BRUSSELS – The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator warned Wednesday of “serious consequences for everyone” if Britain walks away without agreement from negotiations on leaving the 28-nation bloc.
Outlining his plans in detail for the first time, Michel Barnier told lawmakers in Brussels that there could be “total uncertainty” if no deal is clinched by March 2019.
British Prime Minister Theresa May said she plans to officially trigger two years of negotiations on March 29. But the talks are only likely to get seriously underway in late May, and must conclude by October 2018 to leave time for any deal to be endorsed by the EU’s institutions and national parliaments.
Barnier insisted he would negotiate in good faith to ensure that a mutually acceptable agreement is reached, and said that “this scenario of ‘no deal’ is not ours.” Some U.K. officials have said Britain could simply walk away if it’s not happy with the results.
Barnier said no deal could leave four million European and British citizens uncertain about their rights and future, result in the reintroduction of strict customs rules, create air traffic chaos to and from Britain and lead to the suspension of exports of nuclear materials.
The former French government minister said the talks will be transparent and open, saying that “these negotiations cannot take place in secret.” This is the first time that a country has left the bloc, which this weekend is celebrating 60 years since its original formation.
“It’s not a small event, it is a situation that is grave and exceptional,” Barnier said.
Britain voted to leave the EU in a referendum last June but the actual exit discussions can only start once May has triggered the so-called Article 50 of the EU Treaty.
The EU’s Brexit envoy also warned that for the negotiations to succeed, things must be done in the correct order. That would mean agreeing first on the principles for Britain’s orderly departure before starting to talk about future relations between them.
“If we push the difficult subjects back to the end, we run the risk of failure,” Barnier said.
The British government has said it wants to negotiate a new trade deal while the talks are going on, but Barnier said a free trade agreement would be negotiated “when the time comes.”
Any deal, he said, would have to be seen to be worse than Britain’s current arrangements within the EU. Britain, he added, would not be allowed to cherry-pick the best bits of membership.
“We will therefore be vigilant,” he said.
Barnier said the first aim of the negotiations would be to end uncertainty for EU and British students and pensioners abroad, as well as health care workers in the U.K.
The EU’s watchword, he said, will be “citizens first.”
Barnier insisted that Britain will face no punishment for leaving, but that “we must settle the accounts. We will not ask the British to pay a single euro for something they have not agreed to as a member.”
Some estimates suggest the EU wants Britain to pay a hefty divorce bill of up to 60 billion euros ($64 billion), to cover EU staff pensions and other expenses the U.K. has committed to. Britain hasn’t ruled out paying, but is expected to contest the bill.