EU chief negotiator blames Brexit on 'nostalgia for the past'

Brexit was caused partly by “nostalgia for the past” that served no purpose in politics, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has said.

In an interview with the New York Review of Books, Barnier identified “typically British” causes for the vote to leave, saying one was “the hope for a return to a powerful global Britain, nostalgia for the past”.

He also warned Tory leadership hopefuls that Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement was the only option for leaving the EU.

Barnier, a former EU financial services commissioner, who crossed swords with the City of London when he introduced tighter regulation after the financial crisis, said some Brexit voters had wanted to “speculate freely” without the restrictions of EU rules.

Why is Theresa May bringing the withdrawal agreement bill to parliament?

Although it may seem as though May is making a fourth attempt to pass her deal, the tactic is slightly different. The withdrawal agreement bill – or WAB as it is known in Westminster – was intended to be the second stage after MPs had voted to ratify the agreement, to enshrine it in UK law.

MPs have failed to pass the first stage. Therefore, the government is now skipping directly to the second stage, and will need to include a clause in the bill removing the need for a separate approval motion.

What risks are involved in bringing the bill to parliament?

Bringing the withdrawal agreement bill to parliament with no stable majority is fraught with risk. Should the bill fail to pass at second reading, May would not be able to bring it back during this parliament and may be faced with proroguing parliament in order to make any new attempt.

Why is she doing it in the first week of June?

Ministers have agreed the UK should leave the EU before the summer parliamentary recess. The bill would need to get through all its different stages before recess, which is why the week of 3 June has been set, coming after the European elections and parliament’s Whitsun recess. “It is imperative we do so then if the UK is to leave the EU before the summer parliamentary recess,” No 10 said.

Will the bill pass parliament?

Unless there are substantial changes, it looks unlikely.

Jessica ElgotChief political correspondent

Returning to a familiar theme, he suggested others voted for Brexit because they felt abandoned and believed public services were in decline.

Speaking about anti-EU sentiment across the continent, he said: “People on the ground feel lost, that they have been abandoned; they feel their cultural identity is in danger … we have to respect these local identities.

“The more the economy is global, the more people need to be reassured that their roots will be respected.”

Asked whether it was possible for the EU to convince the UK to stay, he said it was probably too late, but added: “It’s not too late for other countries where we have exactly the same problems, including my own country.”

During the interview, conducted on the day Theresa May announced her resignation, Barnier declined to comment on the turmoil at Westminster, but described the British debate as “very stimulating”.

EU leaders reiterated this week they would not renegotiate the Brexit withdrawal agreement with the UK – a line they have repeated countless times during the six months since May signed the deal last November.

“If the UK wants to leave in an orderly manner, this treaty is the only option,” Barnier said. “If the choice is to leave without a deal – fine. If the choice is to stay in the EU – also fine.”

He also repeated negotiations on Britain’s future relationship with the EU could start immediately once the agreement was signed. “We are ready, we are waiting,” he said.

The two-times EU commissioner and former French foreign minister, is increasingly seen as the next president of European commission. “That’s not a question for today,” Barnier said.

Talking about the EU, he stressed the importance of Europe speaking with one voice to increase its clout in the world: “The fact that we speak with one voice on issues of trade or competition makes us a global actor. Otherwise, Europe would turn into a museum.”

Speaking of his political heritage on the French centre right, Barnier recalled that Charles de Gaulle had once said merging all the peoples of Europe would be like making a purée de marrons (chestnut puree). “That doesn’t sound very appealing, so we cannot merge all the nations.”


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