Manfred Weber, the leader of the largest centre-right group in the European parliament, criticised the British foreign secretary for his support of Turkey’s EU membership, which has infuriated European politicians.
The MEP spoke minutes after the European parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, said the UK may have only 14 months of proper negotiations to tie up its EU exit and pressed for talks to be completed by mid-2019.
Johnson has irked many in Europe by offering to help Turkey join the EU despite Britain’s looming departure. After becoming foreign secretary he reverted to his support for Turkey’s EU hopes, after being accused of stoking prejudice during the referendum campaign by suggesting Turkish migrants would flood into the UK if Britain stayed in the EU.
Weber, a longstanding opponent of Turkey joining the EU, described Johnson’s support for Ankara as “unbelievable” and “a purely arrogant provocation”.
Saying he could not respect Johnson’s actions, Weber urged the UK to refrain from getting involved in decisions about the EU’s long-term future. “I ask the British government not to influence this discussion, which will go on over the next two, two-and-a-half years,” he said. “Please step back; it is a question of fairness and respect. When you want to leave a club, you have no say any more in the long-term future of this club.”
The MEP also called on the UK not to block EU defence cooperation, although the 27 remaining members struggle to forge a consensus, even without Britain obstructing the way.
Weber was speaking after meeting David Davis, the secretary of state for Brexit, who was on a whistlestop tour of Strasbourg. On Monday, Davis met the European commission’s Brexit pointman, Michel Barnier, in Brussels for a coffee, and on Tuesday he met Verhofstadt.
The EU is refusing substantial talks until the government triggers the article 50 exit process; some European officials think the British do not have much to say. And Weber said he had not heard anything new from Davis about what Brexit really meant.
Only 60% of EU legislation relates to the single market, Weber said, while the rest covers areas such as research, cooperation on crime and migration. “Brexit means leaving: you cannot stay for 90% of the legislation and only have a Brexit on migration, that is not possible,” he said.
Davis had told MEPs he wanted the UK to remain in the single market, according to Weber.
But both Verhofstadt and Weber made clear that the UK could not have unfettered access to the single market without accepting the EU’s core principles, including free movement of people.
Downing Street has repeatedly refused to rule out staying in the single market. A spokesman for Theresa May said: “We are very clear that what we want is a trading relationship that allows UK companies to trade both with and within the single market and lets European businesses do the same.”
Meanwhile, Verhofstadt said the window for negotiations was “14 or 15 months”, once political processes were taken into account, shaving months off the two-year timetable the UK government is counting on.
Davis described his meeting with Verhofstadt as “great fun” and denied having compared the MEP to Satan. A jokey remark, where he said “get thee behind me, Satan”, had been aimed at the chairman of the foreign affairs select committee, he told the BBC.
He described Verhofstadt as “a very nice man” who races British classic cars. Davis added: “We got on very well. It was a very useful constructive conversation.”
If May sticks to her promise of triggering article 50 by the end of March 2017, the 27 governments of the EU can be expected to agree a mandate by late April or early May, paving the way for serious talks to begin. Verhofstadt sees negotiations winding up in late 2018 to allow the European parliament to complete its internal processes.
MEPs are anxious to complete the UK’s exit before European parliament elections in mid-2019. Some governments, such as France, also see this as an unofficial deadline, but other member states are more relaxed on timing, so Verhofstadt’s timetable is highly provisional.
Verhofstadt also said Brexit was not his only priority, as he urged the EU to pull together in the face of Donald Trump’s election. In a striking intervention, he grouped the US president-elect with two of the world’s most powerful authoritarian leaders, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.
Instead of “the ring of friends around Europe”, Verhofstadt said, he saw people who want to “bash and destroy our values”. “What I see today is now Russia, Americans and Turks working together on European soil to destroy the European model,” he said.
Elaborating on his theme, he said Erdoğan wanted to shut down European movements in Turkey and Putin “openly finance[d] extremists and populist parties everywhere in Europe”, while Trump’s right-hand man appeared to be trying to “influence elections” in France and Germany.
The Belgian MEP was referring to incoming White House chief strategist Stephen Bannon, executive chairman of the far-right Breitbart News, which recently revealed plans to launch sites in Germany and France. “What I see today is now Russia, Americans and Turks working together on European soil to destroy the European model,” Verhofstadt said.
The European parliament has a very limited role in shaping EU foreign policy, so its representatives tend to be more outspoken than diplomats. Verhofstadt, a former prime minister of Belgium and lifelong federalist, urged the EU to “fight back” against “the ring of autocrats” by working together on defence and reforming the eurozone.
Author: Jennifer Rankin and Rowena Mason