Richard North, 28/12/2019  
 


Looking only at the UK press, one might get the impression that new President of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, is focused entirely on the coming "future relationship" negotiations between the EU and the UK, and the perilously short timescale, ending on 31 December 2020, if Johnson has his way.

This we see from the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Evening Standard, The Times and many others, all telling a similar story.

The gist of the story, summed up in the Guardian headline, is that: "EU chief questions feasibility of Johnson's time limit", with the standfirst telling us: "Ursula von der Leyen airs concerns about PM's refusal to extend negotiations past 2020".

The Telegraph offers a slightly different version, declaring: "Ursula von der Leyen warns new trade deal might not be 'feasible' by the end of 2020", while the Standard goes for "Brexit transition period may need to be pushed beyond 2020, says European Commission president".

Each newspaper, however, is relying on quotes from the French newspaper, Les Echos but only when you visit the site does the context become apparent.

The quotes are actually taken from a long, wide-ranging interview, running to over 3,000 words, with the relevant passages – partially lifted by the UK media – taking up less than 300 words, ten percent of the whole.

In the interview, which is published in question and answer form, subjects covered include climate change, the future of Nato, nuclear power, the EU budget, and much more, addressing the major strategic challenges the new Commission perceives for Europe at the dawn of its mandate. Only two linked questions are devoted to Brexit.

The first of these points out that "Negotiations on the future relationship with the United Kingdom will start in February", with the direct question: "Is an agreement possible before the end of 2020?" And considering that the papers have published whole articles on it, the answer is surprisingly brief. Von der Leyen says:
I am very worried about the limited time we have. It is not just about negotiating a free trade agreement, but many other issues. It seems to me that on both sides we should seriously ask ourselves if all these negotiations are possible in such a short time. I think it would be reasonable to take stock mid-year and, if necessary, agree on an extension of the transition period.
In all senses, this is no more or less than a restatement of the Commission position, previously articulated by Juncker and Barnier. This hardly even qualifies as news and, but for the Christmas hiatus where the media are desperately short of original copy, it might not have seen the light of day this side of the Channel.

But The Sun, not content with just padding out a story from such slender pickings, manages to generate its own spin, with the headline: "Brussels wants its own Brexit extension to agree UK trade deal – keeping us tied to EU laws until 2020".

The paper notes that, "a fortnight ago the PM vowed to make any extension illegal - meaning Britain will be free of the orbit of EU rules by December 2020", and then – as is so typical of the English press – projects this as a conflict, stating: "Today European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen set Brussels for an immediate collision course with the UK in the New Year".

This, we are told, arises because von der Leyen, "told a French newspaper that both sides would have to re-evaluate how trade negotiations are going in the middle of 2020, before deciding whether to extend the transition period beyond December 2020".

Yet the paper even quotes the key sentence: "I think it would be reasonable to take stock mid-year and, if necessary, agree on an extension of the transition period", and one thus wonders how it manages to divine its "collision course" mantra from such emollient phrasing.

In the comic (print edition), we then see von der Leyen's answer translated into the headline, "EU bid to delay trade talks", having the "Brussels' top bureaucrat" igniting "a fresh Brexit row" by threatening to try to extend the UK's transition out of EU regulations.

Not in a month of Sundays could von der Leyen's response be validly interpreted in such a fashion although, doubtless, there is a constituency more than willing to believe such inflammatory fiction.

Having made a meal of von der Leyen's routine response, though, it seems significant that all the papers barely mention (and some not at all), the second question put to the new Commission President. Les Echos asks: "If London wants to move away from European standards, should its access to the European single market be made more difficult?"

Here, the inexperience of the woman shows for, in response to the clumsy phrasing of the question, she does herself no favours. She replies:
If we want to benefit from the prosperity of the single market, to access it without barriers or customs duties, we must all accept its common principles and values. Otherwise, the two parties must agree on the barriers to be put in place.
Someone with a better understanding might have avoided the obvious trap of suggesting that barriers will be "put in place", because no such thing will happen. As I wrote nearly three years ago, the barriers already exist.

To understand what happens when we leave the EU, I used the analogy of a medieval walled city, inside of which the traders happily do business – with the public and between themselves – secure within the fortifications. When a trader (unhappy with the rules and regulations) decides to move his stall outside the walls, he cannot then complain that he is no longer able to trade freely with the people still inside.

The analogy underlines that fact that, when we leave the EU (and the Single Market), the EU will not be putting in place any barriers. Simply, we are leaving the barrier-free zone and thus placing pre-existing barriers between ourselves and our former customers. This is something we do to ourselves.

If von der Leyen shows the same lack of imagination in her future dealings with the UK, she may well be in for a torrid time, even if that is going to be the case anyway. To her answer, she adds two more paragraphs:
My preference is for a mechanism which would guarantee comparable production conditions on both sides, because I deeply believe in the need to maintain a good relationship with our neighbours . But the principle of equality is of the utmost importance to us.

It has been three and a half years that we have proven our ability to remain united, to speak with one voice, to be clear about our values and principles. The EU can count on its single market, on its 750 free trade agreements. We have enough to promote our economy. And we would love to include our British friends in this environment.
Her "British friends", however – in the form of the Johnson administration - have already decided that they are not going to be part of this "environment", which means that it is inevitable that we are going to be faced with some barriers. The only question is how many.

When it comes to the crunch, only the personalities will have changed. Les Echos observes of Ursula von der Leyen that she is "structured, precise and never departing from her respectful smile". By contrast with the "exuberant" Jean-Claude Juncker, the paper notes that, "the sobriety, this time, is obvious". And for that reason alone, Johnson may have a tougher time of it.






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