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Speeches by President Juncker and Chief Negotiator Barnier at the Plenary session of the European Parliament on the occasion of the debate on the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the EU

Brussels, 30 January 2019

Speech by President Jean-Claude Juncker

Mr. President,

Honourable Members,

In less than 60 days, the United Kingdom is due to leave the European Union. This is a bad decision, as I find.

Even as the Commission has defended the interests of the European Union, this spirit of respect and friendship has accompanied us at every step in these negotiations. The Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration agreed by all 27 Leaders and the United Kingdom government is the result of that. The Withdrawal Agreement remains the best and only deal possible.

The European Union said so in November. We said so in December. We said so after the first meaningful vote in the Commons in January. The debate and votes in the House of Commons yesterday do not change that. The Withdrawal Agreement will not be renegotiated.

Both sides have said loud and clear that there can be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland. No slipping back into darker times past. I believe the Prime Minister’s personal commitment on this point. But I also believe that we need a safety net that secures us against this risk. We have no incentive nor desire to use the safety net. But at the same time, no safety net can ever truly be safe if it can just be removed at any time.

Sometimes, from time to time, I have the impression that some hope that the 26 other countries will abandon the backstop and so Ireland at the last minute. But this is not a game. And neither is it a simple bilateral issue. It goes to the heart of what being a member of the European Union means. Ireland’s border is Europe’s border – and it is our Union’s priority.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We know from yesterday’s debate that the House of Commons is against many things. It is against a no-deal Brexit. It is against the backstop. But we still do not know what exactly the House of Commons is actually for.

The concept of ‘alternative arrangements’ is not new. It was discussed in the negotiations. It is referred to in the Political Declaration. And in our letter to Prime Minister May, Donald Tusk and I committed to exploring it further as a matter of priority. But a concept is not a plan. It is not an operational solution. Many in the House of Commons – both among those who voted for and those who voted against the amendment – are aware of this.

I will continue to be in close contact with Prime Minister May – for whom I have the greatest respect – and I will listen to her ideas. But I will also be extremely clear about the position of the European Union, that I have presented to you today.

Translated from French by Google Translate

Mister President, Ladies and gentlemen, Let me make it clear that the vote yesterday increased the risk of a disordered withdrawal from the UK. We must continue to do everything to prepare for all scenarios, including the worst.

The Commission started its preparatory work in December 2017. And in recent weeks, in close cooperation with your Parliament, Mr President, we have accelerated our preparations. I sent a team to each capital to help the Member States to be ready. The European Council has supported this work from the beginning.

We have so far published 88 notifications showing the consequences of Brexit in different areas as well as 18 proposals or legislative acts. The last three proposals on the Erasmus program, social security and the European Union budget have been adopted and presented today. I would like to thank all the Members of Parliament who are concerned to ensure that we reach early agreements on these proposals and on all outstanding urgent issues.

It is more important than ever that the European Union remains calm, united and determined as it has been throughout this process. In this work, we must follow a golden rule: we must not duplicate the benefits of the withdrawal agreement or the political declaration.

Dear colleagues,

I am – and still am – an optimist by nature, and a believer in democratic institutions by conviction. This leads me to believe that there can and will be agreement with the United Kingdom so that we can move on and move forward together with our new partnership.

We will work day and night to make it happen – and to ensure that we are ready in case it does not. Whichever way, I will always ensure that this House is the first to know and the last to decide.

Thank you.


Translated from French by Google Translate

Speech by Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier

Mister President,

Ladies and gentlemen,

Madam Secretary of State,

Thank you, Mr President, for once again allowing me to express myself in front of you and thus, day by day, to consolidate, alongside President Juncker, the climate of trust, the transparency, the dialogue that we have built with you and in particular with the Brexit Steering Group chaired by Guy Verhofstadt, with a meeting almost every week.

Yesterday, for the first time, Prime Minister Theresa May openly argued for a reopening of the exit agreement.

Even before the late evening votes, she had distanced herself from the agreement she had negotiated and agreed to.

The UK Government has also made explicit support for the amendment submitted by Sir Graham Brady, which calls for the replacement of the backstop, which we have provided for in the Irish protocol, by alternative arrangements, which have not no time has been defined.

At the same time, the House of Commons rejected the scenario of a no deal, without any details on how to avoid such a scenario.

This is the situation in which we find ourselves this afternoon, in the course of this very long and extraordinary negotiation, and at a certain moment, which I want to describe as serious and very serious.

President Tusk last night, President Juncker at the moment recalled that we share the will of the British Parliament to avoid a no deal. I agree with Theresa May: voting against a deal does not eliminate the risk of a deal.

For us, the withdrawal agreement is and remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal from the United Kingdom and to implement, in an orderly fashion, the sovereign decision of a majority of British citizens, and that we respect, to leave the European Union.

