Barnier: UK can change stance, even after it leaves EU
Michel Barnier, the European Union's (EU) chief Brexit negotiator, says the UK has plenty of time to change its mind about the kind of relationship it wants with the EU after Brexit, opening the way for UK prime minister Theresa May to reverse into a closer relationship with the bloc following the divorce.
In an interview with German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Barnier said the UK could change its negotiating stance even after it had left, as it would still be part of the single market and customs union during the transition period ending in 2020.
The period is when the details of the post-Brexit relationship will be finally thrashed out.
"If Britain decided to change its red lines, then we'd also change our positions," he said.
The comment shows three things.
First, the EU really wants the UK to stay in the single market and customs union.
Second, it underlines the fact that, when the UK leaves the bloc in March next year, it is still unlikely to have much idea about the future trading relationship with its biggest partner.
Third, it signals a possible way ahead for the UK government. May needs to deliver Brexit. But once that is done, and the trade negotiations start in earnest, there may be scope for a softening of the UK position and the blurring of some red lines in the interests of keeping the access to the single market that businesses are so desperate for.
There is already a feeling in May's office that there is no mandate for an extreme Brexit.
Barnier's comments also provides a hint about what the agreement on the future relationship – which the two sides plan to formalise by the end of this year – might look like.
While the UK in public continues to say it wants to nail down the outline of a trade deal before leaving, EU officials have predicted it will be a vague statement that is short on detail and not binding.
The disadvantage of that is that Britain will be agreeing to pay a £40 billion (€46 billion) divorce bill without knowing what kind of trade deal it gets afterward.
The advantage – at least for businesses that want the closest ties possible – is that there is still a way back.
Meanwhile, British businesses overwhelmingly want to stick to European rules after Brexit, according to the most detailed sector-by-sector analysis of what companies need the UK to fight for in negotiations.
The Confederation of British Industry says 18 of 23 sectors would be better off if regulations remained as is.
May has identified just a few sectors where rules should stay the same.
Airbus chief executive Tom Enders writes in the Financial Times that May should stick to EU rules and offer clarity on future customs arrangements.
Airbus makes wings in the UK and wing parts cross the UK-EU border many times before final assembly.
It spends £5 billion a year with UK suppliers, and Brexit will affect 672 of its sites.
"Hard borders and regulatory divergence risk blocking trade, creating supply chain logjams and causing our business to grind to a halt," he says.
He urges May to present the EU with a trade plan it can accept and says "pragmatism must trump pride".