EU chief warns Brexit deal must not hurt single market

European Commission President Ursula Von Der Leyen speaks during a debate on the next EU council and last Brexit devlopement during a plenary session at the European Parliament in Brussels on November 25, 2020. (Photo by Olivier HOSLET / POOL / AFP)

In a downbeat assessment of progress in post-Brexit trade talks, EU chief Ursula von der Leyen warned Wednesday that any deal must not undermine the EU single market.

“We will do all in our power to reach an agreement, we’re ready to be creative,” she told the European Parliament, warning that Britain must agree to fair trade rules.

“But we are not ready to put into question the integrity of the single market, the main safeguard for European prosperity and wealth,” the president of the European Commission said.

She repeated Brussels’ warning that Britain will not enjoy the benefits of EU membership from the outside: “There will be a clear difference between being a full member of the Union, and being just a valued partner.”

Von der Leyen acknowledged MEPs frustration that time is running out for them to be able to debate and ratify any trade deal before Britain leaves the single market on January 1.

But she warned that British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s tactics had shown the need for clear rules to be agreed.

“We want to know what remedies are available in case one side will deviate in the future because trust is good, but law is better,” she said.

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“Crucially, in the light of recent experience, a strong governance system is essential to ensure that what has been agreed is actually agreed.”

London has been resisting signing up to the EU’s vision of a post-Brexit “level playing field”, with trade penalties if either side diverges from agreed standards.

Johnson has also introduced a draft law to govern the UK internal market that his own government admits would breach promises made in Britain’s EU withdrawal treaty.

This has undermined trust in Brussels, and talks have now blown past several unofficial deadlines, leaving only a narrow window for agreement before the end of the year.

Next days decisive
If a deal cannot be signed and ratified by December 31, cross-Channel trade will face a tariff barrier and businesses on both sides — but especially, experts agree, in Britain — will suffer.

Von der Leyen paid tribute to her chief negotiator Michel Barnier, who on Thursday is due to come out of the isolation imposed after a member of his team contracted the coronavirus.

He is then due to return to London to resume face-to-face negotiations with his British opposite number, David Frost. Talks have been continuing by video link.

The main areas of disagreement remain on fishing rights, the level-playing field and the powers of the overall governance mechanism of the eventual accord.

Here, Von der Leyen re-stated the long-standing EU position — but in sterner than usual terms — reflecting the mounting concern among her parliamentary audience that time has run out.

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“No one questions the UK’s sovereignty in its own waters. But we ask for predictability and guarantees for fishermen and fisherwomen, who have been sailing in these waters for decades, if not centuries,” she said.

“Honourable members, as I said, the next days are going to be decisive. The European Union is well prepared for a no deal scenario. But of course we prefer to have an agreement.”

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