see the advantage of it and the logic behind it. As you are, I am waiting for the White Paper from the Government to see if it has made any progress.