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EU's von der Leyen on UK: 'I'll miss their pragmatism'

Max Hofmann
January 31, 2020

As the United Kingdom exits the European Union, the bloc's Commission President Ursula von der Leyen spoke of "a very emotional day" and the many issues yet to be solved. "It's gonna be tough," she told DW in Brussels.


Von der Leyen: 'It's a very emotional day'

Deutsche Welle: Commission President, there were a lot of tears this week in Brussels because of the UK leaving the European Union. How are you feeling right now? Still sad?

Ursula von der Leyen: Well, it's a very emotional day, because it's always sad when a family member chooses to be on the outside. And indeed, I have many, many friends in the UK. I studied there for one year at the London School of Economics. I have relatives in the UK ... some of my children have been studying in the UK. So, a lot of bonds. It's an emotional day.

And what will you miss most about the UK?

I'll miss their pragmatism. It helped a lot. They were always very down-to-earth. I'll certainly miss their wonderful British sense of humor. And well, this is it — so, from tomorrow on we'll have to deal with our British friends as a third country.

Read more: What to know about UK travel post-Brexit

Some say the hardest part will start now, negotiating the future relationship between the EU and the UK. Do you agree?

Well, it's going to be hard and fair and fast negotiations. And it's true — I mean, now that the UK has chosen to be a third country we have to figure out how close do they want to be to the single market. The closer they want to be, the more they have to abide to the common rules of the single market. So it's more or less their choice whether they want to be distant and the access to the single market will be difficult, or the other way round.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said under no circumstances will he extend the transition period, meaning that if there is no agreement at the end of this year there will be a hard Brexit. Do you think that's a smart political move by him?

Well it's his decision. But if at the end of the year this is the case, we're well prepared, because the most tricky parts for us have been solved in the Withdrawal Agreement: citizens' rights, a financial settlement, the island of Ireland. We've done that. We're fine with that. Now we are in a very strong position for the upcoming negotiations. If at the end of the year there will be a hard Brexit — well, the UK exports almost half of all its goods to the European Union. So it's gonna be tough.

Read more: More economic pain inevitable for UK

But do you think he boxed himself in? And you as a politician, would you have made that move?

Well, I do not have to advise him what to do. I think what we will do as the European Union, we will look at where we stand in summer and then decide. But even if at the end of the year we do not have an agreement, yes, there will be a hard Brexit — but the negotiations can go on.

Now, [you're] saying you're going to negotiate a free trade agreement, most likely. Or try to negotiate a free trade agreement with the UK. Can you definitively say that one year to negotiate a free trade agreement is not enough?

It's not only the free trade agreement. There are at least 10 or 11 different files and topics. Think about security, for example. So there is a lot to negotiate and therefore we'll work 24/7. And let's see how things are moving forward.

But would you under normal circumstances? Something like that has never been negotiated in this short time?

I said initially that I think we will need more time. But for this decision it always takes two and we are pretty relaxed on that question because, as I said, we have a good position.

Read more: What happens on January 31

Would you say under these circumstances with Boris Johnson saying "no extension," with time being very short that a hard Brexit is inevitable?

Listen, I think we should start now with the negotiations, because we have to look at the British mandate now. We will have our own mandate and I don't think it's smart now to predict whatever for the end of the year. Already I've laid out the different options that are there. But let's start now with the negotiations.

What's your main goal in these negotiations?

My main goal is to have a good and fair and the closest possible partnership with our British friends. We share a lot of common interests, but also to protect our Single Market, to protect a level playing field, to look for a level playing field with our British friends and to make sure that the union is united.

I know you don't have a crystal ball, Commission President, but let me try anyway. Looking 10 years in the future, you think the UK might want to get back into the EU?

Well, I keep telling my children that's the task for them and it's up to the British people. So, you know for me now it's important to say: "we are friends." We will have a future partnership. There are so many topics we have in common, like tackling climate change or digitalization, where we really are on the same page, where we should work together intensively. And let's let's look at the positive side of it. Let's make the best out of it.

Commission President, thank you very much.

Thank you.

DW's Max Hofmann conducted this interview in Brussels. 

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Max Hofmann Head of News & Current Affairs@maxhofmann