President, dear Karl-Heinz Lambertz,
Presidents, Ministers, Mayors, Members of the Committee of the Regions,
On 22 March 2017 I came to talk to you, on this platform, seven days before the notification from the United Kingdom of its decision to leave the European Union that launched these negotiations.
I told you that Brexit would have many human, social, technical, legal, financial and economic consequences.
I also told you about the determination of the team I lead – under President Juncker's authority, and with the expertise of all the Commission's departments, plus the expertise of the Council and the Member States – to reach an agreement on an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom and to prepare the new partnership that we will have to build with it.
And we discussed the conditions for a successful outcome to these negotiations, not against the British but with the British:
- to build and maintain the unity of the 27 through transparency and dialogue;
- to assuage as soon as possible the uncertainties created by the British decision to leave the European Union;
- to put things in order: first the withdrawal that we have to organise and then the future relationship with the United Kingdom.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I presented this method to you almost 21 months ago and we have stuck to it.
Since the start of my mission I have visited each Member State two or three times to meet the government, the national parliament, professional organisations and trade unions.
I have also had the opportunity to visit several regions such as Jutland in Denmark, Flanders, Lower Saxony and Northern Ireland.
We have also built this unity in Brussels, within the College of Commissioners, with the Member States, through a hundred or so meetings at all levels but also through close dialogue with the European Parliament and with the other institutions of the European Union.
Together with the Member States and the European Parliament we have co-built this treaty.
The Committee of the Regions has always been aware of this need for unity and of the conditions for this unity: transparency and public debate, so that everyone can express their point of view and we are able to take account of the specific characteristics of each region.
My team and I have met, in particular, the representatives of many European regions, including the outermost regions, to listen to their concerns and understand them.
On the basis of this unity, this transparency and this public debate, we have been able to define our common priorities.
In the first phase of these negotiations, we were able to resolve some issues that had been identified very early on by your Committee, in particular concerning citizens' rights and the financial settlement.
Throughout these negotiations we have been able – but never in an aggressive way – to reassert the principles of our Union, such as the integrity of the Single Market, the indivisibility of the four freedoms and our decision-making autonomy.
And we have been able, finally, to reach a balanced agreement, which, in view of the difficult circumstances and the complexity of Brexit, is the only and the best agreement possible. This agreement respects our principles, whilst
taking account of the United Kingdom's red lines. It opens the way to an ambitious future relationship, unprecedented in its range of areas of cooperation between us.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
on Sunday 25 November, the European Council endorsed our draft withdrawal agreement and approved the political declaration on the framework of our future relationship.
President Tusk and President Juncker both stressed that this was a serious moment for Europe. It is not a time for any kind of celebration, for these are negative negotiations. There is no added value to Brexit.
But we respect this sovereign choice by the United Kingdom. And the two documents approved ten days ago make it possible for us to limit the negative consequences of Brexit.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The withdrawal agreement provides legal certainty for everyone who is worried about the consequences of the British decision to leave the European Union.
I would like to take five examples that respond to many points that you have raised in your resolutions on Brexit.
1) In March 2017, I told you that citizens' rights were our priority: ‘Citizens first.'
- There are 4.5 million European citizens settled in the United Kingdom and British citizens settled in the EU.
- All of these citizens, as well as those who settle in their country of residence before the end of the transition period will be able to continue to live, work, study and receive benefits there and to bring their families.
2) Brexit poses particular problems in Ireland and in Northern Ireland, which directly concern some of your authorities and some of you personally.
- We are committed to doing our best, ‘our best endeavours', to conclude and ratify a subsequent agreement to resolve these problems by 1 July 2020.
- But since we do not yet have any certainty about the outcome of the negotiations on this future agreement, and in view of our joint commitment to avoid, in any event, a hard border, we have agreed a legally operational backstop, which will make it possible to avoid the return of a hard border, to preserve the North-South cooperation on the island of Ireland and to protect our Single Market. We will do everything we can to not have to use this backstop.
- But it is an element of stability that follows on from the peace process and is in the interest of Northern Ireland, as stated by Northern Irish businesses.
3) For many of your authorities, the budgetary issue was also of significant concern.
- For the current programming period (2014-2020), we agreed that all commitments made as a Union of 28 would be honoured by the 28.
- This provides budgetary stability for your authorities, both in the European Union and in the United Kingdom, and also for the universities, farmers and businesses in your regions that are carrying out projects financed by the European budget.
4) Our withdrawal agreement also provides answers to specific challenges posed by Brexit in many towns and regions in Europe.
- I am thinking, for example, of the 3000 geographical indications that protect the work of our farmers and craftsmen and women in our regions.
