Brexit: Ursula von der Leyen dismisses Boris Johnson’s ‘handbags and haircuts’ analogy

Ursula von der Leyen has dismissed Boris Johnson’s likening EU demands in Brexit trade talks to being forced to buy a new handbag on threat of “punishment”.

The prime minister said on Thursday night that the bloc’s proposed “level playing field” for regulations amounted to saying “if the EU decides to buy an expensive handbag then the UK has to buy an expensive handbag too”.

Under the plan, the UK and EU would have to keep their environmental and labour rights at similar levels, or one of the parties would be allowed to impose tariffs on the side lagging behind to protect them from being undercut.

But speaking after an EU leaders’ summit in Brussels, the European Commission president said: “It is only fair that competitors to our own enterprises face the same conditions on our own market.

“But, this is not to say that we would require the UK to follow us every time we decide to raise our level of ambition. For example in the environmental field.

“They would remain free. Sovereign, if you wish, to decide what they want to do. We would simply adapt the conditions for access to our market accordingly the decision of the United Kingdom, and this would apply vice versa.”

Addressing another key sticking point in talks, the president said the UK must recognise “legitimate expectations of EU fishing fleets built on decades and sometimes centuries of access”.

She was speaking at a press conference alongside German chancellor Angela Merkel and her European Council counterpart Charles Michel. EU leaders gathered in Brussels for a meeting on Thursday, a day after Boris Johnson visited the Belgian capital for last-ditch Brexit talks with Ms Von der Leyen.

The 27 presidents and prime ministers devoted just 10 minutes to Brexit, with Ms von der Leyen updating them on the state of play. An EU official with knowledge of the discussion said the impression left was that the “probability of a no deal is higher than of a deal”, describing the situation as “difficult”.

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