The European Council has asked the Commission to present a mandate to start post-Brexit negotiations with the UK as soon as possible, following Thursday (12 December) UK elections results that confirmed a strong majority for Boris Johnson.
“Chapeau that he was able to pull this off,” German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a press conference following the 12-13 December summit.
With this result, Brexit could now go ahead, Merkel explained, and the EU must now turn to the trade negotiations “which will be complicated enough.” The EU, she said, is ready and will act “with great vigour and unity.”
EU leaders see Brexit as a done deal and want to move forward after months of uncertainty. Johnson will have a sufficient majority in the Parliament to pass the Withdrawal Agreement quickly and ensure an orderly departure.
“It is a clear victory and we expect the UK Parliament will vote as soon as possible on the Withdrawal Agreement,” European Council president Charles Michel said. The uncertainty is over, which is “positive for Europe”, Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez added.
The hardest part of the negotiation starts with only 11 months to go before the end of the transition period.
The EU27 want to move forward swiftly and even if the UK has not officially left the bloc just yet, they tasked the Commission for a mandate to start talks and confirmed Frenchman Michel Barnier as the lead negotiator.
“The time is very short to negotiate a broad field,” Commission president Ursula Von der Leyen admitted and announced they are working on a draft mandate to be ready by 1 February.
Merkel said “it will be important for us to work quickly and precisely”.
A fair future relationship
In its conclusions, the Council insisted it aims to have a relationship with the UK “as close as possible,” but warned it “will have to be based on a balance of rights and obligations and ensure a level playing field.”
“We aim for zero tariffs, no quotas, zero dumpings with the UK,” von der Leyen told reporters.
But “if the UK wants a very ambitious free trade agreement,” French President Emmanuel Macron warned, “then, we need a very ambitious regulatory cooperation.”
No tariffs, no quotas and as few checks as possible could only happen if “there is a level playing field,” Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar explained. If, however, the UK wants to diverge from EU standards, “it will take a bit longer,” said Macron.
Von der Leyen insisted the EU wants to close as many chapters as possible by the end of next year. “We go step by step, with an attitude of ‘we want to be good neighbours,’ the Commission president said.
The UK and the EU, she insisted, face many common challenges and interests.
“It is in our common interest to come to a very good new relationship in an orderly way,” she said, while Varadkar explained that “the absolute view across the table that it shouldn’t be just about trade, that it is about the future partnership between the EU and the UK”.
This would most likely mean negotiations will result in a so-called mixed agreement that would need to be ratified not only by the European Parliament but also by the national chambers
If things do not work out in the next few months, “the timeline is extremely tight,” the Irish Taoiseach warned, and should the EU or the UK need a further extension, “that has to be decided by the end of July.”
Varadkar argued that things have worked so far thanks to the work done by Barnier’s task force and the unity among the member states, including in showing solidarity towards Ireland, the most affected country by Brexit.
He warned that this time, “our interests are all very divergent. But we need to stick together and we need to maintain solidarity and unity”.
“This face of Brexit comes to an end on 31 January but Brexit does not come to an end on 31 January,” he added.