- The existing geographical indications such as parmesan or Scotch whisky, which constitute existing intellectual property rights, will be protected by the withdrawal agreement until such time as our future relationship provides an equivalent level of protection.
5) Lastly, the withdrawal agreement provides for a transition period, requested by the British government, until 31 December 2020, which can be extended once by common agreement between the Union and the United Kingdom for a maximum of 24 months.
- During this period the United Kingdom will retain all the rights and obligations of a Member State, although it will no longer participate in the decision-making processes of the Union.
- This will give the necessary stability to administrations, businesses and also to your authorities to adapt, just once, to the future relationship.
- And it will enable us to negotiate the details of this future relationship.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
if, as we hope, the withdrawal agreement is ratified by both parties, this negotiation on the future relationship will begin the day after the withdrawal of the United Kingdom on 30 March next year. The political declaration approved by the European Council sets out the framework for this.
In view of the British decision to leave the European Union and the Single Market, there will be no status quo; it will not be business as usual.
But our mutual interest is in an ambitious partnership
- on goods, services, digital affairs, mobility of people, transport, public procurement, energy;
- and also internal security, police and judicial cooperation and, of course, foreign policy, defence and many other fields.
This ambitious partnership, based on a free-trade area without tariffs or quotas for goods and on customs arrangements that build on the single customs territory provided for in the withdrawal agreement, will be in the interests of businesses on both sides of the Channel.
It will also have to develop a new fisheries agreement, which will have to cover reciprocal access to waters as part of the negotiation of our economic relationship. We are committed, together with the United Kingdom, to do our best to conclude and ratify this new agreement before 1 July 2020.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this partnership also responds to three great concerns expressed by the towns and regions you represent.
- Preserving the economic dynamism of your regions, some of which are very closely tied to trade with the United Kingdom, although the single market must remain our prime common asset.
- Preserving the conditions for fair competition with the United Kingdom. This is why we have included specific obligations to ensure a level playing field in social and environmental terms as well as in taxation and state aid.
- Conserving the opportunities for cooperation with British towns, regions and universities.
On this last point my thoughts turn first to the regions of Ireland and Northern Ireland that care about the PEACE programme, of which I fully saw the value of when I was European Commissioner for Regional Policy.
In our political declaration we commit to pursuing this initiative in the form of a PEACE PLUS programme that will keep the financing at its current levels.
In addition to the specific case of the PEACE PLUS programme, the United Kingdom will of course be able to continue participating in the Union programmes that are open to third countries.
- This will be the case in particular for programmes in the fields of science and innovation (Horizon Europe), youth, culture and education (Erasmus) and civil protection, which concern many of your regions.
- It will also be the case for inter-regional cooperation through the INTERREG programme which the Commission has proposed to open up to third countries for the next programming period.
- Of course, the United Kingdom will be able to take part in these programmes under the conditions applicable to third countries, as defined by the European Union, in return for a fair financial contribution.
We have also provided for dialogue and exchanges in areas of common interest such as science and innovation. Your regions will have a role in these dialogues and will be able to take the initiative to cooperate or engage with British towns and regions.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
As soon as possible after the United Kingdom becomes a third country, we will be ready to launch this negotiation for a partnership that is unprecedented in its scope and in the number of areas of cooperation.
A partnership that will give towns, cities and regions their proper place and which, in some Member States, will have to be ratified by certain regional parliaments as well as the national parliaments, some of which have chambers representing the regions.
But before that, there is still one decisive step, that of ratifying our withdrawal agreement.
Without ratification there will not be a withdrawal agreement or a transition period. Such a ‘no deal' scenario still cannot be dismissed. It is therefore still as necessary as ever for each of your authorities to prepare for it.
To avoid this scenario, we must all take our responsibilities.
In the coming days, the British Members of Parliament will have to vote on the withdrawal agreement and the text of the political declaration.
- This vote commits the future of their country.
- We must respect this parliamentary and democratic debate in the United Kingdom,
And on our side, we must allow the European Parliament time to ratify the agreement.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
On 22 March 2017 I closed my speech to you by stressing that the challenges and the new European agenda do not consist only of Brexit.
Since the notification letter from the United Kingdom, the Commission, under the presidency of Jean‑Claude Juncker, has continued to show its ability to take many positive initiatives for our future as a Union of 27.
Faced with Brexit we have shown strong unity, which has been our strength throughout these negotiations. We must continue to use this unity to serve a positive agenda, an agenda that combines sovereignty and proximity in order to face the challenges ahead of us: to build a green Europe, an economy for all, a realistic and humane migration policy and a Europe capable of defending herself and of projecting herself in the world.
This is how we, together, each Member State, each region and each citizen, will build a strong Europe for tomorrow. A Europe for which the United Kingdom will always be a friend, a partner and an ally.
Thank you for listening.