Boris Johnson and the new European commission president have had a positive first meeting about the next round of Brexit talks in which they discussed their aspirations for a deal based on friendly cooperation, shared history and interests and values, Downing Street has said.
Both sides made a concerted effort to put the bitter divisions of the past three years aside, with Ursula von der Leyen describing the meeting as the start of a new era of “old friends and new beginnings”.
She called on both sides to focus on mutual interests and both leaders agreed there could be common ground on climate change, human rights and security.
A spokesperson said Johnson made it clear in the meeting that the UK would not be requesting an extension to the transition period at the end of December.
Echoing Johnson’s electoral theme about his rush to “get Brexit done”, he told the commission leader that he wanted to seal “a Canada-style free trade agreement as soon as possible after January 31”.
“He said the UK wanted a positive new UK and EU partnership, based on friendly cooperation, our shared history, interests and values.
“The PM reiterated that we wanted a broad free-trade agreement covering goods and services, and cooperation in other areas,” said the spokesperson.
However, in a speech earlier in London Von der Leyen said it would be impossible for the UK to negotiate a comprehensive deal covering all aspects of Brexit within the timeframe set by Johnson.
Unless Britain accepted a level playing field in the UK and the EU’s trade positions after Brexit, there would inevitably be barriers for British manufacturing, she said in a speech at the London School of Economics before the summit.
At the same event, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, warned in an impromptu exchange that leaving the EU was not a simple process and involved the renegotiation of “600 international agreements” as well as a new free-trade agreement.
Von der Leyen said: “It is basically impossible to negotiate all [of the areas].”
She also warned that tariff, quota-free access to the single market came with strings attached and Britain would have to agree to level playing field rules on workers’ rights, the environment and anti-dumping measures.
She warned against a fantasy in which the UK has a hard exit but retains all the benefits.
“The more divergence there is, the more distant the partnership has to be,” Von der Leyen said. “Without an extension of the transition period beyond 2020, you cannot expect to agree on every single aspect of our new partnership.
“Without the freedom of movement of people, you cannot have the free movement of capital, goods and services. Without a level playing field on environment, labour, taxation and state aid, you cannot have highest-quality access to the world’s largest single market.”
Johnson has already indicated he wants to break with EU rules and regulations to achieve the clear sovereignty for which he believes Brexit supporters voted.
Von der Leyen said the EU was ready to negotiate “a truly ambitious and comprehensive new partnership” with the UK and would work “day and night” to make best use of the time the two sides had.
With the prime minister ruling out any extension to the transition period, Von der Leyen said that in practice the UK had “nine to 10 months at most” to get a deal in time for it to be ratified by 31 December.
“Therefore it is not an all or nothing [in the trade talks], it is a question of priorities,” she said.
Ursula von der Leyen has been president of the European Commission since 1 December 2019. Born in 1958, is the daughter of Heidi and Ernst Albrecht, the latter having been a senior politician in the centre-right Christian Democratic Union who rose to be governor of the state of Lower Saxony.
She spent the first 12 years of her life in Brussels, where her father was serving as a commission official. She studied economics at the universities of Göttingen and Münster before attending the London School of Economics where she used the pseudonym Rose Ladson because she was seen as a potential target for West German leftwing extremists.
Von der Leyen then read for a medical degree, becoming a gynaecologist, and only entered politics at 42. A mother of seven, she has held government positions as labour and family affairs minister, driving forward key policies on gender quotas for company boards and improved maternity and paternity pay and rights.
As commission president, Von der Leyen will represent the EU on the world stage, and her key tasks include building a working relationship with Donald Trump’s White House, and dealing with the next stage of post-Brexit trade negotiations with the UK.
Daniel Boffey in Brussels and Philip Oltermann in Berlin
In addition to laying out the EU’s position, she mounted a charm offensive, telling the audience how she loved her time as a student at the LSE and loved Britain and its humour.
She warned that Brexit day would be hard for those who wished to remain in the EU.
“This will be a tough and emotional day,” she said, adding that both sides needed to be optimistic about the future beyond 31 January.
“When the sun rises again on 1 February the EU and the UK will still be the best of friends and partners,” she said.
She said both sides had to “weave together a new way forward” even though talks would be tough and “each side would do what was best for them”.
She said the EU was ready to negotiate a frictionless trade deal that involved no barriers to manufacturers and a partnership that went “well beyond” trade.
“We are ready to design a new partnership with zero tariffs, zero quotas, zero dumping” and “a partnership that goes well beyond trade and is unprecedented in scope”, she said.
The list of elements beyond trade, which she said was not exhaustive, included “climate action, data protection, fisheries to energy, transport to space [and] financial services to security”.
She added: “We are ready to work day and night to get as much of this done within the timeframe we have.
“None of this means it will be easy, but we start this negotiation from a position of certainty, goodwill, shared interests and purpose. And we should be optimistic. We need to be optimistic.”
Thanking the British people for their contribution to the EU over the past 47 years, she said that, after the difficulties of the fractious past three years, it was time to focus on mutual interests and friendships.
“I say this because Brexit does not only mark the end of something. It also marks a new phase in an enduring partnership and friendship. It will be a partnership for your generation,” she said.