The UK would suffer the most if officials failed to meet a new December 2020 deadline to finalise a post-Brexit trade deal with the European Union, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has warned.
Addressing MEPs in the European Parliament on Wednesday (18 December), von der Leyen conceded that “the timetable ahead of us is extremely challenging,” adding that “in case we cannot reach an agreement by the end of 2020 we will face again a cliff-edge situation.”
“That will clearly harm our interests but it will clearly impact more the UK,” said von der Leyen.
After securing a decisive win in last week’s UK general election, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is expected to bring his Withdrawal Agreement back before UK lawmakers for debate and its first vote on Friday, and hopes to have the deal ratified by mid-January .
But he has also put the spectre of a ‘no deal’ Brexit back on the table after promising to enshrine the December 2020 deadline in law, ruling out the possibility of extending the transition period.
Once the UK formally leaves the EU in January, formal negotiations on a new trade agreement will begin, and von der Leyen told MEPs that the Commission would be ready to propose a negotiating mandate to national leaders on 1 February.
However, that will leave only an eleven-month timetable to finalise and ratify a new pact, far shorter than the amount of time it typically takes to broker a trade deal.
That has prompted speculation that the most likely solution is a ‘bare bones’ trade deal covering tariffs and quotas between the EU and UK, which can be built on over a period of years.
Johnson’s Conservative party has indicated that it wants future EU-UK relations to be modelled on the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement between the EU and Canada.
Von der Leyen expressed her hopes that the talks would produce an “unprecedented partnership”.
“This is not the end of something, it is the beginning of new relations between neighbours and I want us to become good neighbours with our friends in the UK,” she said.
Meanwhile, the chairman of the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group, Guy Verhofstadt, warned that MEPs might torpedo the Withdrawal Agreement if the UK government does not provide new assurances to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK.
“Everyone presumes the European Parliament will give automatically its consent to the Withdrawal Agreement. Not if the remaining problems with the citizens’ rights are not solved first,” Verhofstadt said, adding that “citizens can never become the victims of Brexit.”
[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]