Ursula von der Leyen has warned that the EU will not hesitate to use the “real teeth” in the Brexit deal to punish the British government for breaching its obligations as MEPs prepared to consent to the historic agreement, marking the end of four years of high political drama.
Speaking ahead of an evening vote by MEPs, where a positive result is not in question, the European commission president said the trade and cooperation agreement would give the EU more leverage over the UK.
The UK government has been accused of breaching its commitments in Northern Ireland and on an agreement on fisheries, which was brought into force provisionally along with the rest of the trade deal in January, ahead of scrutiny by MEPs and their formal consent.
MEPs had delayed their consent vote to the end of April in part in response to unilateral decisions by Downing Street to extend grace periods on checks at the border on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, a move condemned as a breach of the withdrawal agreement and international law by the commission.
Von der Leyen said she hoped the trade deal would be a foundation for a “strong and close” partnership, citing the vision of Theresa May in her letter of 29 March 2017 that had started the negotiations. But she conceded relations were at a crossroads.
“This agreement comes with real teeth with a binding dispute settlement mechanism and the possibility for unilateral remedial measures where necessary,” Von der Leyen told MEPs.
“And let me be very 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 [trade and cooperation agreement], and with the withdrawal agreement, which both were negotiated in such fine details 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.”
Von der Leyen said there had been constructive talks in recent days between Lord Frost, the UK’s minister for Brexit affairs, and Maroš Šefčovič, the vice-president of the commission, over the border issues in Northern Ireland.
However, there remain difficult issues to resolve, particularly over checks on dairy, meat and plant products and on Tuesday France’s EU affairs minister, Clément Beaune, said he was concerned by the UK’s attitude to French fishers since the UK left the common fisheries policy.
“We are asking for the whole deal, nothing but the deal, and for as long as it has not been implemented … we will carry out reprisals in other sectors if it is necessary,” Beaune told the BFM Business channel.
French fishers recently blockaded the port of Boulogne sur Mer, claiming that only 22 of the 120 boats that usually work from the Hauts de France had been given access to the zone six to 12 miles from the UK coast. The government has denied the claim. The UK Single Issuing Authority has issued licences to fish in the UK six to 12 nautical mile zone to all 87 French vessels that have applied for them and met the qualifying criteria, it said. About 40 additional applications require further information and checks.
“We have obviously seen a number of issues arise,” Von der Leyen said. “Some were to be expected. Others are teething issues, and many are the consequences 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, to which both sides signed up. And it will also focus minds on finding pragmatic solutions where they are needed most urgently around the protocol of Ireland and Northern Ireland.”
The result of the vote is expected to be announced on Wednesday morning.