Mr President, Fellow members of this House, Ladies and gentlemen! Before I begin, let me also bid a warm welcome to the Tunisian representatives; it is with pleasure that I look back on the opportunity I had, a few weeks ago, to address the Tunisian parliament. We wish Tunisia every success in its work and on its difficult but so far very promising journey.
Fellow members of this House, the European Council will convene in Brussels this Saturday for the 27 member states which will in future make up the EU to discuss Great Britain’s departure. The Brexit negotiations are sure to demand much of the European Union as well as of the UK over these two years. That, I think, is beyond any doubt. However, it is also beyond doubt that these Brexit negotiations will certainly not be the only challenge that Europe has to meet in the coming two years. Let me therefore say a few words about developments in Turkey first of all. The situation there cannot be left unmentioned in this debate, and I am sure it won’t go unmentioned during our meeting on Saturday either – though I must point out that discussions pertaining to Turkey officially have to be held in the Council of all 28 member states, as the UK is still an EU member state with all the rights and responsibilities that entails, so the actual discussion will not take place on Saturday.
Before all else, it goes without saying that we respect the Turkish people’s right to decide freely and democratically on their own constitutional order. That, I think, is something we take as read. It is all the more worrying, however, to read the joint report by the OSCE and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the conduct of that referendum. I would like to this opportunity to thank the members of parliament involved, and the head of the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights, Michael Link, for their important work.
Their assessment is particularly significant, as it comes from independent observers.
The Turkish Government has to acknowledge this report and respond to the questions it raises. The report’s allegation that the two camps were not assured a level playing field during the referendum campaign is serious, as is its finding that fundamental democratic rights were curtailed under the state of emergency. We will be following very closely how Turkey deals with the investigation of possible irregularities.
The same goes for what the Turkish Government does now to actually implement the constitutional reform and how it cooperates with the Council of Europe – including the comprehensive monitoring procedure that the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe adopted this Tuesday. The tremendous concerns that the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission has expressed with regard to the process and the content of this constitutional reform are very worrying. As a member of the Council of Europe, an OSCE participating State and a candidate for accession to the EU, Turkey must address those concerns. Let us be quite clear about this: it is not compatible with the rule of law when the executive, in this case the Turkish executive, publicly prejudges a case, as in the case of Deniz Yücel.
The German Government will continue to unequivocally and repeatedly demand that Turkey comply with rule-of-law standards, including the precious assets of freedom of opinion and freedom of the press – with regard not only to Deniz Yücel’s fate but also the many criminal cases under way in Turkey generally.
It is beyond doubt that the developments of recent weeks have placed a severe strain on German-Turkish and European-Turkish relations. In this situation, we will continue in our endeavour to return to constructive German-Turkish and European-Turkish dialogue. The Foreign Ministers will meet today and tomorrow, and the Turkish Foreign Minister will join them for part of the programme. It would not be in the interests of Germany or the EU for Turkey to permanently turn its back on Europe or – and I say this advisedly – for Europe to permanently turn its back on Turkey. This situation therefore calls for prudence as well as clarity. And it is with prudence and clarity that we will be discussing within the European Union precisely what consequences we consider appropriate at what time. The German Government is aiming for the European institutions to act in concert on this matter.
Fellow members of this House, the invitation to next Saturday’s special meeting of the European Council was sent out after the United Kingdom, on 29 March, officially notified the European Union of its intention to leave. The UK Government is thereby putting into practice what a majority of UK voters decided in a referendum a little over ten months ago. Just to reiterate this quite plainly, we – Germany and the other EU member states – never wanted Brexit. But here again, we – Germany and the other EU member states – respect that democratic decision and are now looking to the future.
The official notification from the UK Government marked the start of the two-year notice period. When those two years have passed, the UK’s membership of the European Union will end, as outlined in the Treaties. It is now up to us, the future 27 member states and the European institutions, to define our own interests and objectives for the coming negotiations. The European Council will take the first step in that direction on Saturday and, in its 27 member format, adopt common guidelines for the negotiations.
After some intensive preparatory work that the German Government was of course involved in, Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, has submitted what we feel is a very good and balanced draft – and I want to sincerely thank Donald Tusk for that.
