Minister Maas, today is the day the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. Are you relieved that, after three and a half years of difficult negotiations, Brexit has finally arrived?
First and foremost, I am relieved that we managed to prevent the chaos of a “no deal” Brexit. We have a withdrawal agreement that regulates many areas. Most importantly, the rights of EU citizens living in the UK have been protected for the rest of their lives – and the same applies to UK nationals living in the EU. We also have a permanent solution for the border in Northern Ireland that will keep the peace there. What is more, the UK’s financial obligations towards the EU have been clarified. Tomorrow, we will begin a new chapter.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants to finalise a trade agreement with the EU by the end of this year. A deal without tariffs or quotas. Is that a realistic prospect?
Talks will be intense, and there will be tremendous time pressure. Yet we do accept the fact that Boris Johnson rejects the idea of extending the transition phase – which could actually have run for up to two years. We will not be able to get detailed regulations for all areas by the end of 2020. But with political will on both sides, we could achieve good results. We want continued close relations with the United Kingdom. Of course, a deal without tariffs and quotas sounds good. But that’s only one side of the equation. The other side is: there must also be no unfair subsidies, and no social or environmental dumping.
The plan is for the Commission to negotiate with London on what future relations will look like. Do you expect individual EU member states to start up their own negotiations?
I don’t think so. The EU has been strongly united so far regarding Brexit talks. Of course, EU member states have different interests; but together we have one overriding aim: we want to protect the internal market and also ensure that there will be fair competition with the UK. The Commission will continue to conduct negotiations for the EU. Chief negotiator Michel Barnier and his team have done great work. The Commission will already on Monday propose a mandate for the negotiations. In football terminology: we have a full team, an excellent coach and a clear game plan. We’re ready.
With Brexit, the second largest net contributor after Germany will be leaving the EU. In future, will Germany have to send more money to Brussels?
Germany’s EU contributions will rise. However, we should not focus too much on the net contributor debate. We are indeed a net contributor. But we are also a net recipient – because we get tremendous advantages from our EU membership. Also, this is not just about how much we pay, but in particular about what we pay for. The EU needs a modern budget. We need to give priority to challenges that will affect the future of everyone in Europe, such as protecting the climate, the digital transformation, research, migration issues and foreign policy. That is what I will campaign for in connection with the new EU multiannual financial framework.
What will happen if the British have a successful Brexit? Will other EU members follow suit?
I wish the British economic success – also after Brexit. In the EU, we, too, will benefit if the British economy remains strong. But I don’t think there will be imitators. Particularly during the Brexit debate of recent years, there has been a marked increase in all member states in terms of those who hold a favourable view of the EU – including in Germany. For many, the debate has highlighted the advantages they enjoy thanks to the EU: free trade in the world’s largest internal market, visa-free travel and the ability to live, work and study where they want. I currently don’t see any country that would like to give up these advantages.
What is your farewell message to the British?
We’re not saying farewell – the United Kingdom will not suddenly drift away. It is of course a separation. To the British people I say, “We’re sorry to see you go. Let’s stay friends and agree to maintain as close a partnership as possible.” This is the spirit in which we want to conduct negotiations.
Interview conducted by Marina Kormbaki