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Brexit: UK should offer new proposal, France's Europe minister says

The Guardian logo The Guardian 07/03/2019 Angelique Chrisafis in Paris
a person wearing a red shirt © AFP/Getty Images

France’s Europe minister, Nathalie Loiseau, has urged Britain to offer fresh proposals to end the Brexit impasse, warning that uncertainty surrounding the UK’s departure from the EU is affecting its neighbours.

Loiseau, who will meet the Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, in London on Thursday, said: “Everything we are living through is unprecedented and we clearly don’t want to lecture. But the clock is really ticking and I do think it would have been better for people and businesses to live in more certainty than they are today.”

She added: “My feeling is that this is a historic moment, and you have to live up to the moment.”

With the UK’s departure date of 29 March approaching, questions remain over whether Theresa May can get the troubled divorce deal through parliament at the final hour. EU countries, concerned about a possible no-deal Brexit, have stepped up contingency plans.

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Loiseau said the withdrawal agreement was the best option and the EU was open to giving reassurances, but it was up to the UK to present new initiatives. She repeated the recent warning by the French president, Emmanuel Macron, that any extension to Britain’s departure date would depend on the UK making firm proposals.

“Why would be there be an extension without a reason?” Loiseau said. “We have been in discussions for quite a long time now. There needs to be something specific to justify an extension. This is not only what Emmanuel Macron is saying, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, was in Paris last week and said the same thing. And a number of my counterparts throughout the European Union call me for frequent discussions and we all have the same sense. A short extension: why not, if there is a good and credible reason.”

She added: “So far, we are still waiting for a proposal from London. It’s really a British initiative which has to come. And it has to be supported domestically in the UK.”

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She said Britain was clear on what it did not want, but had not explained what it did want. “At this stage we know what the UK does not want, and that’s a first phase, but it’s not necessarily enough.

“At the moment, we’re talking. We have not heard proposals, ideas or initiatives coming from the British government to overcome the current difficulties. We stand ready for talks and reassurances on the idea that the vocation of the Irish backstop is to be temporary.”

Loiseau observed that if Britain’s departure was extended beyond June, the UK would have to organise European parliament elections. “It’s not a problem for the European Union, but it might be weird for the UK during a process of withdrawal from the EU to organise a European election.”

Loiseau, whose father sheltered British paratroopers in his basement in Dordogne during the second world war, insisted France’s relationship with the UK was crucial.

“We definitely want to protect our close relationship with the UK and I would not like to see a no-deal Brexit creating bitterness, anger or hostility,” she said. “We will do our best. This is one good reason why I’m taking part in the first joint congress of French and British mayors this week, to make sure relations remain extremely close in the future.

“We fully remember what we owed the UK during the two world wars. We are very strong partners in terms of science cooperation, defence partnership, cultural relations and people – there are hundreds of thousands of French nationals living in the UK and vice versa. And we want to protect that as much as possible.”

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She said she feared that a no-deal Brexit could stoke tensions. “I’m worried that in ​the ​case of a no deal​,​ there would be bitterness between nations and there would be British-bashing in France and French-bashing or European-bashing in London.

“I would like to stress that the consequences are not only for British citizens. We have exercised a lot of patience, but our public opinion is asking questions.”

France believes the focus must now turn to the future relationship between the UK and EU. “What surprises me and most of my fellow citizens is that the British parliament is still focusing so much on the withdrawal agreement where the most interesting and important part of the negotiation is the future of our relationship.”

The French government has passed legislation to deal with a no-deal Brexit, including on customs and sanitary procedures. “We don’t want chaos on 30 March,” she said.

Loiseau stressed that the rights of British citizens in France would be protected by law in the case of no deal. “We are happy to have them in France living, studying, working, enjoying life in our country and we want them to remain.”

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