Paris Gourtsoyannis: EU Commission's Monsieur Brexit tells UK to ‘keep calm and negotiate’

European Commission chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier
European Commission chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier
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Ever since Theresa May first uttered the words, there has been a campaign to stamp out the largely meaningless phrase, "Brexit means Brexit".

In the absence of much more detail, however, those five syllables have lingered as the UK Government's watchword on an issue that will dominate a political generation.

This morning Michel Barnier, the European Commission's chief Brexit negotiator, has come to the rescue with a catchier slogan that kills off "Brexit means Brexit" with a piece of pilfered British nostalgia and finally moves things on: "Keep calm and negotiate".

In his first press conference this in Brussels this morning, the French former politician and EU commissioner dictated the timetable for Brexit talks, slashing the amount of time for negotiations and imposing strict parameters on what they will cover. The clarity is will be welcome everywhere except Downing Street.

Barnier said the actual negotiations will take up no more than 18 months of the two-year Article 50 process - the other six will be needed for the European Parliament, the European Council of 27 member governments, and the UK to ratify the Brexit deal.

Based on Article 50 being triggered by March 2017, agreement would be reached by October 2018, and ratified by March 2019.

The UK Government wants to be able to negotiate its exit from the EU alongside the terms of the trading relationship with the bloc after its departure. Barnier became the latest senior EU figure to rule that out. He said negotiations in the 18 month period would cover the technical details of the divorce, such as outstanding UK payments to the EU, not the custody settlement.

He followed that up by suggesting he was open to a transitional deal that eased the UK out of the EU rather than bundling it through an emergency exit - but crucially, he said there was only a point in such an arrangement if it was a natural precursor to the UK's final status.

The UK still has to tell the EU what it wants that final status to be, Barnier said. Only then will the EU 27 respond, and the Commission's man was clear that the four pillars of the European market, including free movement of people, were "indivisible". The UK will not get a better deal than it has now, he warned.

In short, Barnier's message was - we're ready, now let's get on with it.

Keep calm and negotiate.