Jean Asselborn is seen here with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, in Brussels in March 2018
Photo: Joaquim Monteiro/MAEE
Ahead of the EU council meeting at the end of the month, and to coincide with Delano’s June edition Brexit cover story, Luxembourg foreign affairs minister Jean Asselborn talked about the ongoing negotiations for the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the European Union.
Duncan Roberts: More than a year since Article 50 was triggered, what is your opinion on the progress and atmosphere of negotiations between the UK and the European Union?
Jean Asselborn: As I said on numerous occasions, we very much regret the British decision, but we have to accept it. A Member State leaving the European Union is unprecedented. Nevertheless, the EU27 is dealing with the United Kingdom’s withdrawal in an objective, fair and transparent manner.
So far, the negotiations have been conducted in a positive and constructive atmosphere. While tangible results have been achieved, significant progress still needs to be made in order to reach an agreement on all outstanding issues before the June European Council. Once an agreement has been found on the terms of exit, the details of the framework of our future relations with the United Kingdom will be discussed. This being said, we are currently waiting for the British government to provide more detail with regard to the expectations they have concerning the nature and shape of future EU-UK relations.
DR: What would be the consequences for the EU, and Luxembourg in particular, of no deal being made?
JA: As a matter of fact, failing to reach an agreement would be detrimental to both the EU27 and the United Kingdom. All areas, where ties have been forged between the European Union and the United Kingdom for over 40 years will be affected – some more heavily than others.
That being said, I believe that all those involved in the negotiation process are aware of this and are actively seeking common solutions.
Notwithstanding the progress so far achieved in the negotiations, we need to prepare for all eventualities and we cannot forget that a “no deal” scenario is still one of them.
Most importantly, a “no deal” scenario would create great uncertainty for citizens’ rights. Trade relations would also be heavily affected. They would indeed fall back to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules, which would be particularly harmful to trade in services and have a substantial impact on all parties involved.
DR: You have consistently called for the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and British citizens living in Europe to be protected in any Brexit deal. The question of free movement for British citizens in the EU seems to be one area that has not yet been clarified. Are you confident this can be resolved?
JA: Addressing citizens’ rights has been a priority in these negotiations from the very start and fortunately, we have come a long way on this file.
Given our country’s geographical size, I understand the concerns of British citizens living in Luxembourg regarding their right of free movement after Brexit. Therefore, I have raised the issue at the European level from the very beginning of the negotiations. Personally, I have met with British citizens living in Luxembourg and have shared their concerns regarding the right to continued free movement with chief negotiator Michel Barnier. This issue however is related to the future relationship and is yet to be addressed.
In fact, the EU27 negotiation position on all matters related to citizens’ rights has been guided by the principle of reciprocity. The EU27 needs to ensure that European citizens living in the United Kingdom will get equal treatment to what the European Union is willing to grant British citizens living in the EU27. Therefore, in order to engage effectively in this part of the negotiations, the British government needs to come forward with a clear position.
DR: You are a champion of a strong equivalence regime for financial services, which would help maintain Luxembourg’s value as a financial centre. Do you think London will eventually compromise on this?
JA: A strong equivalence regime for financial services could indeed provide the sector with more predictability. For this reason, Luxembourg stressed the need to put into place reviewed and improved equivalence mechanisms while fully respecting the EU’s autonomy of decision-making.
In general, any kind of trade arrangement will need to ensure fair and equal conditions between the EU27 and the United Kingdom. That being said, the fact remains that the United Kingdom cannot cherry-pick its access to the Single Market: the four freedoms are inseparable and the integrity of the Single Market is non-negotiable. Given the important trading relationship both parties have, especially in the financial services sector, I am confident that negotiators will strive to come to an agreement on this matter.
DR: The Irish border question is another dilemma for the British government if it withdraws from the customs union. Are your European colleagues fully aware of the impact this might have on the Good Friday Agreement?
JA: The EU27 is fully aware of how the United Kingdom’s withdrawal from the Single Market and the Customs Union might affect the Good Friday Agreement and has stood by the Irish government since the beginning of the negotiations. Last year, I travelled to the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland in order to assess the situation on the ground. The Irish border question is not only an economic issue that we are dealing with, but also a matter of major political and symbolic importance. Hence the need to keep the border open, even after the United Kingdom’s withdrawal.
Indeed, both the EU27 and the United Kingdom are committed to preserving all the dimensions of the Good Friday Agreement and to preventing a hard border. The safety of citizens on either side of the border cannot be compromised by a hard, physical border across the Irish island.
With the intention to solve the Irish border question, the EU27 has put forward three possible options. Unfortunately, none appear satisfactory to the British government. Under those circumstances, the ball is now in the United Kingdom’s court: the EU27 is ready to listen to any new proposal the British government will put forward. In the event that the British proposals are not satisfactory and that the Irish border question remains unresolved, the EU27 has already suggested to include a fall-back solution in the draft Withdrawal Agreement. This proposal would essentially keep Northern Ireland in a “common regulatory area” with the EU27. This backstop solution is tailored to the unique situation on the island of Ireland and will be limited to what is necessary to avoid a hard border whilst preserving the integrity of the Single Market and the Customs Union. After all, we must find a common solution to the Irish border question as quickly as possible.