Ursula von der Leyen tells MEPs: Brexit deal ‘so close … yet so far’

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EU and U.K. negotiators are working “day and night,” European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told the European Parliament on Wednesday, “but this is now a case of us being so close and yet being so far away from each other.”

Von der Leyen said that dispute over the so-called level playing field — determining how closely the U.K. will align to EU rules in future — and over access to fisheries remain the two big impediments to reaching an agreement before the transition period expires on December 31.

Speaking in the European Parliament plenary, von der Leyen acknowledged that time was running extremely short and that members of Parliament would have very little time to fulfill their duties to scrutinize any agreement. She did not offer any explanation for how they would be able to review such a complex agreement in very few days, nonetheless, von der Leyen called on the MEPs to “ensure a good outcome” if a deal is reached.

“The clock puts us all in a very difficult situation not least this Parliament and its right to exercise democratic scrutiny and ratification,” von der Leyen said toward the end of her remarks about Brexit. “And that is why I want to sincerely thank you for your support and your understanding and I know that if we do get there, I can count on you to ensure a good outcome. As in the past, we must all walk these last miles in the same shoes.”

But beyond extending her thanks, von der Leyen offered no clue as to how Parliament would be able to hold oversight hearings, nor did she comment on the fact that Parliament would be forced to review any agreement without the legally-required translation of it into the EU’s 23 official languages other than English.

Regarding the on-going talks, von der Leyen thanked the bloc’s negotiating team and especially its chief Michel Barnier for his “dedication and resilience.” But she warned that it was still far from certain that an accord could be achieved, though she said that all but the toughest issues have been resolved.

“As things stand I cannot tell you whether there will be a deal or not,” von der Leyen said. “But I can tell you that there is a path to an agreement now. The path may be very narrow, but it is there, and it is therefore our responsibility to continue trying.”

“The good news is that we have found a way forward on most issues,” von der Leyen continued. “But this is now a case of us being so close and yet being so far away from each other because two issues remain outstanding, you know them — the level playing field and the fisheries.”

Von der Leyen said that negotiators were still deadlocked over how to address instances where the EU and U.K. might diverge in their regulatory regimes in the future.

“On the level playing field: Our aim is to simply ensure fair competition on our own market — very simple,” the president said. “And this is why we need to establish robust mechanisms. The architecture we are working on rests on two pillars: state aid and standards. On state aid, we have made progress based on common principles, guarantees of domestic enforcement and the possibility to autonomously remedy the situation where needed. On standards, we have agreed a strong mechanism on non-regression. That’s a big step forward, and this is to ensure that our common high, labor, social and environmental standards will not be undercut. And of course, difficulties remain on the question of how to really future-proof fair competition.”

Von der Leyen suggested that the stand-off on fisheries may not be surmountable.

“On fisheries, the discussion is still very difficult,” she said. “We do not question the U.K.’s sovereignty on its own waters, but we ask for predictability and stability for our fishermen and our fisherwomen. And in all honesty, it sometimes feels that we will not be able to resolve this question, but we must continue to try finding a solution.”

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