BRUSSELS -- The European Union on Wednesday committed to be “creative" in the very final stages of the Brexit trade negotiations but warned that whatever deal emerges, the United Kingdom will be reduced to “just a valued partner" far removed from its former membership status.
EU Commission chief Ursula von der Leyen said “genuine progress" had been made on several issues “with an outline of a final text," little more than a month before Britain's transition period as a former EU member runs out.
And she said that on the divisive issues of fisheries, governance of any deal and the standards the U.K. must meet to export into the EU, the bloc is “ready to be creative, but we are not ready to put into question the integrity of the single market, the main safeguard for European prosperity and wealth."
In the EU single market, goods and services can freely flow from one of the 27 member states to another without barriers like customs or checks, and it is seen as a cornerstone of the EU. With Britain deciding to walk out, von der Leyen insisted it should feel the cold.
“One thing is clear. Whatever the outcome, there has to be and there will be a clear difference between being a full member of the union and being just a valued partner," she told legislators at the European Parliament. Britain however is seeking to maintain many of the advantages of membership while insisting on full sovereignty within its borders and its fishing waters.
The EU legislators will have to approve any deal and many scoffed at the extended negotiations past a slew of deadlines which ever more reduces its powers to seriously vet the deal ahead of the Jan. 1 cutoff date.
“We cannot just simply agree to anything that comes up in the last minute. This parliament needs time for scrutiny and for debating any possible agreement,” said Greens leader Ska Keller.
“We will look very closely if this is an agreement that is of mutual benefit, that safeguards social and environmental standards, and that does not endanger the peace in Northern Ireland. And we will not hesitate to defend those rights and standards."
There are widespread fears in the EU that Britain will slash those standards and pump state money into U.K. industries, becoming a low-regulation economic rival on the bloc’s doorstep.
Britain has long said the EU is making unreasonable demands and is failing to treat it as an independent, sovereign state, especially when it comes to the control of its fishing waters. It insisted EU negotiator Michel Barnier was sticking far too long to negotiating lines which would make any compromise impossible.
It made von der Leyen's concession to be “creative" all the more significant. It even applied to fisheries. For a long time, demands were that EU trawlers would be allowed to continue to roam British waters like before, as if Brexit had never happened.
On Wednesday, von der Leyen sounded more conciliatory. “No one questions the U.K. sovereignty in its own waters, but we ask for predictability and guarantees for our fishermen and fisherwomen who have been sailing in these waters for decades, if not centuries."
Negotiators from both sides are still talking remotely after an EU official tested positive for COVID-19, forcing Barnier into quarantine. He might be free to travel and negotiate face-to-face again as of Thursday, and observers expect a breakthrough once that happens.