July 13, 2017 / 6:24 PM / 5 months ago

EU's Barnier briefs May's opponents on Brexit

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - British opposition chief Jeremy Corbyn and the leaders of Scotland and Wales met the EU’s Brexit negotiator in Brussels on Thursday as the London government launched legislation to cut ties with the European Union.

Britain's opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn arrives for a meeting with European Union's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, July 13, 2017. REUTERS/Olivier Hoslet/Pool

Their separate meetings with Michel Barnier were not negotiations, they said - Barnier stressed he will conduct those only with Prime Minister Theresa May’s government, starting with a full round of talks in Brussels next week.

“My door is open, listen to all Brexit views,” he tweeted, while adding: “Next week negotiations with UK gov(ernment).”

But the trio - Labour Party leader Corbyn; Carwyn Jones, the Labour first minister of Wales; and Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish nationalist first minister in Edinburgh - all said they made cases for keeping close EU ties to protect jobs.

Such demands could disrupt the Conservative May’s plans to push the new legislation through a parliament where she lost her majority in a snap election last month.

“This is not about holding separate Scottish negotiations,” Sturgeon said in a statement, adding that she told Barnier she wants May to change tack and keep Britain in the single market. “However, meetings like this are helpful in developing a mutual understanding between the Scottish government and the EU.”

Wales' First Minister Carwyn Jones poses with European Union's Chief Brexit Negotiator Michel Barnier ahead of a meeting at the EU Commission headquarters in Brussels, Belgium, July 13, 2017. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir

Scots voted heavily against Brexit but after the election Sturgeon backed away from calling a quick new vote on secession, fearing it would end in a defeat similar to the 2014 referendum rather than an independent Scotland free to join the EU.

Jones noted that the EU is the destination for two thirds of exports from Wales, where a majority of people voted for Brexit. He said in a statement: “It is absolutely vital that we retain full and unfettered access to the single market. It would be irresponsible to turn our back on this.”

EU leaders have made clear that full membership access to the single market is only open to countries, like non-EU member Norway, which are open to free immigration from the bloc. That was something Corbyn said Labour was not willing to accept - instead it wants “managed migration” and to avoid what he called “undercutting” of wages and standards by eastern immigrants.

Corbyn called his lunch with Barnier “very informative” and said he used the opportunity to explain Labour’s decision to back Brexit after opposing it during the 2016 EU referendum, while aiming to hold May to a course that would protect workers.

“We’re not negotiating,” he told reporters. “We’re forming an opinion of what the European Union wants in this and representing views of people who voted for us, in particular on protection of jobs.”

He criticised government plans that he said were an attempt to limit parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit legislation. Corbyn said that, unlike May, he would offer EU residents full rights after Brexit unilaterally - without making it conditional on the EU doing the same for Britons on the continent.

Asked whether Labour was willing to pay the tens of billions of euros which Brussels says Britain will owe to cover existing commitments to the EU budget when it leaves, Corbyn was less dismissive than some of May’s ministers. “We’ll pay what we are legally obliged to pay,” he said, while stressing that he had no figures in mind and that no figures were discussed with Barnier.

Additional reporting by Jack Schofield; Editing by Mark Heinrich

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