Von der Leyen warns UK it must abide by ‘level playing field’ in trade talks

Her comments come as the European Commission on Monday issued a recommendation to Member States to open negotiations on a new partnership with the UK.


credit: European Parliament Audiovisual

By Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at the Parliament Magazine

03 Feb 2020

The draft mandate covers all areas of interest for the negotiations, including trade and economic cooperation, law enforcement and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, foreign policy, security and defence, participation in EU programmes and other “thematic” areas of cooperation.

A dedicated chapter on governance provides an outline for an overall governance framework covering all areas of economic and security cooperation.

Member States will have to adopt the draft negotiating directives at a summit in Brussels later this month.


Speaking after publication of the EU’s negotiating position on Monday, von der Leyen said, “It's now time to get down to work. Time is short.”

She added, “We will negotiate in a fair and transparent manner, but we will defend EU interests, and the interests of our citizens, right until the end.”

The talks are due to get underway in March and her remarks come despite UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson saying the UK, post-Brexit, will not keep to EU rules.

At the stroke of midnight in Brussels last Friday, Britain left the EU with Johnson delivering on his election promise to “Get Brexit Done.”

“We will negotiate in a fair and transparent manner, but we will defend EU interests, and the interests of our citizens, right until the end” Ursula von der Leyen

February 1 marked the beginning of a new phase of negotiations between London and Brussels to agree on the shape of their future relationship.

They have until the end of 2020 — a transition period during which Britain will remain an EU member in all but name — to hammer out an agreement on trade and other issues including security, energy, transport links, fishing rights and data flow.

Getting more than that would be easier if Britain was willing to remain aligned with EU regulations, but the UK insists it will not be “a rule-taker.”

Britain’s concern is that sticking to EU rules would make it harder to strike trade agreements with other countries, especially the United States.

The EU says it will not seal a trade deal with a large, economically-powerful neighbour without solid provisions to guarantee fair competition.

Its demands will focus on “level playing field” issues — environmental and labour standards, as well as state aid rules — to ensure Britain would not be able to offer products on the bloc’s single market at unfairly low prices.

In a vote last week MEPs backed the Withdrawal Agreement by an overwhelming majority.

The issue of level playing fields was highlighted in a speech von der Leyen gave to MEPs in a debate in parliament last week.

She said, “The WA is just a first step but to be clear: I want the EU and UK to stay good friends and partners. But we will have to sort out how to deal with the UK as a third country.”

She warned, “A pre-condition to the UK continuing to access the single market is that Britain will also continue to abide by a level playing field.”

“I have to say now, though, that we will not expose our companies in Europe to unfair competition.”

She said, “The terms of the trade-off is simple: the more that the UK upholds social protection and other standards, the better the access will be to the single market. This is all about jobs and finding common solutions and this is something that will be in the interests of both sides.”

The Commission President said the EU will “remain vigilant” on the level playing field issue, along with citizens’ rights and the Irish border issue.

“We have a duty to seek the best for the British and Europeans in a post-Brexit world. We will devote all our energy, 24-7 to achieve results.”

In an emotional address, she said, “Today, I think of all the UK MEPs who have contributed to making the EU strong: you have our respect especially for what you have done over the last three years. We will miss you and always love you.”

Further contribution came from Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, who described the debate as “very touching and very moving.”

“Some moments here today have been extremely moving and very solemn. Many of us regret the decision to leave but respect it.”

He added, “Brexit will generate uncertainty for many citizens but we will continue, in the talks in the year ahead, in the same spirit and with the same objectives. There will no aggression but we will at the same time firmly defend the interests of the EU and its Member States.”

“Going beyond Brexit, the UK will remain a close partner  but we will need to work a on a new legal framework for the alliance.”

He warned, “Even so, we must not underestimate the task ahead and the need to fully implement this WA in all its aspects. I am thinking, in particular, about citizen’s rights and Ireland. One task for year to come is to deal with the consequences of Brexit and draw lessons from this. For now, we wish the UK well in this new beginning.”

Barnier also cited former MEPs Andrew Duff, Malcolm Harbour and Vicky Ford, along with Richard Corbett, for special thanks for their contribution to parliamentary life.

Further contribution came from Guy Verhofstadt who thanked Barnier “for keeping the unity of the EU27 and institutions together even though this was not easy.”

He also thanked “our UK colleagues, at least some of them, for their overwhelming contribution.  We will miss your wit, charm, intelligence and we will miss you.”

The Belgian MEP said the vote was “for an orderly Brexit or a wild Brexit. If we could stop Brexit today I would vote for it but it is not on the agenda. It is sad to see a country leaving that has twice given its blood to liberate us in Europe. How could this happen? 70 percent voted in the UK to enter the EU but 40 years later they have now voted to leave.”

In an often highly-charged debate, with Brexit party MEPs waving Union Jacks and many other British members in tears, EPP leader Manfred Weber said, “This is a sad day for the EU. We cannot change it but it is a huge mistake. The WD is a good agreement that creates unity but the UK will be a third party and the rules will now change.”

He added, “It is the UK’s choice to limit the transition period (to December 2020) but I can tell you that we will not allow the EU to reach a rushed deal. We want the right deal, not the quickest one.”

“Nor will there be any cherry-picking. Yes, access to the single market but only if you respect EU rules.”

The German deputy told the plenary, “There are lessons we have to learn from this so as to avoid another Brexit. The EU needs to act so that our work is once again seen to be at the centre of citizen’s lives.”

He concluded, “I hope that one day the UK will again send MEPs to this Parliament.”

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