The U.K. has little chance of getting its way in Brexit negotiations, according to Malta’s Prime Minister Joseph Muscat, who will chair the EU’s rotating presidency in early 2017 when Britain’s Theresa May pulls the Article 50 trigger kicking off the process.
“Expect the format to be more or less like what happened with Greece,” Muscat said in an interview with POLITICO in his office in the Maltese capital, referring to how the EU’s member countries approached Greek bailout negotiations in 2015. The implication that the EU’s other 27 leaders will play hardball with May next year offers early insight into what promises to be a long negotiating process.
“Any deal has to be a fair deal, but an inferior deal,” Muscat said, pointing out that countries will insist the U.K. lose EU privileges if it stops participating in the single market or freedom of movement policy. “Even the most pro-U.K. countries — Netherlands, Estonia, Ireland — say you cannot have your cake and eat it.”
Muscat said there is a gulf between how the U.K. government wants to negotiate and how the EU institutions expect the process to unfold.
“From my discussions with the U.K. government they seem to want [to negotiate by] chapters. They want to look at single market, at sovereignty, at freedom of movement, at transposition of EU laws,” Muscat said. “The feeling I get is that is unacceptable to most member states. They want the single market and freedom of movement to be tackled together.”
He added that Malta’s position is that “the four freedoms cannot be decoupled” from each other in the process. But May said over the weekend that Britain “will do what independent, sovereign countries do — decide for ourselves how we control immigration.”
Under the Maltese presidency, the EU will continue its planning for life after Brexit, including at a summit in Valletta on February 3. “We are not dependent on the Brits,” Muscat said.
Muscat said the European Council will not try to act as a back-seat driver of the negotiation process, and that national capitals will leave room for the Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, to get the job done.
“The Council does not want to get involved daily,” he said. “There can’t be 27 different negotiations running at the same time. It’s right there should be a single point of contact.”
He added: “The Commission will lead the negotiating but the crux will be the member states. The Council will need regular updates and to give the go-ahead [for particular negotiating postures].”
Muscat said the European Parliament “cannot be underestimated” in the Brexit process, and that the assembly’s decision to appoint Guy Verhofstadt as its chief negotiator “sends a very clear political signal.”
The consequences of excluding the Parliament from the early stages of negotiations would risk jeopardizing the whole deal, Muscat said. “Some MEPs might be in a mood to scuttle it,” he said. “So we want Parliament input early.”
Muscat said it would be important for “more than a slim majority” of MEPs to approve the final deal if it is to have a lasting legitimacy.
Muscat also said he fears that if negotiations on Brexit aren’t over by the 2019 European elections, those votes will become a referendum on how to treat the U.K.’s exit bid and give attention to others who want to leave the union.