Boris Johnson’s timetable for agreeing a future trade deal with the EU is “extremely challenging” with “very little time” to conclude negotiations, the European Commission’s president has warned.
Ursula von der Leyen cautioned that without a trade agreement being struck by London and Brussels, both sides will again face the “cliff-edge” of the UK leaving the bloc without a settled future relationship.
The UK is due to leave the EU on 31 January before entering a “transition” period until the end of 2020, in which the status quo of EU membership will be maintained.
During the recent general election campaign, Mr Johnson vowed not to extend that transition period, leaving less than 11 months for a new UK-EU relationship to be agreed.
He has since promised to write into law that his government won’t prolong the deadline for striking a trade deal.
Critics have claimed this leaves open the prospect of an effective no-deal Brexit in December 2020.
Ms Von der Leyen added to those warnings as she spoke in the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Wednesday.
She said the EU is working on the assumption that Mr Johnson’s Brexit withdrawal agreement – Britain’s divorce deal – will be ratified by the UK parliament by 31 January following his “clear” election victory.
Looking ahead to trade talks, Ms Von der Leyen added: “The timetable ahead of us is extremely challenging. It will end by December 2020, which leaves us very little time.
“In case we cannot conclude an agreement by the end of 2020, we will face again a cliff-edge situation.
“And this would clearly harm our interest – but it will impact more the UK than us.”
With the UK due to formally leave the EU on 31 January, before entering the transition period, Ms Von der Leyen praised some of those UK MEPs who will soon be leaving the European Parliament.
She said: “I look at our very brave Remain MEPs, I can only say: ‘I’m sorry, we will miss you – thank you for your courage, thank you for having been at our side.'”
After her remarks prompted both heckles and applause, Ms Von der Leyen added: “We’ll never miss those who scream and yell.”
Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage used the Strasbourg sitting to hail the UK’s looming EU departure.
“After three-and-a-half years of deception and dishonesty we will be leaving this prison of nations at the end of January,” he said.
“We won’t become a third country as I’ve been told this morning, no. We’re going to become an independent self-governing nation.”
He branded EU officials such as Ms Von der Leyen “dull as ditchwater”, adding: “Brexit is the beginning of the end of this project – we are giving leadership.”
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, later warned the EU’s legislature could yet withhold approval for the UK’s exit deal ahead of the 31 January deadline.
He posted on Twitter: “Everyone presumes the @Europarl_EN will give automatically its consent to the Withdrawal Agreement.
“Not if the remaining problems with the citizens’ rights are not solved first. Citizens can never become the victims of Brexit.”
Former chancellor Philip Hammond, who was effectively expelled from the Conservative Party earlier this year for voting against Mr Johnson’s Brexit strategy, predicted a “comprehensive” UK-EU trade deal would not be possible by the end of next year.
He told Italian newspaper La Repubblica: “It might be that there will be an interim trade deal agreed, which is perhaps less ambitious than intended for the longer term but something that can be done quite quickly and maybe leave some of the more difficult issues to be tackled in a future round.
“Therefore, it may be that there has to be a concept of a multi-round process: three rounds over six or seven years, or something like that.”