Von der Leyen and Johnson set for make-or-break Brexit call

The European Commission President and the UK Prime Minister will assess an eleventh-hour attempt to salvage a Brexit trade deal during a phone conversation on Monday at 5pm CET.

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

07 Dec 2020

With the UK due to leave the EU on 31 December, desperate last-minute efforts are taking place to rescue a trade agreement between the two sides.

Earlier on Monday talks continued, this time in Brussels, between the two sides even though Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, gave a gloomy assessment of the state of play in a discussion on Monday with EU ambassadors.

Discussions resumed despite the UK and EU also issuing a statement at the weekend admitting that “significant differences” remained.

With fears also growing about the Withdrawal Agreement, UK cabinet minister Michael Gove was in Brussels to meet European Commission Vice-President, Maroš Šefčovič to discuss the movement of food from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, including the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Ahead of the talks, Šefčovič said, “We are working hard to make sure the protocol is operational from January 1.”

“If there is an agreement, it must be subject to proper democratic scrutiny. We are open and willing to organise an emergency plenary session over the Christmas holidays if it is necessary”

David Sassoli, European Parliament President

A UK government spokesman said, “The chancellor of the duchy of Lancaster will meet Vice-President Šefčovič today in Brussels to discuss issues related to their work as co-chairs of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee.”

If no deal is done by the end of the year, the UK and EU will introduce tariffs and border checks on goods.

The Internal Market Bill also returned to the UK’s House of Commons on Monday, with the controversial clauses expected to remain in place unless there is a trade deal.

Earlier, the UK and EU issued a statement following the meeting on Saturday between Von der Leyen and Johnson which read, “We welcomed the fact that progress has been achieved in many areas. Nevertheless, significant differences remain on three critical issues: level playing field, governance and fisheries. Both sides underlined that no agreement is feasible if these issues are not resolved.”

It added, “Whilst recognising the seriousness of these differences, we agreed that a further effort should be undertaken by our negotiating teams to assess whether they can be resolved.”

“The ultimate goal is to reach a deal very soon. This is the critical moment where principles need to be translated into rules and, more importantly, rules need to be guaranteed by a robust enforcement framework, ensuring that competition is - and remains - free and fair over time” David McAllister, UK Coordination Group Chair

Council President Charles Michel, meanwhile, says that while he still hopes an agreement can be reached in the next few days, this “must not come at any cost.”

He confirmed media reports that the question of a level playing field, fisheries and governance were still “the three difficult areas.”

UK Labour MP Rachel Reeves MP, Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, responding to news that Brexit negotiations remain ongoing, said, “The British people were promised a deal and, with time running out, we urge both sides to get on with reaching an agreement.”

“We can then focus on the job at hand which is securing the economy and rebuilding our country from the pandemic.”

MEPs, meanwhile, say they are becoming increasingly alarmed that any deal will be done so late in the day that the institution will not get the chance to scrutinise it. Parliament has the legal right to sign off on any deal.

“If the British government is not prepared to give binding commitments on workers’ rights and the environment, on fisheries and on governance, then we reluctantly conclude that there is likely to be no agreement” Martin Schirdewan, GUE/NGL co-chair

Deputies say that Parliament “must not be sidelined if a provisional deal agreed.”

Parliament’s president David Sassoli said, “Throughout this mandate Parliament has always fulfilled its commitments in a fast and effective manner. If there is an agreement, it must be subject to proper democratic scrutiny. We are open and willing to organise an emergency plenary session over the Christmas holidays if it is necessary.”

GUE/NGL co-chair leader Martin Schirdewan, who is a member of Parliament’s UK Coordination Group, said, “We have heard from Michel Barnier that there has been no significant movement on the fundamental issues that have blocked an agreement for months.”

“If the British government is not prepared to give binding commitments on workers’ rights and the environment, on fisheries and on governance, then we reluctantly conclude that there is likely to be no agreement.”

“However, if an agreement can be reached in the coming days then the consent of Parliament cannot be taken for granted.”

He added, “Any such agreement may involve compromises on some of the most sensitive issues - in particular non-regression on workers’ rights and the environment.”

“It is the duty of Parliament to scrutinise any agreement to ensure that it doesn’t cross our red lines. We know the time is too short for the kind of in-depth scrutiny such an agreement deserves, but the Left in Parliament will take its responsibilities and will not support an agreement that is against the interests of the people and workers in EU Member States.”

He concluded, “We hope that the rest of Parliament will do likewise.”

German EPP member David McAllister, who chairs the UKCG, told The Parliament Magazine, “The ultimate goal is to reach a deal very soon. This is the critical moment where principles need to be translated into rules and, more importantly, rules need to be guaranteed by a robust enforcement framework, ensuring that competition is - and remains - free and fair over time.”

Irish EPP MEP Deirdre Clune told this site, “Reports this morning that no progress has been made in the talks are very disappointing. Attempts to agree a deal on the outstanding issues are challenging for both sides but the fact that Barnier said talks will not go beyond Wednesday means that we are now in the endgame.”

On Thursday, EU leaders will meet in Brussels for a two-day summit where they could sign off a deal, if the two sides can reach an agreement by then.

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