Ursula, Sunak & Brexit

10:05 02.12.2023 •

Photo: internationalaffairs.org.au

During her POLITICO interview, von der Leyen also touched on a former EU member country — the United Kingdom, whose departure following the 2016 Brexit referendum shook the bloc’s foundations.

Asked if she thought the U.K. could ever rejoin the EU, von der Leyen said undoing Brexit was an issue for the next generation.

“I keep telling my children: You have to fix it. We goofed it up, you have to fix it,” the head of the Commission said.

Rishi Sunak has rejected the suggestion that Brexit could be in peril after Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, claimed that the UK could be on a path to rejoining the European Union.

Sunak’s official spokesperson, replied that the British prime ministerdid not believe that Brexit was in peril. He told reporters at Westminster: “It’s through our Brexit freedoms that we are, right now, considering how to further strengthen our migration system. It is through our Brexit freedoms we are ensuring patients in the UK can get access to medicines faster, that there is improved animal welfare. That is very much what we are focused on.”

The spokesperson added: “We have a prime minister that championed Brexit before it was in his career interests to do so because he believes in it passionately. We are very focused on making a success of it.”

Von der Leyen made the comments at an awards ceremony staged by Politico as relations between the EU and the UK continued to improve following their near-collapse under Boris Johnson and David Frost, who negotiated the Brexit trade deal.

David Cameron, now the UK’s foreign secretary, made his first official return to Brussels this week after departing No 10 in the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum.

Although Cameron had campaigned for remaining in the EU, his nervousness about being back in the embrace of it was evident. He declined to speak to the media on his first day in the Belgian capital and was refusing any questions on the second.

Within the Conservative party Brexit remains a divisive subject. Sunak and von der Leyen have enjoyed cordial relations ever since they hatched a deal to improve the deal for Northern Ireland, and the UK returned to the Horizon programme.

However, on Wednesday, Priti Patel, the former home secretary, said the Windsor framework that changed the Northern Ireland protocol was not working. In an article for the Unionist Voice website, she wrote that the UK government needed to act over the “tentacles of EU control over Northern Ireland”.

There is no appetite in the EU to return to the toxicity of the Brexit years but Keir Starmer, the Labour leader, has repeatedly made clear he wants to improve relations, with further alignment on issues such as veterinary standards, which cover farm produce, fresh food, leather goods, fish and timber.

The trade deal has a built-in facility to have a chapter on veterinary alignment that means the Brexit deal would not have to be “reopened” and would not need to be signed off by 27 EU leaders. However, well-informed sources in Brussels said it would be a “painful negotiation” that could take years to conclude.

Senior business leaders and trade bodies have backed Starmer’s comments that Britain should not part from the European Union on standards ranging from the environment to employment.

The Labour leader has come under fire from the Conservatives, who accused him of wanting to “unpick” Brexit after saying that “most of the conflict” since 2016 had arisen because the UK “wants to diverge and do different things to the rest of our EU partners”.

In a letter to the Guardian in September, dozens of business leaders, including the chair of Virgin, the head of the British Poultry Council, and chair of the International Chamber of Commerce, said a policy of alignment would enable businesses to have “confidence” while still allowing the UK to have “regulatory autonomy”.


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