The European Commission’s new president will make her first official visit to Britain this week, laying the groundwork for the next phase of Brexit talks ahead of the UK’s departure from the union.
Ursula von der Leyen, who replaced Jean-Claude Juncker in December, will meet Boris Johnson at Downing Street on Wednesday – in a reversal of previous visits which have usually seen British prime ministers trek to Brussels for audiences.
The commission president’s visit comes ahead of Britain’s formal exit from the European Union, which is expected on 31 January, pending approval of the Brexit deal by the UK parliament and European parliament.
Ms Von der Leyen is expected to use the meeting to advise Mr Johnson to consider extending the Brexit transition period, which will expire at the end of this year unless the UK decides to extend it.
She warned in an interview with French financial title Les Echos last week that it might be necessary to extend the “extremely short” cliff edge beyond the end of 2020.
“It would be reasonable to evaluate the situation mid-year and then, if necessary, agree on extending the transition period,” she told the newspaper.
But Mr Johnson has announced his intention to write the 31 December transition end date into law, effectively legally binding himself to not extend the period.
Under the withdrawal agreement, the decision on whether to extend has to be made by July, six months from the end of the transition, in order to give both parties time to prepare for a cliff edge.
If no free trade agreement is negotiated then the UK will crash out without a trade deal on WTO terms. Labour has said Mr Johnson should extend the transition period by the maximum two years.
While some issues such as citizens’ rights, the divorce bill and the Irish border will have been solved in the withdrawal agreement struck by Mr Johnson, others will be left hanging at a cliff edge.
Even if the UK does manage to negotiate a free trade agreement with the UK, the economic damage to the UK from leaving the single market and customs union is expected to be considerable, according to the government’s own estimates.
A basic free trade agreement as planned by Mr Johnson is one of the loosest possible relationships between the UK and the EU. Previous similar agreements have taken years to negotiate.