The most senior Tory in Brussels has accused the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator of seeking to delay the final Brexit deal so that he can be in the “limelight” when candidates are picked for the next president of the European Commission.
In an interview with The Independent, the leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group in the EU parliament said Michel Barnier had “no interest in finishing negotiations early” because he fancied himself for the bloc’s top job and needed to be a part of the “political theatre”.
Syed Kamall, a Conservative MEP, said he expected EU negotiators would also delay striking a withdrawal agreement to intensify pressure on the UK, potentially leaving less time for Westminster to assess and approve the final treaty.
The ECR group leader, who backed Brexit ahead of the referendum despite working closely with David Cameron, further suggested that the EU did not want to solve the Irish border question quickly because it would provide a shortcut to a future EU-UK trade deal. He argued that Spain was bluffing and playing to its domestic voters by raising the status of Gibraltar in negotiations.
“It’s interesting the language they’re now using: let’s try and get a deal just after summer,” he told The Independent.
“They’ve done that knowing there’s going to be slippage. It’s theatre – what they’ll say is, ‘Oh, we’re aiming for September, October.’ They’ll say, ‘Really sorry Britain, you haven’t done enough, we’ll have to slip a bit maybe until December again.’ They’re building that in, that theatre.”
He added: “Don’t forget, Barnier has no interest in finishing the negotiations early because he needs to be in the public limelight to be considered a spitzenkandidate. If the negotiations were ended tomorrow, he’s out of the limelight tomorrow for nine months before they start considering the spitzenkandidate. He needs to be in the limelight at that point.”
Mr Barnier is widely seen in Brussels as a potential candidate for the next president of the European Commission, which since 2014 has been chosen by the major parties nominating a lead candidate or “spitzenkandidate” before the European parliament elections. The selection of the candidate for the European People’s Party (EPP), of which Mr Barnier is a member, will take place at a meeting in Helsinki in November – meaning it would probably coincide with a last-minute extension of the talks.
However, the chief negotiator has previously said he is fully focused on the Brexit discussions and would see them through to the end. One source close to Mr Barnier said his approach so far did not point to someone trying to delay talks, adding: “It wasn’t us who decided to hold a general election after triggering Article 50.”
How the European Commission president is picked
The European Commission president selection process is extremely complicated.
First, the European parliament elections are held, and the votes counted. Each political group in the parliament goes into the elections with a “lead candidate” put forward for the presidency.
Then, the European Council – comprised of all the leaders of the EU member states – picks its nominee for president from the lead candidates put forward by the parliament groups, taking into account the results of the elections. This is done using a so-called qualified majority vote – 55 per cent of the countries in the EU, and 65 per cent of the population of the EU under the Lisbon Treaty.
This will probably mean that the leader of the biggest group – currently the centre-right EPP – gets the commission presidency, though in theory other groups could team up and outnumber them.
After the council selects its nominee, the European parliament than has to sign off the council’s selection, again by majority vote.
Mr Kamall said both sides of the negotiations privately knew the talks regarding the Irish border, which has proved the most intractable issue, were a “fudge” to move forward to other areas.
“When you have candid conversations, people tell you that they know in reality if they came up with an Irish border agreement, that’s a template for the EU-UK trade agreement. But they don’t want to do that now, do they? That’s supposed to be dealt with down the road,” he said.
He also predicted that the Gibraltar issue was unlikely to hold up negotiations – after Spain nearly vetoed last week’s transition agreement over the territory and the EU27 called for further discussions about its status.
“It’s partly for show, because they’ve got their domestic politics as well – but it’s partly because in negotiations you’ve got to throw more things into the pot,” he said.
“In negotiations you ask for more than you can want and you have things that you’re prepared to give away. That is one of the things that you throw into the pot – but don’t underestimate it because it could become a lightning rod later on because sometimes people then focus on things that haven’t been resolved.”
In addition to his criticism of Mr Barnier, Mr Kamall accused the European parliament’s Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt of “pretending” that EU citizens were going to be kicked out of Britain after Brexit to drum up political publicity. Mr Verhofstadt has been at the forefront of raising citizens’ rights in talks, and was greeted by grateful British supporters on a recent visit to Britain. Citizens’ groups say they still do not have certainty over their status, though Theresa May says the issue has been resolved.
“Guy and I get on very well, he is a good politician, he knows how to get publicity, he also knows how to play the press. He knows, for example, in certain areas of the British press he will be the pantomime villain and in others he will be the focal point for those who wish Brexit could somehow be reversed,” he said.
“He’s picked his issues very carefully. He’s now a champion for the Irish, knowing full well that plays well, he’s become a champion for the EU citizens, still pretending that they were going to be kicked out.”
Mr Kamall, who says he has not yet decided what he plans to do when Britain’s MEPs are sent home after Brexit, called for a rethink about whether to implement a points-based Australian-style immigration system – an approach which Theresa May has rejected.
In 2016 the prime minister said that a points-based immigration system would not give the UK control over who entered the UK. The Tory MEP however said such a system would help shift the debate from one of numbers to skills.
Recalling the aftermath of the EU referendum, he said David Cameron’s decision to resign had given the EU an “advantage” in talks and “time to regroup” after the shock vote – also branding George Osborne’s lack of regret for not doing any preparation for the possibility of a Leave vote “interesting”.
“Looking back, they [the EU] had an advantage, because after the referendum with Cameron resigning it created uncertainty on our side,” he argued.
“Until that point they didn’t have a unified position on what happens until Britain leaves. We could have exploited that, but because we had Cameron resign, we had to have a leadership election, fortunately it wasn’t as long as we thought it could possibly have been, it could have gone on longer, it gave the EU time to regroup.”