Speech by President von der Leyen at the European Parliament Plenary on the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement

CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2020 – Source: EP"CC-BY-4.0: © European Union 2020 – Source: EP"

“Check against delivery”

Dear President,

Honourable Members,

It is now just over four years since the UK’s letter triggering its withdrawal from the EU was ceremoniously handed over after its journey from London to Brussels. Looking back, that event now feels like a theatrical footnote of Brexit history. And part of the reason it feels so distant is because so much has happened between the EU and the UK since then.

But when preparing for today’s debate I thought I take the time to read the letter itself. And rather to my surprise, it actually helped to offer some perspective and some cautious positivity – both about what today’s vote entails but also about our future relations.

I say that because the letter reminded us of the unique nature of our partnership – forged together over decades and built around our shared values and history. It also made the case for a special partnership that ‘contributes towards the prosperity, security and global power of our continent’.

But what struck me most was the way it laid out the sheer scale of the task ahead of both sides. Just how much we had to do and how complex it was going to be. It finished by saying: ‘The task before us is momentous – but it should not be beyond us’.

Standing here today, we can all agree it was indeed a momentous task, carried out with the highest stakes on the line. And I want to take this opportunity to once again thank Michel Barnier – our Chief Negotiator – for guiding us through this task.

In these four years, we saw a lot of change: whether in Presidents and Prime Ministers, in deadlines and red lines, or in different definitions of what Brexit really means. But when all is said and done, what you are voting on today – is momentous in terms of what it represents and in terms of what it secures. It represents the unity, responsibility and solidarity within the EU to protect the interests of our citizens and our Union.

In the last months, we have often talked about what the Trade and Cooperation Agreement is not or what it does not do. But as this House prepares to have the final say, I want to recall what this Agreement is, what it does and why it is so important to make it work.

Firstly, this Agreement protects European citizens and their rights. It helps to avoid significant disruptions for workers and travellers, from the fishing community to the business community. Secondly, it protects European interests and preserves the integrity of our Single Market. It guarantees the robust level playing field that this House always prioritised. And it ensures high levels of protection on everything from social and labour rights, to environmental protection, to tax transparency and state aid. Third, the Agreement comes with real teeth – with a binding dispute settlement mechanism and the possibility for unilateral remedial measures where necessary.

Let me be clear: We do not want to have to use these tools. But we will not hesitate to use them if necessary. They are essential to ensure full compliance with the TCA and the Withdrawal Agreement, which were both negotiated in such fine detail and agreed by both sides.

Honourable Members,

On this point of compliance, I know that there was some reluctance in different parts of the House on whether it is right to ratify this Agreement when existing commitments are not being respected by one side. I agree with you that this Agreement on paper is only as good as implementation and enforcement in practice. And I share the concerns you have on unilateral actions by the United Kingdom since the Agreement came into provisional application.

We have obviously seen a number of issues arise since then. Some were to be expected, others are teething issues and many are the consequence of the type of Brexit the UK chose. But regardless of the reasons, we need to focus on joint solutions. Unilateral decisions will get us nowhere.

And this is one of the reasons ratification is so important. It will give us the tools we need to ensure full and faithful compliance with the obligations, which both sides signed up to. And it will also focus minds on finding pragmatic solutions where they are needed – most urgently around the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.

And on this front, I am glad to report some progress on the work being led by Vice-President Šefčovič as co-chair of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee. In recent days and weeks, we have seen a new, constructive dynamic and we will continue to work closely with the UK to find constructive solutions that respect what was agreed.

The next step is to mutually agree on compliance paths, with concrete deadlines and milestones. To support this process, Vice-President Šefčovič will continue to engage with all stakeholders in Northern Ireland to listen to their concerns and to see what needs to be done.

We need solutions – not soundbites if we are to make the Protocol work for the benefit of everyone in Northern Ireland. This is the commitment and responsibility we all took when we agreed to the Protocol. And the EU is steadfast in its determination to make it work.

Honourable Members,

I want to stress the importance of proper parliamentary scrutiny to ensure the UK fully delivers on its commitments. This House has a long history of protecting and supporting the people and the peace on the island of Ireland. In just a couple of weeks, it will be 40 years since a little known report adopted by this House put that commitment into motion.

At first glance, the Martin Report – adopted at the height of the Hunger Strike – may appear an unremarkable housing, social and regional policy report. But thanks to the leadership of John Hume in particular, it ensured for the first time that the question of peace and prosperity of Northern Ireland was seen as an explicit issue for the EU.

This was the beginning of an enduring commitment of this House to the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland. And as John Hume himself used to say: There are no easy answers, nor quick-fix solutions. This is why your continued support and scrutiny will be so important for the implementation of the Withdrawal Agreement and in particular on the Protocol. And I want to assure you that this parliamentary involvement will also be there for the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

In this spirit, the Commission has today set out its commitments in a Declaration. We will ensure the Parliament is immediately and fully informed of the activities of the different Committees and the Council established by the Agreement. We will ensure that the Parliament is involved as appropriate and necessary whenever important decisions are taken under the Agreement. And we will submit a proposal for a legislative act to regulate how autonomous EU measures should be adopted. This is part of our much wider commitment to ensure a continuous and comprehensive dialogue on all aspects of the deal.

Honourable Members,

We know it will not always be easy and there is a lot of vigilance, diligence and hard work ahead. But while today’s vote is obviously an end – it is also the beginning of a new chapter. The choice is now whether today’s vote will be the high watermark for EU-UK relations for the next decades. Or whether we see this as the foundation of a strong and close partnership based on our shared interests and values.

Only history will tell what road is taken – although I hope it is the latter. But either way this Agreement is essential to help us move forward. And either way the task will be just as momentous as it was in that letter four years ago.

So to finish on the words of the great British poet, William Wordsworth: ‘Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future.’

Long live Europe.