The European Union's top Brexit negotiator says it will rely on other international organizations to "continue to engage positively" once the United Kingdom leaves the soon-to-be 27-nation bloc on January 31, 2020.
Michel Barnier, who has overseen the E.U.'s rocky path with the U.K. since July 2016 — a month after British voters narrowly approved the referendum to leave — said aside from bilateral relations, the United Nations, World Trade Organization and Group of 20 will serve as important go-betweens.
"First, the E.U. and the U.K. must ensure that we have the means to work together and discuss joint solutions to global challenges. The U.K. may be leaving the E.U., but it is not leaving Europe," Barnier wrote in an opinion column carried by Project Syndicate.
"That is why the E.U. will continue to engage positively with the U.K.," he wrote, "both bilaterally and in global fora such as the United Nations, the World Trade Organization and the G-20."
The British general election on December 12 was a major victory for the Conservatives led by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who won a convincing mandate to "get Brexit done." He also must negotiate a permanent E.U.-U.K. trade deal.
The European Parliament's vice president, Pedro Silva Pereira, said the timing of Brexit leaves only a "very short timeframe available" to wrap up a trade deal by the end of this year. “Eleven months to negotiate such a complex trade agreement is unprecedented,” he told BBC Radio. “The key issue will be what kind of regulatory dis-alignment we will have.”
'Business as usual' — until next year
On December 20, Johnson won the British Parliament's support for his Brexit deal, setting up the U.K.'s departure from the European bloc by the end of January and the 11-month "transition period" to let the E.U. and U.K. craft deals on trade, security and other core issues.
But three and a half years since the 2016 referendum, U.K. citizens remain deeply torn over their future; some 53% in the general election supported parties that sought a second referendum.
Barnier, formerly European Commission vice president and French foreign affairs minister, had three New Year's wishes for the E.U. and Britain in 2020. One was to ensure they can work together. Another was to "build a close security relationship." The third was to create "an economic partnership that reflects our common interests, geographical proximity, and interdependence."
Though the U.K. will no longer be part of the E.U. as of February, it will remain in the single market and customs union at least until the end of 2020. "And the free movement of people between the E.U. and the U.K. will continue," wrote Barnier, "which means that it will be business as usual for citizens, consumers, businesses, students, and researchers on both sides of the channel over the next year.
Unless the transition period is extended, negotiators will have to scramble to work out issues over their future relationship, citizens' rights and customs and border arrangements for Northern Ireland. Johnson has already said he will not seek an extension beyond 2020 to complete a deal.
"That will be immensely challenging, but we will give it our all, even if we won’t be able to achieve everything," Barnier wrote. "These are our three goals for 2020: to maintain a capacity to cooperate closely at the global level; to forge a strong security partnership; and to negotiate a new economic agreement (which, most likely, will have to be expanded in the years to come)."