Ursula von der Leyen has said the EU is willing to be “creative” to get a deal with the UK, as she counselled MEPs that European interests would be served by the bloc’s leaders backing any compromise that emerges.
While warning in a speech to the European parliament that she was unable to guarantee that a trade and security deal would be struck in the “very little time ahead of us”, the European commission president said she trusted in Michel Barnier’s “skilful steer”.
Physical talks are on hold after a member of the EU negotiating team tested positive for coronavirus but the EU’s chief negotiator is expected to leave quarantine on Friday and head to London for a last-ditch push for an agreement.
It is understood Barnier had warned David Frost, Britain’s chief Brexit negotiator, on Tuesday that he needed to see movement to make a visit to the UK worthwhile. In a sign that the talks are progressing, it is understood Barnier has since decided there is reason to travel.
“These are decisive days for negotiations with the United Kingdom,” Von der Leyen told MEPs. “But, frankly, I cannot tell you today if in the end, there will be a deal.”
There is concern among some member states, however, that the UK is successfully pushing the commission into making concessions that will give British businesses an advantage in the marketplace over the decades to come.
She offered assurances that the commission’s negotiating team was being open-minded as to how to bridge the gaps between the two sides, but that they were holding firm on key principles.
From Brefusal to Brexit: a history of Britain in the EU
The French president, Charles de Gaulle, vetoes Britain’s entry to EEC, accusing the UK of a “deep-seated hostility” towards the European project.
With Sir Edward Heath having signed the accession treaty the previous year, the UK enters the EEC in an official ceremony complete with a torch-lit rally, dickie-bowed officials and a procession of political leaders, including former prime ministers Harold Macmillan and Alec Douglas-Home.
The UK decides to stay in the common market after 67% voted “yes”. Margaret Thatcher, later to be leader of the Conservative party, campaigned to remain.
‘Give us our money back’
Margaret Thatcher negotiated what became known as the UK rebate with other EU members after the “iron lady” marched into the former French royal palace at Fontainebleau to demand “our own money back” claiming for every £2 contributed we get only £1 back” despite being one of the “three poorer” members of the community.
It was a move that sowed the seeds of Tory Euroscepticism that was to later cause the Brexit schism in the party.
The Bruges speech
Thatcher served notice on the EU community in a defining moment in EU politics in which she questioned the expansionist plans of Jacques Delors, who had remarked that 80% of all decisions on economic and social policy would be made by the European Community within 10 years with a European government in “embryo”. That was a bridge too far for Thatcher.
The cold war ends
Collapse of Berlin wall and fall of communism in eastern Europe, which would later lead to expansion of EU.
‘No, no, no’
Divisions between the UK and the EU deepened with Thatcher telling the Commons in an infamous speech it was ‘no, no, no’ to what she saw as Delors’ continued power grab. Rupert Murdoch’s Sun newspaper ratchets up its opposition to Europe with a two-fingered “Up yours Delors” front page.
A collapse in the pound forced prime minister John Major and the then chancellor Norman Lamont to pull the UK out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism.
The single market
On 1 January, customs checks and duties were removed across the bloc. Thatcher hailed the vision of “a single market without barriers – visible or invisible – giving you direct and unhindered access to the purchasing power of over 300 million of the world’s wealthiest and most prosperous people”.
Tory rebels vote against the treaty that paved the way for the creation of the European Union. John Major won the vote the following day in a pyrrhic victory.
Repairing the relationship
Tony Blair patches up the relationship. Signs up to social charter and workers’ rights.
Nigel Farage elected an MEP and immediately goes on the offensive in Brussels. “Our interests are best served by not being a member of this club,” he said in his maiden speech. “The level playing field is about as level as the decks of the Titanic after it hit an iceberg.”
Chancellor Gordon Brown decides the UK will not join the euro.
EU enlarges to to include eight countries of the former eastern bloc including Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.
EU expands again, allowing Romania and Bulgaria into the club.
Anti-immigration hysteria seems to take hold with references to “cockroches” by Katie Hopkins in the Sun and tabloid headlines such as “How many more can we take?” and “Calais crisis: send in the dogs”.
David Cameron returns from Brussels with an EU reform package – but it isn’t enough to appease the Eurosceptic wing of his own party
The UK votes to leave the European Union, triggering David Cameron’s resignation and paving the way for Theresa May to become prime minister
Britain leaves the EU
After years of parliamentary impasse during Theresa May’s attempt to get a deal agreed, the UK leaves the EU.
“We will do all in our power to reach an agreement. We’re ready to be creative,” she said. “But we are not ready to put into question the integrity of the single market, the main safeguard for European prosperity and wealth.”
Von der Leyen said legal texts on judicial and social security coordination, trade in goods and services and transport were almost finalised. “However, there’s still three issues that can make the difference between a deal and no deal,” she added.
She said fishing communities needed “predictability” from year to year over access to British waters, in a reference to Downing Street’s wish to hold annual negotiations over catches in UK seas, with the option of blocking access.
On state aid, Von der Leyen said the EU was seeking a mechanism through which any breach of agreed principles controlling domestic subsidies could be swiftly remedied.
The EU is also seeking a mechanism to ensure there are consequences for either side within the trade deal if standards diverge over time.
“Significant difficulties remain on the question, how we can secure now, and over time, our common high standards on labour on social rights on the environment, the climate change and tax transparency,” Von der Leyen said. “We want to know what remedies are available in case one side will deviate in the future. Because trust is good, but law is better.”
She said the talks were in their “decisive days”, adding: “It is when we negotiate hard, and then stick to the compromise found that we move forward fast.”
EU leaders are due to meet on 10 December. The European parliament is due to hold a special session on 28 December to give its consent to a deal. However, any agreement would need to be finalised in the coming days to allow time for legal and parliamentary scrutiny and translation.