The draft reflects not only the full range of the 27 member states’ interests but also the overarching interests of the European Union as a whole. My many conversations over recent weeks have shown that there is now a lot of consensus among the 27 and the European institutions about our common negotiating position vis-à-vis the UK. We can therefore expect the European Council of 27 to send out a strong message of unity the day after tomorrow.
The European Council’s guidelines will form the basis of the negotiating mandate which the 27 member states – in a further step, probably in late May – will give the European Commission. That negotiating mandate will be considerably more extensive than the guidelines we adopt on Saturday. However, I want to emphasise at this point that I, like Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, expect that the actual political negotiations with the UK will not and cannot really get going until after the UK general election on 8 June. The European Union will be represented in those negotiations through the European Commission, by its chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.
Furthermore, I have pushed right from the start to make the consent of the member states indispensable to all important decisions throughout the negotiating process. I stand by that position – as does the whole of the German Government – and the member states’ involvement is indeed assured. After all, the departure of one EU member state will of course directly affect the interests of all remaining members.
We have three main concerns in these negotiations.
Firstly, we must safeguard the interests of our citizens, of the German people. The focus here is particularly on the very real every-day issues confronting the many people directly affected by Brexit – most especially those citizens of Germany and other European countries who are currently living in the UK. An estimated 100,000 Germans fall into this category, each of them with their individual life stories and very personal worries about an uncertain future.
Consider, for instance, a pensioner who moved to the UK from Germany years ago for professional reasons, bought a house there and is now, in her retirement, facing considerable legal uncertainty. Or consider a young student in the middle of a university degree in Scotland, living the dream of a Europe without borders, and now worrying about whether he’ll be able to stay in the UK when he graduates. Or consider a German couple living and raising their children in London, who need access to schools, jobs and health insurance on a daily basis.
I could add many more examples. All of them are reasons why the German Government will be working hard in the negotiations with the UK to establish clarity and certainty on all these questions as quickly as possible in the interests of all the German citizens affected, so that they can make plans as required. We will naturally do everything we can to minimise the potential negative consequences for our citizens’ everyday lives. Conversely, of course, we are also prepared to then make a fair range of options available to the UK citizens living here in Germany and in other EU member states. They are of course an important part of our community life and we intend that they remain so.
Secondly, we need to avert any adverse effects for the EU as a whole that could be caused if the UK’s transition to its new status as a non-EU country does not go smoothly. Business owners, for example, want to know whether they will still be able to sell their products in the EU and UK markets. Researchers are asking whether they will be able to continue their collaborations with their UK colleagues. To begin with, it is therefore essential to establish legal certainty about what the consequences of Brexit will be. Wherever our interests dictate it, we will of course still seek close cooperation between the EU and the UK in future. This will be the case, for example, in our joint fight against terrorism and organised crime and in our cooperation on security and defence policy. At the same time, however, we will also make sure that, while cooperating thus, we always safeguard and consolidate the achievements of European integration. I firmly believe that, even after the UK’s departure, the European Union will remain a unique community of shared values and one of the strongest economic areas in the world.
Thirdly, we must strengthen the cohesion of the 27 member European Union. Barely over a month ago, we were in Rome to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Rome Treaties. All those involved took the opportunity to clearly reiterate our conviction that we are very clearly united for the better. Sixty years of European integration is a unique success story, and the key will be to write the next chapter of that success story with 27 member states.
I will do everything to ensure that we 27 member states continue to stand together on all difficult issues just as we have done so magnificently since the UK referendum ten months ago; after all, we have managed to maintain a cohesive and unified stand despite our individual interests sometimes diverging. It was anything but clear that we would manage that on the morning after the UK referendum, and we should take the time to acknowledge the achievement. All 27 member states, the European Commission and the European Parliament have stuck to what we agreed at that time.
We have held no preliminary negotiations with the UK and refrained from anticipating any particular issues. Instead, we – the EU – have been preparing well for the negotiations and closely coordinating our positions. There are of course a lot of highly significant interests. Consider Ireland and the common area it shares with the UK, or the problems in Northern Ireland. It has therefore been a good achievement to stand together as we have. The result today is that we are ideally prepared, both substantively and organisationally.
