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Ursula von der Leyen plays hardball in London with the single market as a bargaining chip

Von der Leyen says the UK could lose access if the Brexit transition is not extended.

Ursula Von der Leyen arrives at the London School of Economics.
Ursula Von der Leyen arrives at the London School of Economics.
Image: Frank Augstein/PA Images

Updated Jan 8th 2020, 4:15 PM

THE EU’S TOP official has told the UK it could lose its open access to the European market if it refused to extend post-Brexit partnership talks beyond 2020.

Ursula von der Leyen’s warning to Prime Minister Boris Johnson came ahead of their first meeting in her capacity as European Commission president — and with Brexit just three weeks away.

Both sides are eager to move on from the more than three years of tumult and acrimony that followed Britain’s decision in a 2016 referendum to end its decades-long membership of the bloc. 

The UK Prime Minister is expected to press home his desire to reach a free trade agreement with the EU by the end of December 2020, when the transition period is set to end.

Johnson has insisted he will not push back the deadline but critics claim that the timescale is too tight to reach a new deal, a position von der Leyen suggested today. 

“There will be tough talks ahead and each side will do what is best for them,” von der Leyen said in a keynote speech at the London School of Economics.

Downing Street said last night Johnson would tell von der Leyen that “there will be no extension” to the deadline.

The UK will keep following EU rules and paying its membership fees during the transition talks.

“Having waited for over three years to get Brexit done, both British and EU citizens rightly expect negotiations on an ambitious free trade agreement to conclude on time,” Downing Street said.

Von der Leyen countered today that this meant Britain would probably lose unfettered access to its closest trading partner after 2020.

“With every choice comes a consequence. With every decision comes a trade-off,” she said.

The more divergence there is the more distant the partnership has to be. And without an extension of the transition period beyond 2020, you cannot expect to agree on every single aspect of our new partnership. We will have to prioritise. 

The European Union has never reached a trade agreement with any of its partners in less than a year, most often the process taking much longer.

But Johnson is eager to brandish his Brexit credentials and reap what he considers to be the benefits of independence from Brussels.

Britain’s refusal to align itself with the bloc on issues such as environmental standards and workers’ rights could see UK companies face EU tariffs. 

But it would also give Britain much more leeway in negotiating a new free trade agreement with the United States and growing countries in Asia down the line.

London’s booming financial district would also be free from outside oversight that some in the sector fear, including the outgoing head of the Bank of England, Mark Carney.

“It is not desirable at all to align our approaches, to tie our hands and to outsource regulation and effectively supervision of the world’s leading complex financial system to another jurisdiction,” he told the Financial Times. 

Johnson’s meeting with von der Leyen, the first since she took office, will also be attended by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

Number 10 said Johnson will underline that the forthcoming negotiations will be based on an ambitious free trade agreement, and not on alignment.

Brussels insisted on Monday that trade talks would not be on the agenda at the meeting.

European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said the meeting would “set the scene” for the Brexit process, but in order to launch trade talks the European Council – made up of the 27 remaining EU nations – would need to approve a mandate “and we are not at that stage yet”.

“This is not a meeting that will go into the details of the trade negotiation per se,” he added.

House of Commons

Meanwhile, MPs will continue to scrutinise the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) in the second day of its committee stage.

Yesterday, Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay insisted the government would stick to its EU departure timetable after facing calls to guarantee the UK will leave with a trade agreement.

The Cabinet minister said the Conservatives had committed in their manifesto to not extend the implementation period beyond December 2020.

Barclay expressed confidence in negotiating a trade agreement with the EU in the 11-month transition, but did not rule out a no-deal arrangement.

Clause 33 of the WAB seeks to prohibit ministers from trying to extend the implementation period, which would begin once the UK leaves the EU on 31 January.

Labour said the WAB is a “bad deal” for the UK and called on the government to come forward with proposals to show how it will avoid the “catastrophe of no-deal at the end of this year”.

xinhua-pictures-of-the-year-2019-world Ursula von der Leyen after being elected the next president of the European Commission. Source: PA Images

Today’s Commons debate on the Bill is likely to be dominated by an amendment demanding the Government continues to negotiate to take in lone child refugees from Europe after Brexit.

A clause containing a commitment to strike a deal with the EU so unaccompanied child refugees could continue to be reunited with their families in the UK after exit day was removed from the Bill when it was reintroduced to Parliament after the election.

Clause 37 replaces the pledge with a watered-down vow for ministers to “make a statement” on the progress of the talks once the divorce with Brussels is complete.

Labour leadership hopeful Keir Starmer and Alf Dubs, who fled from the Nazis on the Kindertransport to Britain when he was aged six, have written to all Tory MPs calling on them to vote against the Prime Minister’s “disgraceful” change.

It comes as the Telegraph reported that the EU has warned Johnson not to water down protections for its citizens living in the UK after Brexit.

The paper said Barnier raised “issues of concern” in a letter to Mr Barclay before Christmas, in which he was said to have highlighted the need for an independent watchdog to enable EU citizens to make complaints against the government.

- With reporting by © – AFP 2020

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