And I think we can achieve that goal, as long as we are realistic and lucid, respectful and responsible, one with the other, with each other.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The backstop is part of the withdrawal agreement and this agreement will not be renegotiated.

The conclusions of the December European Council – which go hand in hand with the declarations and resolutions of the European Parliament – leave no room for doubt on this point.

This backstop is not dogmatism, it is a realistic solution. We have sought throughout this negotiation, under your control, solutions to the problem created in particular in Ireland by the Brexit itself.

The backstop – as it appears in the withdrawal agreement – is the result of extremely intense negotiations over the past two years, by us with the United Kingdom, never against the United Kingdom.

The backstop is a pragmatic response to the unique situation on the island of Ireland, after the United Kingdom has decided to leave the European Union, its single market and its customs union.

Two years were needed to find this solution that reconciles several requirements.

The first requirement for all of us is to avoid the return of a hard border in Ireland, that is, to preserve the conditions of peace, stability and dialogue that exist on the Ireland since signing the Good Friday Agreement. I recall that the United Kingdom has confirmed its commitment as co-sponsor of this agreement. And for twenty years now, we have been accompanied by the PEACE program, by European law, by European policies, by the European budget, by the good success of this cooperation between the communities.

The second requirement is the British government’s desire to keep Northern Ireland and Great Britain in a single customs territory.

The third requirement, obviously ours, for which we are collectively responsible, is the preservation of the integrity of the internal market.

Ladies and gentlemen,

This last point is fundamental: the Irish border will become, by the British will, the border of the European Union and the internal market. This will be our new external border. What is at stake is the protection of all consumers and businesses in the Union.

The British decision to leave the Union, the single market and the customs union has a practical consequence: any product entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain, between not only Northern Ireland and Ireland, but also Ireland, but also in the single market, in your countries. Security requires tax, health, veterinary and regulatory controls, which we do at each of our external borders, throughout the European Union. We owe this protection to consumers and all those who live the internal market.

And among those who ask for the removal of the backstop, there are British parliamentarians, who have yet negotiated with us, and who know perfectly well that the backstop is the solution we found to respond to what is the heart of our principles, that is the protection of the European internal market, in all its dimensions. I can not accept the blame game they would like to play against us.

I would like to say after President Juncker that we will do nothing to weaken the internal market. We will not do anything to undermine the future of the European Union.

As the President has said, we are, however, open to the alternative arrangements that were yesterday raised by the House of Commons yesterday.

The Irish Protocol and the political declaration mention them. Presidents Tusk and Juncker’s letter even makes it a priority in future negotiations. We are ready to work on it immediately after the signing of the withdrawal agreement.

But today, no one – on either side – is able to say precisely, in a clear way, what the nature of these alternative arrangements would be for them to be operational and to fulfill actually the goals of the backstop.

That’s why, at this point in time and with respect to the withdrawal agreement, we need this backstop as it is.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Rejecting the backstop as it is today is tantamount to rejecting the solution that was found with the British, but the problem remains.

On this point and beyond the question of the alternative arrangements I have just mentioned, both the European Council and the European Parliament have, on a number of occasions, clearly rejected the idea of ​​a time limit or a unilateral exit from the backstop since such ideas would distort the very idea of ​​a backstop, which is an assurance, that we do not wish to use, but who is there if we need it.

I would add, finally, that the withdrawal agreement goes well beyond the Irish question:

It secures the rights of more than 4.5 million citizens. President Tajani, you mentioned the priority of Parliament, we made it ours, and whatever happens, the security of citizens’ rights will remain our priority.

It protects all the beneficiaries of the European budget by ensuring that the commitments made at 28 will be financed at 28;

It puts in place a 21-month transition period during which companies and administrations, on both sides, can prepare for what will be our future relationship and during which we will have time to negotiate this future relationship.

This agreement is the prerequisite for building the trust we need between the United Kingdom, which will remain a friendly, allied, partner country, and the European Union.

With regard to the future relationship, the Europeans are ready and will be ready in the coming days to be more ambitious and to rework the nature and intensity of our future economic relationship in particular. There are several possible models of economic cooperation with third countries, which we are ready to explore in accordance with European principles and the balance of rights and obligations. If the British demand went beyond a simple free trade agreement to one or the other of these models, we are immediately ready to discuss it, as you said in your resolutions and as the has already said the European Council.

But within 60 days of the date of exit from the United Kingdom and in the absence today of a positive majority in the United Kingdom in favor of a solution identified and acceptable by the European Union, it is urgent to prepare ourselves for all scenarios and to put in place the contingency measures more than ever necessary and this is the work that has been entrusted by President Juncker to the Secretary General of the Commission and to all the teams that work with you.


Compliments of the European Commission