15 January was not a good day for the European Union. The vote by the House of Commons was a serious setback, as it significantly increased the probability of a no-deal Brexit. Nevertheless, this path is by no means preordained. We will do everything we can in the coming days and weeks to ensure that the UK only leaves the EU with an agreement – and not without one. But since Tuesday, we only know what British MPs do not want. We still don’t know what the UK wants instead. Fellow members of this house, that won’t get us anywhere. We are also spelling this out to our British colleagues in no uncertain terms. In the final analysis, we cannot negotiate with ourselves.
Esteemed colleagues, I am aware that many people are now hoping for an exit from Brexit, for a new referendum, for a postponement of the withdrawal date under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union. And yes, I personally also wish that the British had never voted for Brexit.
But at the moment, all thoughts on such options are mere speculation, as the UK Government has so far rejected each – and I mean each – of them. Without a request from the UK, the withdrawal date will not be extended. And without a majority in the UK parliament, there will not be a second referendum. That is the reality we face here.
And that is why we must tell London loudly and clearly that the time for games is now over.
The ball is in the UK’s court. All those in positions of responsibility in London now have a duty to reach consensus and to state clearly which option a majority in London supports. Perhaps some people in the UK should remember Shakespeare, who wrote:
“Happy thou art not / For what thou hast not, still thou striv’st to get / And what thou hast, forget’st.”
The Government and House of Commons in London intend to discuss a proposal on Monday, and the European Union is willing to look closely at it. However, it is scarcely conceivable that the Withdrawal Agreement will be reopened for discussion. We made that very clear at all times in the run-up to the vote and the decision in London has not altered our position in any way. Nor have our principles changed, particularly as regards the integrity of the internal market with its four fundamental freedoms.
We have negotiated intensely with the UK for two years. I think that we – and by “we” I mean everyone in the European Union – were creative and flexible. We took the UK Government’s red lines into account and we made compromises.
In doing so, both sides’ goals were taken into account. This agreement is a compromise for both sides. It includes what was important, namely legal certainty for the business sector, a transition period to allow us enough time to negotiate the future relationship properly, the prevention of a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and in particular, the protection of citizens’ rights. As regards possibly extending the withdrawal date under Article 50, the UK would first need to state clearly what it wants to achieve. This means there must be clarity in order to be able to answer the questions of “whether” and “how long”.
All of you know that we need to keep sight of the forthcoming European elections. Should the British not vote in these elections, but hold a referendum afterwards and then end up staying in the European Union?
Or should they vote in the European elections and then decide that they will leave the EU after all?
That’s something of a conundrum.
Ladies and gentlemen, if there has been one positive element in this process, then it was the unity and resolve of the 27 European Union Member States. We must preserve this unity beyond Brexit and indeed now in this phase.
We will need this unity later on for a strong and sovereign Europe – a Europe that will continue working as closely as possible with the UK as a partner and friend in an increasingly complex world. We actually need the British more than ever for this.
Irrespective of how the debate in the UK turns out in the coming weeks, we are prepared for all scenarios. We are continuing our plans for a no-deal Brexit and will step up our work on them. The aim is to prevent a negative impact on the public and business sector to the greatest possible extent.
You are familiar with the measures we have taken. The focus is on three sets of legislation. The law that allows British limited companies to change into a German type of company has already entered into force. One of the two laws we are currently discussing is aimed at cushioning possible negative effects on pensions, health insurance and education grants. The other one will address and reduce risks affecting the stability of the financial markets. Furthermore, and as you just discussed, we have started recruiting additional customs officers. We are also hiring more staff in our licensing authorities so that we can, for example, continue to issue licences for important medical products quickly and reliably. Finally, we are working on an ordinance that will grant UK citizens a transitional period to clarify their future residence status in Germany in the case of a no-deal Brexit.
In addition, we are of course working closely with the Länder, civil society, business sector and academia on all the matters that will need to be addressed. We are also liaising closely with our European partners, the Council and the European Commission to ensure that national and European measures are dovetailed.
To put it briefly, we are prepared, but we are also aware that a no-deal Brexit would harm us all, possibly or indeed very probably causing more harm to the public in the UK than to us.
We can thus only appeal to our British colleagues and say that while you certainly proved your love of black humour in recent days, we are now counting on your legendary pragmatism and realism.
Thank you very much.