Brexit: Don’t settle for ‘isolation’, EU president tells Britain’s youth

European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen laughs as she delivers a speech at the London School of Economics in London: AP
European Commission President Ursula Von der Leyen laughs as she delivers a speech at the London School of Economics in London: AP

The president of the European Commission has urged Britain’s youth to not to settle for “isolation” after Brexit, and said they would not have to accept the new “status quo” negotiated by Boris Johnson.

In her first official visit to the UK Ursula von der Leyen told an audience of students in London that the Brexit deal negotiated would be “for your generation” to live with and that they would have the option of changing it.

She suggested that if Britain’s youth were not satisfied with what was negotiated, they should not accept the status quo and instead could “turn things into how they should be”.

The commission president’s comments will be interpreted by some critics of Brexit as an exhortation not to give up on EU membership or a closer relationship in the long term.

“Brexit does not only mark the end of something. It also makes a new phase in an enduring partnership and friendship,” she told the audience at the London School of Economics.

“It will be a partnership for your generation and I count on you all to make it a success.

“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 and you can turn things into how they should be.”

Polls suggest wide majorities in favour of EU membership among younger and working-age demographics, with Brexit only carried over the line by the retired.

In a wide-ranging speech the political leader of the EU’s executive branch also warned her audience that it would be “basically impossible” to negotiate a full trade deal covering all sectors within the limits of the 2020 deadline set by Boris Johnson.

“We will have to prioritise as long as we face that deadline by the end of 2020,” she said.

She also paid tribute to the UK and its contribution to the European project, as well as remembering her time as a former student of the public research university.

She told the audience that she “probably spent more time in Soho bars and Camden record stores than the Senate House library” and that her time in Britain had shown her that Britain was “strong-willed, open-minded, big-hearted, proud and patriotic, kind and generous in spirit, full of traditions, full of contradictions, too”.

“It took me a while to understand the fantastic sense of humour of the British people and that there is a subtle meaning hidden in every sentence,” she added.

“In just over three weeks on 31 January the UK will spend its last day as a member state. This will be a tough and emotional day. But when the sun rises against 1 February the European Union and the United Kingdom will still be the best of friends and partners. The bonds between us will still be unbreakable.”

Continuing, the president warned the UK government: “As only true friends can I want to be very honest about what lies ahead of us.

“We will go as far we can but the truth is that our partnership cannot and will not be the same as before. It cannot and will not be as close as before because with every choice comes a consequence. With every decision comes a trade-off.

“Without the free movement of people who cannot have the free movement of capital, goods and services. Without a level playing field on environment, taxation and state aid you cannot have the highest access to the world’s largest single market. The more divergence there is the more distant the partnership will be.

“Without an extension of the partnership beyond 2020 you cannot expect to agree on every single aspect of the partnership.”

Ms von der Leyen attended a meeting with Boris Johnson at Downing Street following the speech – setting the scene for the trade talks to come.

A European Commission spokesperson said that the president stressed to Boris Johnson that the decision to leave the EU “brings with it consequences, as no relationship can be as close as being a member”.

The spokesperson added that the president “made clear that there is a trade-off between any regulatory divergence and access to the EU market”.

A Downing Street spokesperson said that Mr Johnson “stressed that his immediate priority was to implement the withdrawal agreement by 31 January”.

“The PM reiterated that we wanted a broad free trade agreement covering goods and services, and cooperation in other areas,” they added.

“The PM was clear that the UK would not extend the implementation period beyond 31 December 2020; and that any future partnership must not involve any kind of alignment or ECJ jurisdiction. He said the UK would also maintain control of UK fishing waters and our immigration system.

“The PM made clear that we would continue to ensure high standards in the UK in areas like workers’ rights, animal welfare, agriculture and the environment.

“The PM said the UK was ready to start negotiations on the future partnership and Canada-style FTA as soon as possible after 31 January.”

A former German defence minister, Ms von der Leyen was appointed commission president in December, replacing Jean-Claude Juncker, who had reached the end of his term.

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