At last a European Commission President who is in love with Britain

Written by Denis MacShane on 9 January 2020 in Opinion
Opinion

For the first time Britain has got full sight of the woman who will face Boris Johnson in the next chapter of the Brexit saga, writes Denis MacShane, the UK’s former Minister of Europe.

Boris Johnson and Ursula von der Leyen | Photo credit: Press Association


Ursula von der Leyen, the new President of the Commission, has the smile of a petite blonde Phoebe Waller-Bridge but the steely determination of Margaret Thatcher in her most certain moments.

Both were on display at the London School of Economics on Wednesday as she laid down the law to British Eurosceptics and our Eurosceptic-in-Chief (Boris Johnson) telling them to give up all hope of a cake-and-eat-it Brexit.

If Britain wants to keep anything like current access to the EU single market - essential for both Nissan, UK farmers, and the City of London, which needs the 350,000 EU passports granted at Brussels’ entire discretion to financial service firms (banks, investment fund, clearing houses, insurance firms, hedge funds) - then von der Leyen says that the UK would have to respect the four freedoms of movement.


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Freedom of movement of capital, goods, service are more than acceptable for Britain but as we know the whole Brexit saga has turned on freedom of movement - branded as unacceptable immigration by opponents of Europe over two decades.

There is an alternative for the UK, which is to change internal labour market rules to manage down and control arrivals from Europe, or indeed for firms to pay enough in wages to attract British workers.

The issue that will now arise is whether the Johnson government wants to launch an all-out war with the European Commission and governments like Poland, which are very sensitive to any suggestion that Poles might be discriminated against by Britain, or whether he will push the freedom of movement issue to the smallest ring with the lowest flame on the back burner?

The lines from the Brexit camp that Europe needs Britain more than we need the EU market now appear to have little support beyond the writers for the new closed down “Brexit Central.”

“Ursula von der Leyen, the new President of the Commission, has the smile of a petite blonde Phoebe Waller-Bridge but the steely determination of Margaret Thatcher in her most certain moments”

An option for Johnson is to make a huge song and dance out of the 3-part Withdrawal Agreement so that he can declare Brexit has been done, completely consummated when the UK ceases to be a signatory member on 31 January.

When asked about the UK negotiating trade deals with other countries, von der Leyen called up Michel Barnier, who got a huge cheer from the LSE audience.

Barnier gently pointed out that, via its EU membership, the UK currently has more 600 free trade agreements covering various sectors with non-EU countries. Renegotiating all of those would take time as new demands and priorities arise which make a simple cut-and-paste operation impossible.

In her LSE speech, which I attended, von der Leyen repeated over and over again that it was not realistic to expect a total comprehensive trade deal in the remaining months of 2020.

She schmoozed the audience with a description of her year in London at the LSE as a 20-year-old. London of the 1980s was an eye-opener for the young student from a strict Lutheran family.

“I looked at this wonderful multi-cultural city with people mixing easily. I spent more time in Soho than in the Senate House Library and began learning that extraordinary British sense of humour,” she said.

She has family in London and two of her seven children attend LSE. She name-checked Roy Jenkins (former Commission president) and Lord Cockfield, ‘the father of the Single Market’, as she called him, and bowed before Winston Churchill as the founding father of European union with his United States of Europe speech in Zürich in 1946.

“This was by far the most friendly, polished, love-Britain-to-death performance ever from a major European leader I can recall”

She insisted “the EU will never be a military alliance and the European Defence Union is complementary to NATO.”

For her, Brexit is ‘done and dusted.’ Now over to Boris Johnson to decide if he wants to continue the Brexit war with Europe or it’s time to draw stumps and keep the UK economy and people fully plugged in to Europe while having absolute sovereignty as and when needed once we lose the obligations of Treaty membership at the end of the month.

I have been a watcher of EU bigwigs for many decades and this was by far the most friendly, polished, love-Britain-to-death performance ever from a major European leader I can recall.

Now it is over to Johnson to respond calmly and in the British interests during his premiership.

About the author

Denis MacShane is the UK’s former Minister of Europe

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