On Wednesday, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen took a trip to London to meet with Boris Johnson, their first face-to-face encounter as the new leaders of their respective blocs. In a speech to the London School of Economics, von der Leyen said the EU would “go as far as we can” on a deal of “unprecedented scale”. Yet she warned that “with every choice comes a consequence” and said the relationship cannot be as close as before. Johnson has aimed in his rhetoric and additions to the Withdrawal Agreement Bill to conclude negotiations by the end of this year, but von der Leyen stressed that without an extension of the transition period, it would not be possible to agree on all areas of the new partnership. For the EU, the three priorities are building new channels of cooperation, a strong security partnership, and a level playing field in the future economic partnership. Trade Commissioner Phil Hogan said in Dublin that the next phase must be based on “realism and hard facts”. Johnson favours a “Canada-style” free trade agreement, and has stated that the new partnership cannot include the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
The new Withdrawal Agreement reached by Johnson with the EU was agreed speedily, and officials in Northern Ireland have noted that the issues there – around trade and the ‘unfettered access’ to the UK market promised to NI businesses– are not sorted. As one EU official put it, the Northern Ireland Protocol is “very clearly not oven-ready”. As Parliament returned in Westminster, Northern Irish MPs put forward an amendment to the Withdrawal Bill seeking a legal guarantee on unfettered access for Northern Irish businesses to the UK market. The Bill had cross-party support from the DUP, SDLP and Alliance, and was additionally supported by the abstentionist Sinn Féin, and NI business leaders, but was rejected, despite previous promises from Prime Minister Johnson on this seamless access. Further amendments, including on continuing access to the Erasmus programme, and residents’ rights, were rejected, signalling that Johnson doesn’t want to be hamstrung by Parliament in his negotiations with the EU. British MPs voted 330 to 231 in favour of the deal, which now goes to the House of Lords. Meanwhile, a draft agreement to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland was published, which is being considered by the parties. DUP leader Arlene Foster has called the deal “fair and balanced”.
In the Labour leadership contest Keir Starmer received the backing of the UK’s biggest trade union, Unison, and was the first MP to get the required 22 MPs’ or MEPs’ support to become a candidate. Rebecca Long Bailey, seen as the continuity candidate to Jeremy Corbyn, officially launched her bid for the leadership, awarding Corbyn “10 out of 10” for his performance as leader. Long Bailey, Jess Phillips and Lisa Nandy have the support of at least 22 MPs, and Clive Lewis and Emily Thornberry have also launched their bids for the position. The candidates, along with the sufficient votes from their parliamentary colleagues, need the support of 33 consistency Labour parties or three affiliated unions.
In Brussels, a series of meetings between the EU27 commenced, which will cover everything from financial services trade and fisheries policy, to common security and foreign policy and mobility of citizens. These discussions will be essential to establishing and maintaining a coherent EU approach to the talks. Brussels aims to be ready to begin negotiations with the UK on 1 March. The Withdrawal Agreement is set to be voted on by the European Parliament on 29 January. While there have been noises from some MEPs around their discontentment with the Agreement, for example on citizens’ rights, it is unlikely that the parliament at this stage will withhold their approval.