Keynote speech by Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič on “EU-UK relations after Brexit” at the Mario Soares Promotion Closing Ceremony, College of Europe

(Source: European Commission)

“Check against delivery”

Thank you very much, dear Lukáš (Dravecký) – srdečne ďakujem!

It is truly an honour to be introduced by a fellow Slovak, representing a new generation of Europeans and the future of our Union.

Dear Rector, Federica Mogherini,

Dear Mayor, Dirk De Fauw,

Dear Directors of Studies,

Dear Professors,

Distinguished guests,

And most importantly, dear students of the prestigious College of Europe,

It is a privilege to be here, in the magnificent city of Bruges, for the Mario Soares Promotion closing ceremony.

When I learnt that this year’s promotion was dedicated to the father of Portuguese democracy, I was thrilled.

Mario Soares is an example of vision, and resilience. He relentlessly opposed dictatorship, fought for the freedom of his country and its people, and led them into the forerunner of today’s European Union.

As someone who lived a great part of his youth behind a barbed wire fence – Churchill’s infamous Iron Curtain – I can truly relate.  

When retiring from politics, Mario Soares said: “If I had been living in a democracy – instead of spending thirty-two years in and out of jail, running from the police and conspiring in secret – I could have achieved a lot more for Portugal.”

What a Statesman! What an inspiration!

Dear students,

I know that you too find inspiration, and a moral compass, from the great Europeans of our history.

Though our continent’s political, economic and social landscape has changed profoundly – out of the fences and division of the past has come today’s unity, and solidarity – I know that all of you will give your best to carry on the torch for your countries and the European Union.

I always find it uplifting to be at the College of Europe – a living “microcosm” of our European Union, or even a “Fab Lab” for future generations of Europeans.

I know that the College of Europe is a place of hard work and dedication. But it is also a place of life-changing experiences, explorations and discovery – where bridges are built across cultures and languages.

With this in mind, I want to congratulate all the students of the Mario Soares promotion for carrying on with their studies in this most difficult – and yet highly formative – year.


Every age has its own challenges.

Today, we are picking up the pieces in the aftermath of a global pandemic, even as the world continues to change at an unprecedented pace and scale.

  • Humanity’s ecological footprint has led to the global climate emergency.
  • The worldwide race for technological leadership is set to transform our economic models and our societies – bringing a sense of uncertainty.
  • The age of disinformation, combined with persisting inequalities, puts a strain on democracy.

At the same time, young people around the world are making their voices heard like never before – pushing to shape the agenda in recognition that it is their futures on the line.

We know that our actions today will define the role and nature of Europe for the rest of the 21st century – and whether new generations, including yours, will be better off than their predecessors.

I am convinced that to address these era-defining changes, we need more Europe – not less. We need your generation strongly engaged in defining your own future. And we need to continue to forge our European unity.

This fits well with the legacy of many leading European figures, from Mario Soares to Salvador de Madariaga, instrumental in the creation of this College, and from Václav Havel to Jacques Delors.

There is one ongoing example where our unity stands out against all odds – and it is my privilege to experience it first-hand.

I am talking about how our Member States and our European Institutions have stood together in the wake of Brexit.

I promised the Rector, dear Federica, that I would try to describe today how I see our deep-rooted relations with the United Kingdom.


To start, we must go back some thirty-three years – a year before the fall of the Berlin Wall – when the UK Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, came to this College to deliver her famous ‘Bruges’ speech on Britain and Europe.

And I remember that even though it was a clearly anti-federalist speech, it also was very pro-European in its own way – underlining, among other things, the intertwined fate of the UK and the rest of Europe over hundreds of years.

She stressed the imperative of “standing together” as well as “understanding each other better”, saying:

I want to see us work more closely on the things we can do better together than alone.” 

