On 1 February 2020, 47 years after joining the European Economic Community, the EU’s predecessor, the United Kingdom (UK) left the EU. For almost 50 years, the country was part of our unique Union. And at the close of this year, when the transition period ends, it will be definitively leaving the EU single market of almost 450 million consumers as well.
The EU member states are closely intertwined within the single market. Businesses benefit, for example, from uniform standards and the absence of tariffs, and can make their services available everywhere in the EU; citizens can travel, work, study and live in all member states, without borders; close cooperation among security agencies enhances our citizens’ security and at the same time strict data protection regulations are in force.
Upon leaving the single market, these aspects in the relationship with the UK will cease to exist.
What form will our future relations with the UK take?
The EU wants to conclude an ambitious and comprehensive agreement on future relations with the UK, to shape the closest possible political, economic and personal ties. However, if we manage to conclude an agreement by the year’s end, the EU’s relationship with the UK will fundamentally change. Governments, citizens and businesses throughout the EU need to come understand and prepare for that.
Why are we still negotiating even after the UK’s withdrawal?
So that the important political and economic links are not ruptured from one day to the next, an agreement was negotiated prior to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU stating that, during a transition period until 31 December 2020, nothing would at first fundamentally change, neither for citizens nor for businesses. After that date, however, the changes, particularly in terms of economic relations, will become tangible for both citizens and businesses.
The joint Political Declaration, which basically envisages an economic and security partnership, was agreed as the framework for the future partnership. Both sides committed to the Political Declaration in October 2019; from the EU perspective, it is the basis for negotiations.
Who’s negotiating with whom?
The European Commission is conducting the negotiations on future relations with the UK in accordance with the Political Declaration on the basis of a mandate from the EU member states of 25 February 2020 and a comprehensive draft agreement published on 18 March 2020. However, the tight timetable leaves the chief negotiators, Michel Barnier for the EU and David Frost for the UK, little time to reach an agreement. That’s why, over the past few months, eleven strands of negotiations have been running in parallel on different subjects. The frequency of negotiating rounds are being intensified and in fact, negotiations are continuously ongoing.
It remains to be seen whether an agreement settling questions on the future relationship between the EU and the UK can be reached by 1 January 2021. In previous negotiation rounds, there were still in some places large gaps between the negotiating positions of the two sides on major issues such as treaty architecture, fair competition/level playing field and fisheries. As such, Germany believes that it is all the more important to step up negotiations and to make substantial progress. The clock is ticking, as an agreement must now be found in a short time frame in order to ensure adequate time for ratification.
In any case, the EU, its member states, citizens and businesses must prepare for the consequences of the ending of the transition period, irrespective of whether an agreement on the future partnership is reached with the UK before then or not. The European Commission has published over 90 “readiness notices” for many economic sectors and areas of life. These measures are being intensified during the German Presidency; they are necessary, as the UK will leave the EU's single market at the end of the transition period.
What does this mean for Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the EU?
Since the UK did not make use of the possibility to extend the transition period beyond 31 December 2020, the negotiations will still have to be concluded in the autumn of 2020. Following an agreement, it must be ratified.
The Council Presidency does not conduct the negotiations for the EU; rather, that job is in the hands of Michel Barnier and his team. He plays the key role, and he has the full confidence of all 27 EU member states.
The German Presidency, however, has had an important roll since 1 July 2020, especially concerning constant coordination within the EU. The main forum for this is the permanently chaired Council Working Party on the United Kingdom, in which the positions of the 27 EU member states are coordinated and which communicates with Michel Barnier’s team. The Working Party assists the Committee of Permanent Representatives and the General Affairs Council (both of which Germany will chair during its Presidency) and the European Council, which is the political steering body. Close and trustful cooperation in this framework is the basis for an effective, coherent and transparent approach by the EU in the negotiations.
The EU aims to reach a comprehensive agreement that envisages the closest possible partnership between the EU and the UK as our strategic partner in all areas. The precondition for this is an agreement that provides for a fair balance of rights and obligations and guarantees, in particular, the (fundamental) rights of European citizens, fair competition and the protection of our social and environmental standards.