The debates on Brexit held in the UK over the past few days have been extremely intensive and also very emotional – and that’s putting it quite diplomatically. However, given the ramifications of the decisions at stake, this is perhaps not so surprising.
Yesterday’s vote of no confidence against Theresa May was probably simply the most visible manifestation of these enormous tensions. These are historic days not only for the UK, but also for us. The fact that Theresa May has survived this vote of no confidence is to be welcomed. However, the result is no reason for us to conclude that there have been any improvements to the majorities in the UK House of Commons with respect to the withdrawal agreement.
Ladies and gentlemen, fellow Members of the Bundestag, the EU has proven itself to be extremely united in the negotiations on the Brexit agreement to date. Even after the postponement of the vote due to be held in the UK House of Commons – which will presumably take place in January – there is no reason to deviate from this position. Reaching an agreement with the UK continues to be our clear interest. The agreement that has been jointly negotiated for months is a genuinely fair compromise in this respect and provides a good basis for an orderly departure and the establishment of close future relations. There is no justification for rehashing this agreement. We have underscored this point once again in the past few days, and there is nothing that will change this position.
The coming days and weeks will doubtlessly offer us a clearer picture of the future direction of the debate, especially in London. We shouldn’t, I believe, indulge in speculation about possible scenarios in UK domestic policy. This is, at the end of the day, a question of respect for our UK partners. The widespread and certainly understandable desire to reverse the Brexit process is something that we all care about deeply, but if you look at the current polls in the UK, you will see that not much has changed since the referendum, despite the extremely chaotic debate under way in the country. We must acknowledge this fact as well.
What is crucial at the end of the day, fellow Members of the Bundestag, is that we 27 member states of the EU continue to respond to current events in a united manner. This is particularly the case with a view to the European Council, which is beginning today. The following points are of central importance to us in the EU in this regard:
Our clear positions stemming from the European Council guidelines remain unchanged.
The solution set out in the withdrawal agreement for a viable backstop for Northern Ireland is not up for negotiation. We are, of course, prepared on this basis to listen to our British friends’ thoughts on what additional clarifications they desire, but without fundamentally changing once again the substance of what has been agreed within the EU and what has been approved by the Cabinet in London.
The unity of the EU27 is of paramount importance at the end of the day. This will be very important in the coming days and weeks. Such unity is so important because it is about credibility and about the future of the European project. This has worked remarkably well to date. Ultimately, in the event of a withdrawal from the EU, no matter who decides to do this, no one can bank on casting off obligations but being able to retain the rights and privileges of membership.
Ladies and gentlemen, a disorderly or hard Brexit would have grave consequences. It is not in the UK’s nor is it in Europe’s or Germany’s interests.
In view of the difficult political situation that we are witnessing day in, day out in the UK, we must continue with our contingency plans for a hard Brexit as we have done so far. Yesterday in the Cabinet, we adopted two legislative packages to ensure that citizens have the greatest possible legal clarity also in this scenario. Practical preparations are also under way. For example, we are hiring several hundred additional customs officers to handle the extra work that will be coming our way. This means that we are prepared even for the worst case scenario. As long as the withdrawal agreement has yet to be ratified and signed, we will continue to effect these preparations in a systematic way. This is also a question of responsible government action. Regardless of whether or not it is a member of the European Union, the UK will remain part of our community of shared values and actions. We will continue to pursue many goals together also in the future.
After all, we in Europe – and not only in Europe, but especially here – face immense challenges, none of which stop at national borders, including globalisation, climate change and migration, as well as defending our multilateral world order. We will only be able to respond to all of these issues in Europe together with the UK – on a different footing, admittedly, but certainly as close partners, and also as friends. This applies to the EU’s relationship with the UK. And this also applies to our bilateral relations with the UK, of course.
It was for this reason that we agreed back in April to hold a strategic dialogue with the then UK Foreign Secretary. Together, we will engage in intensive and constructive discussions about foreign and security policy as well as global challenges – indeed we will need to do so. A common declaration and a work programme are intended to supplement this dialogue with tangible projects, for example in the form of a stabilisation partnership to avoid conflicts and foster peacekeeping. Our bilateral cooperation will continue to be just as close.
This dialogue is all the more important against the backdrop of our upcoming membership of the UN Security Council, in which we will cooperate closely with the UK in its capacity as a permanent member of the Security Council. We have already agreed to this as well, irrespective of Brexit.
We have a common goal, which will remain once Brexit has been taken over the line, namely to defend the rules based international order as an important task for like minded democratic countries. As much as we regret Brexit, we mustn’t, to my mind, forget one thing in the debate, which is that what we have in common with the UK will continue to outweigh what divides us. Even when the UK is no longer a member of the EU, it will still be a part of Europe, and a part that we will continue to need.
Thank you very much.