And we should remember everything we have accomplished with the integral support and contribution of the UK during its 47 years of membership in the European family:

Building the single European market; reforming the Common Agricultural Policy; supporting enterprise, innovation and competitiveness; but also striking global trade agreements; defending freedom and human rights around the globe; fighting all types of discrimination; and strengthening our security through deeper cooperation with NATO.

We also did “not forget those living east of the Iron Curtain” – to cite Margaret Thatcher in Bruges again – and we therefore became a truly European Union.

And yet, some five years ago almost to the day, the United Kingdom chose to leave our Union and unpick decades of close integration.

While respecting the democratic decision of UK voters, a vast majority of us very much regretted this decision. We had no doubt that this was a lose-lose situation – and nothing has happened subsequently to change our minds.

The five years since have felt both very long and very short.

  • Long because of the countless rounds of negotiations with the UK, patiently led by my colleague and friend, Michel Barnier. Long because of the challenges we have had to overcome – from the protection of EU citizens and UK nationals who had enjoyed the free movement rights of the European Union, to the unique situation on the island of Ireland, to the level playing field, and to the sensitive issue of fisheries, amongst others.
  • And short, given their far-reaching outcome. Two international treaties negotiated, signed and ratified in what was, relatively speaking, lightning speed. I am talking about the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, as the most comprehensive international deal adopted yet.

This is a major achievement, which clearly shows that the long history of cooperation between the EU and the UK did not come to a halt on 23 June 2016.


The European Union and the United Kingdom are, and will remain, close neighbours and strategic allies.

  • We share fundamental values and principles, such as democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech, respect for minorities and the fight against discrimination.
  • We share strong political objectives, such as protecting people around the world from the pandemic, fighting climate change, combatting terrorism, and confronting geopolitical threats from those who seek to do us harm.
  • We also traditionally share faith in a multilateral, rules-based global order, as the best way to solve conflicts. We both believe in bringing joined-up responses to global challenges, we support the United Nations, and play a positive role in the G7, for instance.

Given these common familial traits – as well as our global interdependence – I believe we cannot afford to spend any more time fighting a supposed zero-sum game.

Rather, we must use all our energy to build the kind of cooperation we need in today’s world – rigorously promoting those common values, interests and objectives, for our collective benefit.

For that, we need to finally move on from Brexit once and for all, and forge a path towards a shared future between two strong, strategic partners.

At times, this may sound like wishful thinking. But there is everything to gain from this – if it is embraced as our common objective.

There are, I believe, three keys to succeed on this journey, which I will discuss in greater detail.

  • First and foremost, we need to restore trust by respecting our international obligations and living up to our responsibilities.
  • Second, we need to build a strategic and enduring relationship with the UK, based on the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.
  • And third, we need to act as close partners in the world. On the EU side, this means continuing to invest forcefully in the future of our European Union.


So first:

To restore trust, we have to abide by our international obligations, notably those stemming from the Withdrawal Agreement.

During the negotiations, the EU paid utmost attention to the impact Brexit would have on our citizens as well as on the people of the United Kingdom.

Our protective approach to citizens’ rights will always be a central tenet of our thinking.

This affects more than six million people and we are working flat out with our Member States and the UK to make sure their rights are fully upheld.

That means ensuring that more than five million EU citizens living in the UK have legal certainty and can continue to benefit – economically, socially and culturally – from residence status.

There are just two weeks left for EU citizens to apply to keep this status before the deadline at the end of this month. We must therefore continue our constructive cooperation.

And generally speaking, we must treat each other’s citizens with the utmost respect and fairness – be it at our borders or in their daily lives. 

Turning to the island of Ireland, let me begin by saying in no uncertain terms – the EU has an unshakeable commitment to the people of Northern Ireland to ensure that the peace, stability and prosperity they have enjoyed over the last twenty years is preserved. This commitment is longstanding, unwavering and runs deep in our DNA – the European Union is at heart a peace project itself.  

I will never forget the images I saw 23 years ago of the signing ceremony of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. Nor will I forget the hope that flourished from that day onwards and which subsequently established peace and stability for everyone in Northern Ireland, and across the island of Ireland.

