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Boris Johnson to meet new European Commission president in Number 10

Meanwhile, MPs will continue to scrutinise the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.

Ursula von der Leyen (PA)
Ursula von der Leyen (PA)

By Harriet Line, PA Deputy Political Editor

Boris Johnson will meet new European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen for talks in Downing Street on Wednesday.

The Prime Minister is expected to press home his desire to reach a free trade agreement with the EU by the end of December 2020, when the transition period is set to end.

Mr Johnson has insisted he will not push back the deadline, but critics claim that the timescale is too tight to reach a new deal.

Their meeting, the first since she took office, will also be attended by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier.

Number 10 said Mr Johnson will underline that the forthcoming negotiations will be based on an ambitious free trade agreement, and not on alignment.

Brussels insisted on Monday that trade talks would not be on the agenda at the meeting.

European Commission spokesman Eric Mamer said the meeting would “set the scene” for the Brexit process, but in order to launch trade talks the European Council – made up of the 27 remaining EU nations – would need to approve a mandate “and we are not at that stage yet”.

“This is not a meeting that will go into the details of the trade negotiation per se,” he added.

Mr Barclay acknowledged that it would be an “introductory meeting” but insisted the prospects for a trade deal were good as it represented a “win-win” for both sides.

“I think there is scope for a very positive and optimistic approach to the trade deal,” he told Sky News.

“Both sides have committed to securing a trade deal by the end of December 2020. That is in the Political Declaration.”

He also dismissed reports that the Government was looking to water down the rights of EU nationals living in the UK after Brexit.

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(PA Graphics)

Meanwhile, MPs will continue to scrutinise the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) on Wednesday in the second day of its committee stage.

On Tuesday, Mr Barclay insisted that the Government would stick to its EU departure timetable after facing calls to guarantee the UK will leave with a trade agreement.

The Cabinet minister said the Conservatives had committed in their manifesto to not extend the implementation period beyond December 2020.

Mr Barclay expressed confidence in negotiating a trade agreement with the EU in the 11-month transition, but did not rule out a no-deal arrangement.

Clause 33 of the WAB seeks to prohibit ministers from trying to extend the implementation period, which would begin once the UK leaves the EU on January 31.

Labour said the WAB is a “bad deal” for the UK and called on the Government to come forward with proposals to show how it will avoid the “catastrophe of no-deal at the end of this year”.

Wednesday’s Commons debate on the Bill is likely to be dominated by an amendment demanding the Government continues to negotiate to take in lone child refugees from Europe after Brexit.

A clause containing a commitment to strike a deal with the EU so unaccompanied child refugees could continue to be reunited with their families in the UK after exit day was removed from the Bill when it was reintroduced to Parliament after the election.

Clause 37 replaces the pledge with a watered-down vow for ministers to “make a statement” on the progress of the talks once the divorce with Brussels is complete.

Labour leadership hopeful Sir Keir Starmer and Lord Alf Dubs, who fled from the Nazis on the Kindertransport to Britain when he was six years old, have written to all Tory MPs calling on them to vote against the Prime Minister’s “disgraceful” change.

It comes as the Telegraph reported that the EU has warned Mr Johnson not to water down protections for its citizens living in the UK after Brexit.

The paper said Mr Barnier raised “issues of concern” in a letter to Mr Barclay before Christmas, in which he was said to have highlighted the need for an independent watchdog to enable EU citizens to make complaints against the Government.

Mr Barclay said he had written to Mr Barnier to reassure him that the Government remained committed to protecting citizens’ rights.

“The legislation before Parliament safeguards their rights. Their rights are guaranteed. We value them, we want them to stay. The Bill delivers on that,” he said.

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