Skip to main content

As the EU-27 prepare for the European Council meeting on 29 April which will set the negotiating mandate for the forthcoming talks with the UK Government, the European Commission’s Chief Negotiator, Michel Barnier, has given an insight into his approach to the demanding task to be undertaken by himself and his carefully assembled Brexit Task Force.


Financial Times

In a wide ranging Financial Times article on 26 March, Michel Barnier gave some insights into the Brexit preparations in the EU, and the general attitude towards the negotiations.

On the overall tone of the talks, which itself has been the topic of much speculation, Mr. Barnier insisted that the EU negotiators would be fair yet firm in defending the interests of the union of 27 Member States.

He also explicitly addressed Theresa May’s view that ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, noting that the no-deal scenario would have severe consequences for all parties:

It goes without saying that a no-deal scenario, while a distinct possibility, would have severe consequences for our people and our economies. It would undoubtedly leave the UK worse off […] We believe it is in the best interests of both sides to reach a deal on the UK’s orderly withdrawal from the EU. It is the only way to properly protect the rights of EU citizens.”

He further wrote that reaching an agreement with the UK will depend on the unity of the 27.  “This is not just a matter of interest for the remaining member states. At the end of the day, the UK will need the EU to agree jointly to a deal. Therefore a united EU is essential for the UK to get a deal.”



Most usefully, Mr. Barnier elaborated on the envisaged timetable for the talks with the UK.

His team expect the negotiations to be divided into three phases, spread over a period of fifteen months between June 2017 and October 2018.  The three phases are as follows:

1.      disentangling past ties and commitments;

2.      setting goals for future relations; and

3.      arranging transition terms to avoid unnecessary disruption.


The first phase is expected to last from June to December 2017 and will deal with key issues such as the already controversial ‘exit bill’; citizens’ rights; and, possibly, the Irish agenda.

The second phase, dependent on progress and agreement in the first, should last from January to June 2018 with the objective of reaching a broad agreement on future relations, in particular on the elements of a post-exit free trade arrangement.

The third phase would follow in July 2018 and last until October 2018 and would focus on the transition deal required to avoid disruption – Mr. Barnier has noted in particular the need to avoid disruption to air travel, customs and immigrations, and supply chains for business – and damaging uncertainty.

This timetable would ensure that there will be time to complete ratification prior to the 2019 European Parliament elections and to stay within the two-year deadline for withdrawal laid down in Article 50. He has made it clear that there must be agreement on the ‘orderly withdrawal’ of the UK before negotiation of a future trade deal: “The sooner we agree on these principles, the more time we will have to discuss our future partnership.”


Michel Barnier speech at the European Parliament

On 5 April 2017 the European Parliament adopted a comprehensive Resolution on the Brexit negotiations (a previous IIEA blog addresses the Resolution in depth). The text warns against any trade-off between security and the future EU-UK economic relationship, opposes any sort of cherry picking or a piecemeal economic relationship based on sector-specific deals, and reiterates the indivisibility of the four freedoms of the single market – free movement of goods, capital, services, and people.

Of note to Mr. Barnier’s timetable above, the Parliament’s Resolution says that only when “substantial progress” has been made in talks on how the UK is to leave the EU can discussions begin on possible transitional arrangements. These arrangements must not last longer than three years, while an agreement on a future relationship can only be concluded once the UK has left the EU

Speaking to the Parliament following the adoption of the Resolution, Michel Barnier told MEPs that the Resolution had set the tone by speaking to the British government, the governments of the 27 but also to European citizens, making it clear that there was a shared objective: “to succeed in this negotiation – that means reaching an agreement.”  For that to happen, there were three pre-conditions:

1.      unity;

2.      removing uncertainty;

3.      doing things in the right order and putting them into perspective.

On the issue of Unity, as pointed out in the March Financial Times piece, is essential since “at the end of the day if the Union is disunited, there simply will not be an agreement […] if there is no agreement, the consequences will be heavy, for the United Kingdom especially, but also for the Union. That is why the no deal scenario is not our scenario. Our ambition must be to succeed.”

Barnier then argued that” for this to happen, we must explain what we are doing and why we are doing it. That is our duty towards citizens. We must say what Brexit means, something that has not always been done. We will negotiate in a transparent manner. This extraordinary negotiation must not be a secret.”

Removing uncertainty is also crucial – for citizens, for the beneficiaries of the European budget, and for the Union’s borders, especially in Ireland.

On the final point of ‘doing things in the right order and putting them into perspective’, Mr. Barnier is clear that adopting parallel negotiations with the UK on the withdrawal and future relationship would be unwise:

The UK letter makes clear that the UK Government will push for parallel negotiations on the withdrawal and on the future relationship.  This is a very risky approach. To succeed, we need on the contrary to devote the first phase of negotiations exclusively to reaching an agreement on the principles of the exit.

Michel Barnier concluded by speaking directly to the assembled MEPs on their vital role in the ratification of the agreement: “To conclude, a word on our common work.  President Juncker said that in this negotiation, your role will be essential from the beginning to the end. The end will be your vote on the draft withdrawal agreement, which we will negotiate over the coming two years. You will have the final word.”


Barnier and Ireland

Michel Barnier, a former Commissioner for Regional Policy who is greatly familiar with the Northern Ireland issues, has made clear his personal commitment to finding a positive outcome of the negotiations insofar as they have an impact on the island of Ireland:

I think particularly of Ireland. I have been Commissioner in charge of the PEACE programme. I understand the Union’s role in strengthening dialogue in Northern Ireland and supporting the Good Friday Agreement, of which the United Kingdom is one of the guarantors.  That is why we will be – and I will be – particularly attentive, in these negotiations, to the consequences of the UK’s decision to leave the Customs Union, and to anything that may, in one way or another, weaken dialogue and peace.




Michel Barnier faces a daunting task. The timetable he has indicated and the scheduling of phases in the negotiation will succeed only if his undoubted experience and skills are matched by a remarkable mixture of good will and good luck. The results of the French,   German and, now, UK elections and the likelihood of the acquiescence of the UK side on sequenced rather than simultaneous discussion of exit terms and future relations will be crucial.

It is clear that he has approached his unprecedented mission with clarity of purpose and with a deep conviction that “the UK and the EU share common values and interests” which can provide the basis for a successful outcome.