Ursula von der Leyen has mocked Boris Johnson’s claims to be willing to accept an Australian-style trade deal with the EU by reminding MEPs that no such agreement exists.
In a speech to the EU’s parliament in Strasbourg, the president of the European commission repeatedly named the prime minister as she picked out the contradictions in his approach to the post-Brexit arrangements.
Von der Leyen noted that the “Canada-style deal” referred to by Johnson as his primary goal in the coming negotiations contained tariffs and quota limits on some goods crossing the Atlantic.
Both sides have said they want to avoid such costs and barriers to trade. Von der Leyen also pointed out that there were also stringent level playing field conditions to ensure high standards in that deal.
“And, honestly, I was a little bit surprised to hear the prime minister of the United Kingdom speak about the Australian model,” Von der Leyen said in response to Johnson’s recent claim to be willing to replicate such a trade “deal” if other arrangements proved unachievable.
“Australia without any doubt is a strong and a like-minded partner,” Von der Leyen told MEPs. “But the European Union does not have a trade agreement with Australia. We are currently trading on WTO terms. And if this is the British choice, well, we are fine with that without any question. But, in fact, we just are in the moment where we are agreeing with Australia that we must end this situation and we work in a trade deal with them.”
“Of course the United Kingdom can decide to settle for less but I personally believe we should be way more ambitious,” Von der Leyen said.
Negotiations between the UK and the EU on the future relationship are due to begin in the first week of March, when Brussels has finalised its opening position.
The UK left the EU on 31 January and will withdraw from the bloc’s single market and customs union at the end of this year at which point the newly negotiated arrangements will come into force.
A “political declaration” agreed between two sides last year lays out the basis for the negotiation and includes a commitment to maintaining high standards in key areas of the economy to ensure that neither side is undercutting the other.
Johnson has recently said, however, that there was no reason for the UK to align with EU state aid, environmental and social standards as part of any trade deal.
Von der Leyen expressed some bemusement at the prime minister’s approach, as she quoted Johnson’s claim in a recent speech in Greenwich that the UK would be a “global champion of free trade”.
“Frankly this is music to our ears,” she said. The former German defence minister insisted, however, that the free trade agreements the EU had with Canada and Japan were “not just increasing our bilateral exchanges of goods services, people and ideas”.
“They also raise standards on a broad range of issues from labour rights to environmental and this is what makes us proud of them,” she said. “When we agreed the political declaration with the United Kingdom we ‘ambitioned’ a zero-tariffs and zero-quota trade relations for all goods. Something we have never ever before offered to anybody else … But of course this will require corresponding guarantees on fair competition and protection of social, environmental and consumer standards.”
Von der Leyen said it was “not the time” to lower standards or be “lukewarm” on the climate crisis. She said there needed to be formal agreement between the two sides to “trigger an upward dynamic of protection that would benefit both the United Kingdom and the European Union”.