Does Europe still want us? EU’s next likely chief says yes

by Luke Lythgoe | 11.07.2019

Ursula von der Leyen’s first public comments on Brexit since being nominated for European Commission president made two things clear. First, despite three years of Brexit frustration, the EU still wants to keep the UK in the club. Second, Boris Johnson’s strategy to deliver Brexit has little chance of succeeding. Even more reason to say “No to Boris, yes to Europe!” on July 20.

“I am a strong believer in Remain,” the presidential candidate told MEPs during a series of grillings ahead of a vote on her appointment. That will steel the resolve of pro-Europeans in the UK, some of whom are worried EU leaders are so fed up with the government’s dithering and just want Brexit done.

When asked by the SNP’s Alyn Smith whether the option to revoke Brexit would still stand “up to the very last minute, without political consequences”, von der Leyen confirmed this was the case. “Yes, the door is open because we want you in. The political consequences are way harder when it comes to the other way around. As we’ve said, we want you in.”

However, the centre-right candidate from Germany was less open to the Brexit strategy emerging from the Tory leadership contest. She indicated there was no appetite to reopen Brexit negotiations, saying the agreement with Theresa May was “a good deal” and it was the “noble task [of UK politicians] to sort this out”. 

Von der Leyen also doubled down on the EU’s unwillingness to scrap the so-called backstop, saying it was crucial to keep the Irish border open. “Having the backstop in the Brexit deal is precious, important and has to be defended,” she said.

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That’s bad news for Johnson, whose pitch on Brexit is that “a new mandate, a new optimism, a new determination” will let him amend May’s deal before October 31. A key change would be an exit mechanism to the backstop, according to Johnson’s allies.

But, even if the new prime minister does waste time on a fruitless strategy and brings the country to a cliff edge, von der Leyen said the EU was open to a further extension: “If the UK needs more time, we think it would be a good idea to have an extension, because not just the economic consequences but also the relations between our countries would be affected in such a catastrophic way by a no-deal Brexit.”

Not every European leader has spoken so openly and positively about the UK staying in the EU – and von der Leyen may ultimately not be chosen by MEPs to lead the Commission. But when we reach the next Brexit crunch point, her concerns about dire political and economic consequences will be at the forefront of all leaders’ minds.

The best thing pro-Europeans can do now is get out on July 20 and say “No to Boris, yes to Europe” – and show 27 other countries that the UK is ready to work positively for a joint European future.

Edited by Hugo Dixon

One Response to “Does Europe still want us? EU’s next likely chief says yes”

  • I would be relatively pleased with von der Leyen as new Head of Commission. Her position has though still to be confirmed by the EU Parliament. Many there, including many German MEPs, have criticised her as being foisted on them by the Heads of Government. However, they have the final say, so it would still be a democratic decision. There will be the inevitable siren voices from Brexiteers that notice she is German and therefore somehow part of a neo-Nazi conspiracy, (a completly idiotic notion as anyone researching her background for 2 minutes could establish).
    On Brexit, I’m pleased she’s stated that she hopes the UK abandons Brexit, and therefore not written us off as a lost cause, whilst at the same time not wavering from the line taken by Juncker on the Withdrawal Agreement or indeed on the Irish backstop. As she’s studied in the UK , she may well have a greater empathy, probably hoping that as more Brexit facts come out, the inherent contradictions about all the false cake and eat it promises will dawn on ever more people.