In recent weeks, the world has changed dramatically. Our former everyday life seems far away. Europe was hit by surprise by the COVID-19 pandemic, which led to a crisis of unprecedented scale and speed.
The European Union has acted quickly and efficiently to tackle the health and economy challenges arising from this crisis. Nevertheless, in these extraordinary times, the negotiations on the future EU-UK relationship remain a priority.
The European Parliament has set up the UK Coordination Group (UKCG). It is led by me as Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee and further involves the Chair of the Committee on International Trade (INTA), the Chair of the Conference of Committee Chairs (CCC), the Chair of the Subcommittee on Security and Defence (SEDE) and the AFET and INTA rapporteurs as well as a representative from each political group.
Any international agreement between the EU and a third country requires the consent of the European Parliament. In order to guarantee this consent, we as Parliament have to be involved in the process of negotiations by being regularly and fully informed. Due to the complexity, the valued expertise of our specialised committees is particularly relevant, too.
As UKCG, we are in constant dialogue with the European Commission’s UK Task Force. We meet with Michel Barnier and his team regularly via videoconference to exchange views on recent developments such as the content of the EU draft legal agreement for the future EU-UK partnership or the draft text proposed by the UK.
“Given the current uncertainty, both sides should quickly find alternative ways to continue the consultations”
The exchanged drafts of the legal texts cover the respective visions of our future relations. Thereby the EU’s text is fully based on the Political Declaration, while the British one covers only some elements. I still believe that a comprehensive agreement, covering all areas of the Political Declaration, is better suited to match the kind of ambitious partnership that would be in the interests of both the EU and the UK.
After the first round of negotiations and based on the draft texts of both sides, four major points of divergence were revealed - on the level playing field, on police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, on fisheries and on governance. It is obvious that many open questions have to be resolved over the months ahead of us.
Apart from the ongoing discussions on our future relations, the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement remains a priority for the UKCG. This concerns safeguarding the rights of the affected 4.5 million EU citizens and UK nationals, and maintaining peace and stability on the island of Ireland in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, while ensuring the integrity of the Single Market.
A new partnership can only be built on the faithful and effective implementation of what has been mutually acknowledged.
Therefore, we also held a meeting with European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, who informed us about the outcome of the first meeting of the Joint Committee and the launch of the six specialised committees. The European Parliament will continue to play a constitutional role in the scrutiny of the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement.
The third task we have to fulfil this year is to prepare for the end of the transition period. The changes taking place on 1 January 2021, even with an agreement, will be very significant, for both businesses and people.
From the very beginning, it was to be expected that the negotiations would not be easy. But we started them from a position of certainty, goodwill, shared interests and purpose. In my opinion, both the EU and the UK still have a strong, shared interest in signing an ambitious and comprehensive new partnership governing their future relations.
“The overarching question is the duration and the end of the transition period. In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the question of a possible extension may be reconsidered in London”
Given the current uncertainty, both sides should quickly find alternative ways to continue the consultations. Among other important questions that need to be examined are whether the High Level Conference will take place in June and whether the June European Council will still be the platform where the progress of negotiations can be evaluated.
Before these two crucial events, the European Parliament will adopt another resolution on the future relations.
The overarching question is the duration and the end of the transition period. In light of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the question of a possible extension may be reconsidered in London. The transition period can only be prolonged if both parties agree.
On the EU side, we have always been open to have more time to negotiate.
Implementing the Withdrawal Agreement, negotiating a new partnership and preparing for the end of the transition period: We have to carry out these tasks in parallel this year, amid one of the biggest challenges our continent is facing since the Second World War.
I am convinced that during these unprecedented times, mutual trust and respect could be key to ensuring the best possible outcome for both parties.