We have supported this process in Northern Ireland through the Peace Programme, with almost a billion euros in funding since its creation in 1995.

We will not allow this historical achievement to be lost.

Let me be clear: Brexit – more precisely, the type of Brexit that the current UK government has chosen – poses unique challenges to this unique situation. And the Protocol represents the one and only solution we could jointly find to protect the hard-earned gains of the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Through countless hours of intense, line-by-line negotiations, we finally managed to achieve what at times seemed impossible:

  • To protect the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement in all its parts;
  • To avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland;
  • To preserve the integrity of the EU’s Single Market;
  • While ensuring that the UK as a whole leaves both the EU’s Single Market and Customs Union, as demanded by Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

So we managed to square that circle with a hard-fought solution – the Protocol. And this solution was shaped, agreed and signed together – by both sides.   

But if it is to work in practice, then the Protocol needs to be properly implemented.

We have had our fair share of surprises in recent months, even though the Protocol entered into force over seventeen months ago.

So the UK must now show unwavering commitment to the implementation of the Protocol, as opposed to continuously putting it into doubt.

There must be a genuine determination to make the Protocol work, rather than looking for ways to erode it.

And there must be an end to damaging unilateral action, in favour of joint action through joint bodies.

I welcome that the UK is recognising the value of this approach on one of the outstanding issues – the supply of chilled meats from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Because what the Protocol truly embodies is trust.

It marks the first time that the EU has entrusted the control of its economic border to an outside partner.

In practice, we agreed to adjust the rules of the Single Market for the sake of a compromise beneficial to Northern Ireland, allowing it to stay inside the Single Market for goods.

This is a major concession from the EU, made with an eye firmly on protecting stability in Northern Ireland.

On its side, the UK agreed that Northern Ireland would remain aligned with EU rules on goods, accepting that this would mean checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Everyone around the table understood what these compromises meant in practice. The EU will not – and cannot – accept this delicate balance being unilaterally changed or disapplied because of buyer’s remorse.

I am, of course, acutely aware of how some in Northern Ireland feel about the Protocol. I know and understand the complexity of identity in Northern Ireland.

On that point, let there be no doubt that the Protocol has no impact whatsoever on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. This is made clear in the very first article of the Protocol.

And it should be even more evident when I say – that contrary to what some suggest, the EU has no interest in interfering in the UK’s internal affairs.

I am also acutely aware of some of the issues we are currently seeing in the implementation of the Protocol, in particular when it comes to controls of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

That is why I continue to speak regularly to businesses, civil society and politicians in Northern Ireland to have a full understanding of the situation on the ground.

That is why we warn against divisive politics.

And that is why the EU has shown from the very beginning that we are willing to find creative solutions when required.

For instance, we stand ready to go beyond the flexibilities in existing EU law on the continued supply of medicines to Northern Ireland – something I personally take very seriously in this time of pandemic.

This is my direct response to those in the UK, suggesting that the EU is too legalistic, ideological or inflexible. We turned our rules upside down and inside out to find solid solutions to outstanding problems.

But these solutions will only work if they are taken up.

Many stakeholders on the ground, for example, have called for the UK to take up our offer to align dynamically to the EU’s rules in the field of public, animal and plant health. This would see 80 percent of checks required under the Protocol disappear in a flash.

I have even proposed a temporary deal, so both sides can take stock when the UK’s future trade agreements with other partners begin to apply.

To refuse such an option from the outset represents somewhat of an ideological nature, rather than one focused on a real willingness to find workable solutions.  

My colleagues in the EU and I will continue to engage tirelessly to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland can benefit from the stability and predictability afforded by the Protocol.

Because at its heart, the Protocol also represents an opportunity. 

I remain convinced that Northern Ireland can benefit immensely from having unparalleled access to two of the world’s largest markets with more than 500 million consumers – a powerful magnet for foreign investment.  

