Brexit war of words heats up as European Commission President responds to UK threat to break Withdrawal Agreement with Margaret Thatcher quote

Ursula von der Leyen says UK should remember that Margaret Thatcher once said the UK does not break treaties as it would be bad for Britain and bad for trade.
Margaret Thatcher

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

18 Sep 2020

Ursula von der Leyen has cast new doubt on the EU and UK reaching an agreement on a new trade partnership insisting that the block will not “backtrack” on the Withdrawal Agreement.

She said the Coronavirus pandemic had shown the need for “new beginnings with old friends on both sides of the Channel.”

Earlier this week, in a showpiece “state of the union” speech to MEPs, von der Leyen fondly recalled the scene in parliament when she joined with deputies in singing “Auld Lang Syne” to mark the UK’s exit from the EU earlier this year.

She said the sentiments then “spoke 1000 words” about how the EU considered Britain exiting after over 40 years.

But, turning to the current deadlocked talks between the two sides which continued in Brussels on Thursday, she said, “With every passing day the chances of a timely agreement is fading.”

She added, “These talks have been tough and they have not progressed as we would have wished. We are now left with very little time to reach an agreement.”

The European Commission president, whose comments were applauded by MEPs, also took umbrage at the UK’s recent decision to break international law bring by bringing in new legislation to override the Withdrawal Agreement.

"I remind you of the words of Margaret Thatcher who once said, "Britain does not break Treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world, and bad for any future Treaty on trade"" European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen

On this, von der Leyen said, “The Withdrawal Agreement took three years to negotiate and we went through it word by word, and line by line.”

“It guarantees the integrity of the single market and, crucially, the Good Friday Agreement. This was jointly agreed by both sides as the best way of ensuring peace in Ireland and we are not backtracking on that.”

"This agreement has been ratified by this House and the UK’s House of Commons .It cannot be unilaterally changed, disregarded or dis-applied. This is a matter of law, trust and good faith."

She even delved into the distant past, to 1975 and a speech by former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher.

She said, "It is not just me saying this – I remind you of the words of Margaret Thatcher who once said, "Britain does not break Treaties. It would be bad for Britain, bad for relations with the rest of the world, and bad for any future Treaty on trade”.

Von der Leyen said, “This was true then, and it is true today. Trust is the foundation of any strong partnership.

Speaking in the same debate, the leader of the European Parliament’s centre-right EPP grouping, Manfred Weber said that the UK’s “credibility” was now in question.

“Boris Johnson has thrown the agreement that he himself signed out of the window. The UK is losing credibility at the world level and the European Parliament will never vote for a trade agreement if we can’t trust each other” Manfred Weber, the leader of the European Parliament’s centre-right EPP grouping

The German MEP said, “Boris Johnson has thrown the agreement that he himself signed out of the window. The UK is losing credibility at the world level and the European Parliament will never vote for a trade agreement if we can’t trust each other.” He warned that “the next few months will be very challenging.”

Meanwhile, the Parliament’s Renew Europe group leader Dacian Cioloș said, “Boris Johnson is losing his bearings.”

Johnson responded to von der Leyen’s speech by saying that the EU was not negotiating in good faith.

On Thursday, a Commission spokesman responded by robustly defending the EU’s record on negotiating with “third parties.”The spokesman said, “We have a habit of not commenting on remarks by third parties but there are hundreds of international agreements the EU has signed with very different third parties. These testify to a rather splendid track record on conducting negotiations in good faith.”

“These third parties will testify to the quality of our negotiating, even on very complex and sensitive issues.”

Asked about the EU’s demand that certain clauses of the UK Internal Market Bill, that looks set to be approved by the British parliament, be withdrawn, the spokesman told reporters, “I will not comment on the internal discussions involving the UK government but we have set out our position and said that these clauses should be withdrawn. That is clear and we have asked the UK to do this as soon as possible and by the end of this month at the latest.”

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