I particularly welcome the fact that the European Parliament’s resolution of 5 April takes the very same line as we want to agree in the European Council on Saturday. Let me also add that one of the reasons such an approach is indispensable is that we have to be ready for very complex negotiations between the EU and the UK which will ultimately require the approval of the European Parliament as well as the Council.
Over the United Kingdom’s 44 years of EU membership, a complex tapestry of ties has developed that now needs to be unpicked bit by bit. This will also meaning sorting out all the financial obligations that the UK fully committed itself to as an EU member state and that are valid until after the date of Brexit.
In our opinion – and I will add that I hope it meets with support – the negotiations on this cannot be left until the end; this is one of the most important aspects that need to be on the agenda right from the start.
The chronological order in our approach on this is clear, even though it will not always be entirely easy to stick to it: an agreement on the EU’s future relationship with the UK can only be concluded once satisfactory arrangements have been reached on all aspects of Brexit. This means that the quicker the UK Government is prepared to reach constructive solutions, the sooner we can discuss their wish to talk about the future UK-EU relationship before the Brexit negotiations have reached their conclusion. But we first have to know what the UK’s vision for our future relationship is.
It can only and will only work in that order – not the other way around. That exact order is what the 27 member states will look for and insist on.
With progress on the many unresolved issues of Brexit, including the finance issues, it makes no sense to conduct parallel negotiations on details of the future relationship. The European Commission, with Jean-Claude Juncker at its head and Michel Barnier as its chief negotiator, has made that position clear time and again. Jean-Claude Juncker was in the UK yesterday with Michel Barnier and reiterated the position once more. The Commission has the German Government’s full support on this matter. What is also clear is that a non-EU country – as the UK will be – cannot and will not have the same rights as or even enjoy better conditions than an EU member state. On that too, all 27 member states and the European institutions are agreed.
Fellow members of the House, you are perhaps thinking that all of this actually goes without saying. But I am afraid I have to say these things so explicitly at this stage, because I get the impression that some people in the UK are still cherishing illusions about them – which would be a waste of time.
Of course the future relationship between the UK and the EU, like the old one, will have to involve a good balance of rights and responsibilities. If the UK is prepared to accept that, then there ought to be no obstacle to a close and long-term partnership with the European Union. We, the European Union, certainly want a good, close relationship with the UK that is built on a spirit of mutual trust. We too have an interest in seeing the United Kingdom prosper and succeed. In a word, we will take a fair and constructive approach to these negotiations, and we expect exactly the same from the UK side. Our objective will always be to achieve the best outcome for Europe and its people. It is in this spirit that we will conduct these talks as a 27 member EU, and in this spirit we will hopefully bring them to a successful conclusion.
The parliaments will naturally play a hugely important role over the next two years. As I see it, regular dialogue between the national governments and national parliaments will be crucial if the negotiations are ultimately to reach a viable conclusion. The German Government and Bundestag will manage this with our usual procedures of close cooperation. I want to particularly highlight, at this point, how robustly it strengthens the government’s position in challenging negotiations to have the parliament backing it through such cooperation. I must therefore most especially welcome the fact that the Bundestag has prepared a motion for a resolution on the negotiating guidelines, which is to be voted on today and the content of which very much corresponds to the Government’s own stance and the position we intend to agree in the European Council on Saturday.
Mr President, fellow members of the House, ladies and gentlemen, we are aware of the magnitude and, above all, the complexity of the task. We are well prepared, but it will take a lot more work. Our goal is to continue the European Union’s success story. We are and will continue to be guided by one aim, namely to ensure that people can live well in Germany and Europe. We know that these are altogether challenging times. The crises and conflicts in Europe’s immediate neighbourhood are too serious, too profound, too various, the global challenges of displacement and migration, of hunger – look at Africa now – and suffering too great, the challenges of world trade or climate protection too major for Europe to be in a position to concentrate only on itself for the next two years; Brexit doesn’t change that.
We 27 want to continue to stand up for our values and interests on the world stage. We want to do that for the good of the people of our unique, great community of values. This is about them: the people, the 450 million citizens, as it will be, of the EU. This is about the good life we share in Germany and Europe and its future in the coming years and decades. I therefore humbly ask for your support.