So I want to see jointly-held investment conferences to install confidence in the business community in Northern Ireland and pave the way to further opportunity.

But we cannot do this alone. It has to be a joint endeavour between the EU and the UK.

This should be stating the obvious.

The Protocol, as a cornerstone of the Withdrawal Agreement, is an international agreement. A commitment willingly entered into. A set of legally binding obligations.

Hence my clear message to our UK counterparts in recent days. We are at a crossroads. Now you have a choice, of which path to go down.

Either we are working together, with the UK abiding by its international obligations and engaging in good faith. Or the UK continues to take unilateral action.

If the latter path is chosen, I fear a downward spiral in our relations, which would take our joint attention off a truly strategic future partnership. And in this case the EU will not be shy in reacting firmly and resolutely to ensure that the letter and the spirit of the Protocol are respected.

Let me be clear: I would very much prefer that the UK choses the first option. Because our people deserve better! Given our historic bond, our shared values, our challenges that are global in nature.

But our patience cannot last forever.

The clock is well and truly ticking.

I am convinced that there is still a window for productive political dialogue and positive results, particularly in light of the UK reaching out to us on chilled meats. And therefore, I trust that our UK counterparts will make use of this window with vigour and perseverance.


If we can do this, if we can restore trust, then the EU will continue to build a strategic, enduring and mutually beneficial partnership with the United Kingdom. That brings me to my second key to success.

This must start with full acceptance that the choices made in the past have direct consequences today.

We have inevitably seen some disruption to normal economic and cultural life since the start of this year. Lorry drivers facing regulatory checks at the border in Dover, or musicians facing visa requirements – again, as a direct result of UK choices, even against our advice.

In advance of Brexit, the European Commission had published more than a hundred sectoral guides to explain the inevitable consequences of the UK leaving the European Union. Yet for many across the Channel, they seem to have come as a surprise.

Of course, we need to find solutions where possible, but it is unrealistic to think that all barriers can be lifted.

The very nature of Brexit was to put barriers back up where they had previously been taken down.

Put in simple terms: Brexit has political, economic, financial and even social costs. It will be experienced through its disruptive impact.

But in the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, we have a good basis for a strategic relationship. Here, too, however, its implementation will be as important – if not more so – than our past negotiations.

A key aspect of reaching agreement on the TCA was our joint belief in free and fair trade, based on strong level playing field provisions to avoid unfair competitive advantages, through distortive subsidies, and social or environmental dumping.

On the EU side, it is therefore crucial to monitor how the UK might diverge from EU rules. We will of course do so in a spirit of cooperation and dialogue but if necessary, we will also be ready to use the enforcement tools agreed to in the TCA.

The same vigilance is needed in all areas of sectoral cooperation, including:

  • Visa fees, where the EU will not tolerate discrimination between EU countries;
  • Fisheries, with no fishing community left behind in our efforts to implement the agreement.
  • And police and judicial cooperation in criminal matters, such as fighting cross-border crime and terrorism, vital for maintaining the security of our citizens – together with solid and lasting guarantees for the protection of human rights, fundamental freedoms and personal data.

Our approach remains clear and consistent – to ensure that the balance between rights and obligations is respected at all times. We will make full use of the available instruments under the Agreements to preserve that balance.

I believe we should also seek out the areas where there is greater appetite for enhanced cooperation. Let me mention two examples:

  • Our massively successful Erasmus+ programme, aimed at young people.
  • With 73 percent of those aged 18-24 having voted Remain, it seems natural that they would want the kind of exchange opportunities offered by Erasmus+.
  • The UK government unfortunately declined to join it but our offer is still on the table.
  • Foreign policy, security and defence is another example, as this is an area that was supposed to be part of our new relationship, according to the joint Political Declaration from 2019 – but again, to no avail.

So there are opportunities for enhanced cooperation, but as the ongoing European Championship has again illustrated, it takes two teams to play ball.


