Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) greets European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen outside 10 Downing Street in London, the UK, on January 8 2020. Picture: AFP/TOLGA AKMEN
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson (left) greets European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen outside 10 Downing Street in London, the UK, on January 8 2020. Picture: AFP/TOLGA AKMEN

London — The EU is on course for a clash with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson after European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen warned it will be “impossible” to get a full deal before his year-end deadline.

In her first major intervention on Brexit since she took up her post on December 1, Von der Leyen said the EU is “ready to work day and night” to strike a deal but warned Johnson that there isn’t time for detailed negotiations on all aspects of the UK’s future relationship with the EU.

The time is “very, very tight”, Von der Leyen told an audience at the London School of Economics ahead of a meeting with Johnson later in the day. “It’s not all or nothing, it’s a question of priorities.” 

Despite the mutual desire to present a clean slate after nearly three years of bad-tempered and tortuous negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, both sides are digging in as Britain prepares to leave the bloc on January 31.

Buoyed by last month’s election victory, Johnson wants an ambitious, free-trade agreement and has ruled out keeping the UK tied to EU laws beyond December 31. His office said he’ll tell her that voters expect negotiations to be concluded on time by the end of 2020.

But the next set of negotiations, on the type of relationship the UK and EU will have, could be even trickier than settling on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal. The future agreement should cover areas as diverse as the trade in goods and services, security co-operation, data-sharing, fishing quotas, and the terms under which European nationals can work in Britain.

“It is basically impossible to negotiate all of what I’ve mentioned,” she said.

Von der Leyen reiterated a message that the EU has given since even before the first Brexit talks started: the bloc has red lines on which it simply won’t budge.

“Without the free movement of people, you cannot have the free movement of capital, goods and services,” 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.”

Speaking on the edge of the City, Von der Leyen made a point of singling out how Johnson’s negotiating position will affect the UK’s financial services industry’s easy access to European markets. “This is over,” she said. “All will change.” Instead, she said, British firms may get more limited access on a sector-by-sector basis, “but that is a decision unilateral from the EU”. 

As Von der Leyen emphasises the limits of what the UK can expect, some of Johnson’s supporters are looking for him to put more pressure on the EU by opening trade negotiations with other countries such as the US. Johnson’s spokesperson James Slack told reporters on Monday that the UK would be able to start such talks after it has left the EU on January 31.

“We are ready to design a new partnership with zero tariffs, zero quotas, zero dumping,” Von der Leyen said. “A partnership that goes well beyond trade and is unprecedented in scope. We should be optimistic. We need to be optimistic.”

Bloomberg