German Chancellor Angela Merkel left an EU summit in Brussels on Friday saying she was relieved that Boris Johnson and the Conservatives had secured a majority, breaking the impasse in Parliament in the UK.
"Honestly, I think many many people were pleased that it was a clear result," Merkel said, hinting at the high likelihood of further delay in the Brexit process had British voters returned another hung Parliament, unable to agree on a way to start the process of leaving the EU. This way, Merkel said, the EU at least had "a degree of certainty" that the stalled process might get moving again.
However, Merkel quickly moved to address European colleagues, saying the progress on Brexit could upset the apple cart on the continent as well.
"Now we will have a new competitor at our door in the form of Great Britain," Merkel said, adding that this competitor might not conform with all of the EU's standards and practices. Yet the chancellor also sought a positive side to this, arguing that such a presence "might spur us [the EU] on a little, to become a little quicker and to reach accords more decisively."
"So I do see a rejuvenating element in all of this," Merkel said.
The German chancellor has often assumed the "good cop" role in matters Brexit, and on Friday French President Emmanuel Macron happily took on the alternative role, issuing a more direct message to the UK on future trade.
Macron said that he did not want "an unfair competitor" on Europe's doorstep, calling for trade negotiations with the EU to settle on close alignment in as many areas as possible.
"My wish is for Britain to remain an ally, a friend, and an extremely close partner," Macron said.
'Challenging time frame'
Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president and previously a long-serving Cabinet member under Merkel, turned her focus to the next stage of the Brexit process, seeking to hammer out a future trading relationship between the EU and Britain before a 2021 deadline, when a transition period expires. During this transition period, the UK will have nominally left the EU as a political institution, but the vast majority of existing trading ties will temporarily remain the same as a new permanent agreement is sought.
EU trade deals generally take in the region of a decade to finalize, and von der Leyen pointed out that time was short.
"The time frame ahead of us is very challenging," von der Leyen said. "And it's not only about trade, but we are also speaking about education, transport, fisheries, many many other fields are in the portfolio to be negotiated."
She said the EU's goal was "zero tariffs, zero quotas and zero dumping." She also insisted on sequencing with an emphasis on certain things in the talks, as was the case with the first round of talks, despite vocal objection from Britain.
In a statement released after the summit, the 27 EU leaders called for "as close as possible a future relationship with the UK" while warning that it "will have to be based on a balance of rights and obligations and ensure a level playing field."
European Council President Charles Michel also insisted that the EU's member states would not accept a deal blindly.
"There is no question of concluding a deal at any price," said Michel, who coordinates EU summits. "Negotiations are over when the results are balanced and guarantee respect for the different concerns."
Merkel defends Poland
Though the UK election was the talk of the town in Brussels, EU leaders also agreed to go carbon neutral by 2050 after a long debate that spilled over into the early hours of Friday morning, but exempted one member state from the commitment.
Poland, which gets 80% of its power from coal, secured an exemption from the 2050 carbon neutrality agreement as well as EU funding for regions most affected by a potential fossil fuel phase-out.
On Friday, German Chancellor Merkel defended her European neighbors, saying Poland faces the most difficult challenge of becoming carbon neutral among EU member states.
"A member state cannot commit itself to implementing this goal on its own," Merkel said. "I find it quite honest when Poland says we want this climate neutrality, but we cannot implement it at the moment."
In 2018, coal power accounted for about 35% of Germany's power production, about the same percentage as from renewable energy sources. Coal is a sore topic for Merkel at home as well. Left-leaning and environmentalist parties tend to criticize her for still using coal at all, while others, even within her own party, claim that it's only necessary because of her hasty decision to ditch nuclear power after the Fukushima meltdown in Japan.
dv/msh (AFP, AP, dpa, epd, Reuters)