WARSAW — If Britain wants a customs union, the EU is ready to make a deal, the bloc’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said Friday.
Speaking to the College of Europe campus in Warsaw, Barnier appeared to nod to the indicative votes in the House of Commons on Wednesday in which eight different Brexit options failed to gain a majority but a proposal for a customs union came closest, losing by just six votes: 271 to 265.
A customs union, in which the U.K. and EU would maintain a common trade policy and external tariffs, would largely solve the problem on the Northern Ireland border and eliminate the need for the controversial “backstop” provision that has spurred opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement in the British parliament.
Noting that the EU has already agreed to “an ambitious future relationship based on the limits set by U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, Barnier said: “We are ready to be even more ambitious should the U.K.’s red-lines evolve. For instance, we are open to work on the principle of a permanent customs union should the U.K. decide to take this path.”
With the House of Commons set to vote again on the Withdrawal Agreement on Friday afternoon — and most analysts predicting another defeat — Barnier warned pointedly that a no-deal result is still a very real scenario. He referenced the decision by EU27 leaders last week to extend until May 22 the original March 29 Brexit deadline but only if the U.K. ratifies the deal by the end of today. If not, the new exit date is April 12.
Click Here: Italy Football Shop
“The U.K. should indicate a way forward before the 12th of April,” Barnier said. “Let me be frank: Without a positive choice, the default option would be a no-deal, which has become more likely. It was never our scenario, but the EU27 is now prepared.”
Barnier urged British MPs to take a decision. “The debate in the House of Commons continues,” he said. “We are following carefully, very carefully. What we now need is a positive choice to move forward and this is the responsibility of each and every member of the House of Commons to tell what they want.”
In a question-and-answer session, Barnier acknowledged that a no-deal departure by the U.K. would not be a clean break but would inevitably entail further negotiations.
On Thursday, diplomats said that in the event of a no-deal outcome, the EU is prepared to set strict preconditions to any future free-trade agreement with Britain, including to some key provisions of the Withdrawal Agreement, such as payments into the EU’s long-term budget through 2020 and safeguards against the recreation of a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.
“A no deal is not a final stage,” Barnier said in response to a question from POLITICO’s Ryan Heath. “The U.K. will become a third country in a disorderly way. There will be a lack of trust as a consequence.”
He added: “Sometime later the U.K. will knock on the doors of the EU saying that they need a free-trade agreement … and we’ll be able and ready to discuss it with them.”
CORRECTION: This article was changed on April 1 to correct some of the vote tallies for and against the customs union option. The original article correctly stated the figures as announced immediately after the vote, but Commons speaker John Bercow subsequently corrected the parliamentary record.