My third key to success is investing in our future. After all, the more prosperous and robust the two partners are, the stronger our strategic relationship will be.

On the EU side, we are taking unprecedented steps to strengthen our Union and we will continue to do so.

So making the European Union more resilient is not to the detriment of the UK. On the contrary.

It is in the UK’s interests to have a strong, like-minded partner on its doorstep – which not only boasts the world’s biggest single market, but stands as a staunch global promoter of our shared values.

And the same arguments apply the other way round, hence our interest in working in close partnership with our British neighbours. This is vital, especially in a world where democracy increasingly finds itself under pressure from many sides.

Looking at the audience in this hall, I have no doubt that the students of this College, whether they hail from the EU or the UK, will contribute positively to building a mutually reinforcing bond between our two Unions.

To return to Margaret Thatcher: “we want to see Europe more united”, whilst preserving our “different traditions”.

Diversity is our treasure. Unity is our force. 

Our strategy must be a combination of engagement with others, including the UK, and the pursuit of the European interest.

I am proud to see that the EU’s unity is stronger than ever.

In the wake of Brexit and in the face of the current pandemic, we have shown the strength of working together, as a Union of 27 Member States, for the common good.

Since Brexit, we have launched a number of unparalleled EU initiatives designed and delivered with unprecedented speed, scope, ambition and solidarity.

  • The historic NextGenerationEU instrument for our long-term recovery and resilience, drawing on the European Green Deal to make Europe the first climate-neutral continent, on the digital transition and the social dimension of the recovery;
  • A new industrial strategy based on alliances in key sectors and technologies – like batteries – as a collective means to strengthen our open strategic autonomy;
  • The ramping up of our ambitions in the field of security and defence with dedicated instruments;
  • And an emerging new Health Union to strengthen the overall resilience of our health care systems. And I could go on.

To act autonomously, you need leverage. And leverage is acquired through joining forces – not in splendid isolation. Today’s challenges like climate change, pandemics, security threats or poverty have no respect for national borders.

Crises have often been catalysts for a stronger European Union in the areas where it is most needed. And while we cannot predict what the future holds, we can use strategic foresight to help shape it.

Your voice during the Conference on the Future of Europe will be equally essential to this process – and I hope to see as many of you contributing as possible. This is the best way to strengthen our democratic fabric and continue fighting populism.


Ladies and Gentlemen,

Dear students,

If we were to go back to June 2016, few of us would have predicted the situation we find ourselves in today. But there is no use in endlessly revisiting the past.

The decisions taken then, and subsequently, have already been made. Brexit has happened. And it has consequences. Arguing to the contrary is a fallacy.

We must therefore look to the future – and to rebuild an EU-UK partnership, primarily based on trust.

For the EU, and contrary to the doomsayers’ predictions, Brexit has bolstered our unity – unity amongst Member States in the Council and with the European Parliament.

Moreover, the UK withdrawal seems to have strongly dissuaded populist rhetoric around pushing the so-called exit button.

The citizens of the EU want predictability and a clear course of action, not the erection of more walls in Europe. And they recognise that there is no such thing as a lone actor in global terms.

Regaining control might be a useful soundbite, but it means little in reality when it comes to interacting with the world.  

I truly believe that present and future generations of Europeans, some of whom sit before me today, recognise the potential of the enduring partnership between the EU and the UK to build a better and more resilient future, for us all.

  • It will be a future, in which we are not takers, but shapers, playing a full role in the world.
  • With trust as our main social currency: trust based on dialogue, mutual understanding and the sturdy foundation of knowledge and evidence.

Dear students,

When Portugal joined the EU, Mario Soares imagined the future of Europe in a troubled world as “one of solidarity and unity, one of peace and stability.”

With your talent, with your bridge-building ability, with your active engagement, I am convinced that each one of you – wherever life takes you – will strive to keep the “European dream” of Mario Soares alive.

Long live Europe, and long live its College!

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