Von der Leyen and Johnson’s Continuing Frenemy Status Following Brexit

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  • + On Christmas Eve 2020, A Brexit agreement was finally made between President of the European Commission Ursula Von Der Leyen and UK Prime Minister Johnson. 
  • + The deal included: an end to the free movement, a UK regain of fishing areas and a commitment to the equal playing field outlined by the EU.  
  • + The deal left room for dispute, so future diplomatic relations between Von Der Leyen and Johnson remains in a state of unpredictability.

Why is Johnson Von Der Leyen’s frenemy? 

Answer: The EU has now lost its second largest economy, and future relations between the two leaders is set to become volatile.

After four years of ping-ponging Brexit discussion between the EU and UK, on Christmas eve 2020, a Brexit deal was finally reached and roused the UK’s official departure from the European Union. The deal saw compromise from both parties, in areas such as fishing, trade and travel. The two leaders managed to find centerground in some aspects of the agreement, but the deal “requires effort” and could very easily turn sour for the two leaders. 

In areas of fishing, the battle to come to a consensus between Von Der Leyen and Johnson was far more difficult and lengthy. The UK walked away with plans to gain a greater share of the fish from its own waters over the next five-and-a-half years. This allows the UK to ban EU fishing boats after this period, but the EU in retaliation could, if desired, implement taxes on British fish imports. Sporting a fish-patterned tie at his Christmas Eve press conference, Johnson is evidently smug about the UK’s regain of power within the fishing industry, but an attempt to stretch this over the coming years could lead to great conflict with EU leaders. 

Similarly, compromise was made in terms of ‘the level playing field’, which the EU upheld as a key element of their deal with the UK in order to protect EU markets against unfair advantages that may arise as a consequence of Brexit. On one hand, this could lead to disagreement should it erode the sovereignty of the UK, a goal that is fundamental to the leave campaign, but could, in response, rouse grievances and retaliatory actions from the EU in the process. What is likely, is the commitment to the level playing field will be a contended matter of affairs between the two leaders in years to come.  

In areas of trade for the UK, the deal outlines a zero tariff, zero quota on goods trade between the UK and the EU. However, the UK will face new customs regulations on much of the goods. Trade services are expected to become a lot more burdensome, and finance agreements were made on the basis that each side will have mutual recognition of the other’s regulations. 

What does Von Der Leyen want? 

Answer: Von Der Leyen made clear the EU’s top priority was to conclude the deal with a fair and open competition for EU markets.

Given the economic size of the UK, and that it is geographical proximity to the single market, Von Der Leyen’s priority in the Brexit negotiations was for the UK to abide by strict rules employing fair and open competition. This means a level playing field in the areas of state aid and environmental and labour standards, prohibiting UK competing economies from threatening those within the EU. With the European economy taking a hit from coronavirus, and Von Der Leyen’s bids to implement a strategic recovery plan, gaining a Brexit deal that did not harm the European economy was a fundamental driving force for the European leader. 

Von Der Leyen, with strong Eurocentric heritage deriving from her father, has an inherent commitment to the liberal collectivism of the European Union. In leading the negotiations for the EU’s post-UK future, the President of the European Commission’s personal ideology drove her to embody a strong figure in the negotiations to hold onto the EU’s sovereign image. As much to her disdain to see the loss of a large economy in the EU bloc, backed by all member states, Von Der Leyen was granted a mandate to bargain a deal with the UK that would be beneficial to the EU. 

Von Der Leyen’s actions are products of both a sense of disdain for those wanting to leave the EU and her belief in the political imperative of protecting the institution she wholeheartedly believes in.  

What does Johnson want?

Answer: Leading the UK into a post-EU era, Johnson sought to take back the UK’s sovereignty, notably by loosening UK allegiance to EU law.

The ‘level playing field’ is one of the most contended areas of the deal. Contrary to Von Der Leyen’s fear of Brexit destabilizing EU markets, Johnson wants a complete dissociation of British law from the European Court of Justice, a relationship that resembles that of the EU and Canada.

The UK has vowed to commit to not supply domestic aid that will advance British companies, but in gaining an independence from the EJC, the EU markets may, in the future, be under threat from a UK independence. Johnson’s willingness to reside in a ‘no-deal Brexit’ towards the end of the transition period indicates he will continue to seek to uphold British sovereignty in future relations with the EU to fulfil the past promises made in the leave campaign. 

Back in 2016, Johnson was a leading politician in the ‘leave’ campaign throughout the EU referendum. Stark conservative ideology drove Johnson to negotiate Brexit with focus on upholding one factor in particular: taking back British sovereignty. Winning an election with the largest Conservative majority since 1987, Johnson’s hubris was apparent in suggesting a no deal Brexit which was met with discontent in the polls.

Any negotiations with Von Der Leyen were then limited by party opposition. After the resignation of his predecessor over lack of party faith surrounding the negotiations, multifaceted pressure was applied significantly on Johnson for him to deliver the Brexit that the people wanted. Having failed to do so could have damaging effects for his political career. 

What is Von Der Leyen doing?

Answer: Demonstrating the strenuous process of leaving the EU and creating a precedent to deter other EU nations for potentially leaving.

Following the UK’s decision to leave the European Union, and Von Der Leyen’s strong will to uphold the notion of the EU as a global superpower, undoubtedly, the lengthy process was nothing but an indicator to other EU nations that the withdrawal process would be difficult and costly. 

Von Der Leyen employed a strong leadership style in the negotiations to signify her reluctance to give into an overly demanding agreement, particularly in one of the most difficult areas to find a consensus: the fishing industry. Whereas Johnson was asking for a 35% repatriation of British seas, Von Der Leyen took personal hold of the negotiations, walking away with her initial proposition of giving the British just 25% of the sea. 

Von Der Leyen has planned a continuous supervision of UK compliance. This enables the EU to use enforcement if it suspects a breaching of the Brexit agreement. 

Von Der Leyen has assured the EU’s role in an amicable journey moving forward for both leaders, offering benefits for the UK, such as deep market access, if it is confident that the UK is abiding by the agreement.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Significant impacts of the withdrawal from the Erasmus deal, the free movement and trade deals are expected following Brexit.

The Brexit agreement has implications for citizens across Europe. With no bid from the UK to stay within the Erasmus exchange programme, student nationals can no longer receive funding to study in other regions of the Eurozone through this initiative. European students expecting to study in the UK will be confronted by the same issue. With an end to the free movement, it will be more difficult to travel and work freely in the UK. UK nationals will be required to obtain a visa for stays longer than 90 days in the Eurozone

For UK citizens, Brexit is likely to bring about a period of economic uncertainty with an expected GDP loss of up to 4 percentage points over the next 15 years. This could lead to a climate of discontent towards Johnson’s government in years to come, and may limit the way in which he can act without constraint. 

Should the UK employ a successful transition post-Brexit, we could expect a rise in Euroscepticism across Europe, but at the same time, see a unification of countries within the Eurozone to compete with the UKs economy. This could go either way for Von Der Leyen, as she could face significant limits and struggle to retain power should other nations in the Eurozone follow in Britains footsteps. Alternatively, with her own efforts included, she could see a revival in European values across the Eurozone.