EU and UK ‘running out of time’ as von der Leyen and Johnson gear up for Brussels meeting

Manfred Weber, the leader of the EPP Group in Parliament, was speaking after it emerged that UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson will come to Brussels “in the coming days” for a physical meeting with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

08 Dec 2020

On Tuesday, Weber told this website, “We are running out of time. Boris Johnson needs to make a choice between the ideology of Brexit and the realism of people’s daily lives.”

The German member, whose group is the biggest in parliament, added, “In the middle of the Covid crisis we owe it to our citizens and businesses to find an agreement. It is now or never.”

The timing of the meeting between Johnson and von der Leyen has yet to be confirmed but most see it as a last roll of the dice to secure a trade deal.

He is not expected to time his trip to coincide with an EU summit on Thursday and Friday and leaders of the 27 EU Member States have agreed to step up contingency planning for the effects of a “no deal” on their economies when they meet for the summit.

With the clock ticking ahead of 31 December and the end of the transition period for the UK, the British House of Commons on Monday voted to keep the clauses in the Internal Market Bill that would breach international law.

The UK government, in what is seen by some as an olive branch to the EU, has offered to scrap the controversial clauses, an offer still thought to be on the table despite the Commons vote.

The two sides have been haggling over fishing rights in British waters, ensuring fair competition for companies and ways to solve future disputes.

“Boris Johnson has a lot on his plate. He has to consider whether it would be easier for him to keep his party united with a No Deal and blame EU for it or to go for a skinny deal and declare that he got Brexit done” Danuta Hubner, EPP

But many are gloomy about a deal, with a UK government source quoted as saying there was “every chance we are not going to get there.”

Further MEP comment came from EPP deputy Danuta Hubner, chair of the constitutional affairs committee, who told this site, “Boris Johnson has a lot on his plate. He has to consider whether it would be easier for him to keep his party united with a No Deal and blame EU for it or to go for a skinny deal and declare that he got Brexit done.”

She added, “We should not give up just yet but we are very close to a No Deal now. There are probably two days left to find a solution. Ninety five percent is agreed I understand, but the remaining five per cent is proving very difficult.”

“The UK offer to drop the clauses from the Internal Market Bill is good and creates better conditions. Without this it would be impossible for Parliament to ratify any deal.”

Hubner, a former European Commissioner, said, “I do not know what the ‘sovereignty’ the UK refers to means in the context of these negotiations. We do know that the state aid system in UK will be different from the EU one. All we as the EU want is to agree on a set of principles of fair competition that both sides would respect to avoid damage to companies and consumers on both sides of the Channel.”

Former UK Liberal MEP Andrew Duff likened the UK to Hungary and Poland, both of which are currently holding up agreement on the next long-term EU budget because they oppose the rule of law mechanism that binds EU funding to respect for fundamental rights.

He told this site, “The EU’s challenge is to combat nationalism. That means sorting out the Brits, Hungarians and Poles. All three.”

“We are running out of time. Boris Johnson needs to make a choice between the ideology of Brexit and the realism of people’s daily lives” Manfred Weber, EPP leader

Elsewhere, Sir Graham Watson, former leader of the Liberal Democrats in Parliament, also told The Parliament Magazine, “It is sad that UK government ministers have taken to spreading untruths about the European Union’s position in negotiations, and even sadder that they are offering as a “concession“ the intention to resile from breaking international law.”

He said, “It has been clear from the outset that those wishing to trade with the European single market must do so on single market terms, whether in competition policy or in product standards. Boris Johnson is doing a disservice to his country in allowing the politics of the Conservative party to trump the national interest.”

“Deal or No Deal, the damage done by Brexit will add to the misery caused by Coronavirus in the UK.”

Denis MacShane, a former Europe minister in the UK, told this website, “The side that walks out of negotiations loses. The EU should be patient and, if necessary, offer to roll over talks into 2021 provided No 10 accepts this means an extension based on status quo.”

“Johnson has made so many false promises about an ‘oven-ready deal’ or that trade negotiations will be easy. Now he is panicking as the damage to UK economy will be huge but he dare not spell out truth to his MPs who swallowed the Brexit Cool-Aid and believed it would usher in a wonderful new radiant future for Britain.”

On Tuesday, a Commission spokesman told the midday news briefing, “We have no specific date yet for the meeting. We will have to wait and see when it takes place, but the conversation between the two yesterday focused on the main sticking points and the disagreements and how to try and move forward. I would add that the call was very cordial.”

Asked if the meeting between Johnson and von der Leyen was a “last chance saloon,” he said, “Well, this is unchartered territory and we continue to wish to negotiate to find an agreement which allows us to defend the interests of the EU and will continue on that path for as long as necessary.”

“Contingency measures are not on the agenda for the moment. We are waiting for the meeting between the Prime Minister and Commission President in order to hopefully move forward with the talks. No one has said the negotiations will wrap up tomorrow. We will have to wait and see how it unfolds.”

“If there is not an agreement before 1 January, there will be no deal and this will give rise to a lot of consequences on 1 January and we are preparing for that. We are reaching the juncture where we will have to propose contingency plans,” he told reporters.

He added, “Maroš Šefčovič also had a meeting with Michael Gove on the issue of Northern Ireland on Monday. This was a very constructive meeting and result oriented. Good progress was made on all aspects of the WD to ensure it will be fully operations on 1 January.”

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