In the lion’s den

Copyright: European Union

Today, EU-President von der Leyen held speech at London School of Economics. It was a bit of a “something happens but nothing changes” – that would mean indeed good deal for UK. But it was not the true message.

“We are ready to design a new partnership with zero tariffs, zero quotas, zero dumping. A partnership that goes well beyond trade and is unprecedented in scope. Everything from climate action to data protection, fisheries to energy, transport to space, financial services to security. And we are ready to work day and night to get as much of this done within the timeframe we have.” This was the sound of the German EU Commission’s President in London.

With the title of her speech “Old Friends, New Beginnings” it seemed as if the EU did not define itself as a strong alliance towards a single small country, but rather as a partner with at most equal rights who is looking for cooperation. But beyond these diplomatic cliches, von der Leyen also pointed out the limits of the EU’s ability to accommodate the British. She said: “Without a level playing field on environment, labour, taxation and state aid, you cannot have the highest quality access to the world’s largest single market.” In other words, if the British were to try to make themselves particularly attractive to foreign companies by offering dumping in taxes, environmental requirements and working conditions, this would be a “no way” signal to Europeans. Fears have long been high in the EU (and hopes high in the UK) that this very path will allow the British to win the “David against Goliath” battle.

Second determinant of the EU, as Ursula von der Leyen made clear: We remain committed to strengthening integrity within the EU. Here the British had already miscalculated in recent months, believing that they were sure they wanted to drive a wedge between the European states. Here it became rather apparent that the American president is less reliable than the Europeans. A misconception to which Boris Johnson tended, like his predecessors.

Thirdly, it became clear that even Ursula von der Leyen does not expect to get a comprehensive free trade agreement within the given time frame. The transition period ends on 31 December 2020, and Boris Johnson himself stressed earlier that he wanted to stick to this very point.

For Ms von der Leyen, facing all the problems, it remains to appeal to the generation of young Britons. “I count on you all to make a success of it. You can choose collaboration over isolation, you can shape your continent’s destiny, you can hold your governments accountable, you can refuse to be satisfied with the status quo (…)”. Sometimes only the hope for a better future helps.