Wednesday

24th Apr 2019

Opinion

Brexit is about Europe's future as well

  • Hard-line Brexit voters see “no deal” with the EU and reverting to WTO terms as the best outcome. (Photo: Paul Lloyd)

The UK has begun the formal process of Brexit. The next month will be critical in shaping the EU-27’s priorities in the negotiations, which will be led by the European Commission.

Even if both sides desire it, an orderly and cooperative Brexit is not a given. Brexit is the most complex deal ever attempted, and is being conducted inside an unprecedentedly short timescale.

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The repeated failure of international trade talks should be a stark warning that domestic politics and technical complexities can derail even the best laid-out plans of negotiators.

The Brexit referendum was a result of internal tensions in the UK Conservative Party, and not a natural surge of UK public opinion against the EU.

UK politics on Brexit is dominated by the battle between prime minister Theresa May and the “Brexit Ultras” who represent a quarter of her party’s MPs and have the support of many of the UK’s right-wing newspapers.

Strengthening her hand against these forces was a significant part of May’s motivation for calling a snap general election.

The Brexit Ultras will do their best to disrupt the negotiations. The Ultras see “no deal” with the EU and reverting to WTO terms as the best outcome. They want complete freedom to negotiate new trade deals with the US, Australia and China.

They also want to break any links between UK and EU regulation on environmental, climate change, health and safety and labour issues, and have recently launched a public deregulation campaign.

They will try to render any concessions on the UK’s EU financial contributions politically toxic, while arguing for absolute immigration limits and against oversight by the European Court of Justice on any future or transitional agreements.

But these voices do not represent the British people. A majority of British people under 55 voted to remain in the EU. A strong majority of Conservative voters support maintaining high environmental and climate protection.

The future of the UK is aligned with European values and cooperation, but that doesn’t mean that those who want a different future for UK-EU relations cannot win now.

Results matter

The outcome of the negotiations would have a significant impact on the rest of the EU, and the results matter to Europeans.

Geography is still the largest determinant of economic relations. If the UK became a deregulatory state just offshore from the EU, it would chill progress on environmental, health and social standards, and empower similar deregulatory and nationalist forces across Europe.

To avoid unfair competition, the EU must make the maintenance of equivalent environmental and labour standards a red line in the Brexit negotiations, and a condition for continued open trade which is fully embedded with binding effect in any future trade agreement.

But beyond this, the risk of negotiation failure cannot be sufficiently mitigated through setting clear negotiating instructions with the EU commission.

It is necessary to have a political strategy that includes European citizens and their representatives in the European Parliament.

Safely traversing the Brexit labyrinth will require statesmanship and courage from European – and UK – leaders.

Not only is it essential that the negotiations are as transparent and consultative as possible, they will require vibrant public debate across the EU and with UK citizens, parliamentarians and organisations over the terms of withdrawal and future cooperation.

The key lesson of TTIP is that if negotiations are seen as secretive, and focused on the interests of powerful lobby groups, then they will lose their public legitimacy. Brexit must not appear to be an argument between Siemens, Nissan and Goldman Sachs over their relative market access rights.

The structure of the negotiations currently supported by the European Council and European Parliament does not explicitly set out a process of broad cooperation.

Positive atmosphere

A positive negotiation atmosphere must be built by focusing, from the outset, on building new EU-UK cooperative arrangements in areas such as security, organised crime, defence, environment, energy and fisheries – instead of postponing these to after an agreement on the exit terms.

Action in these areas will bring tangible benefits to European citizens and businesses, all of which must be fairly weighed alongside the debate over UK financial contributions - which, at most, represent 6% of the current EU budget and under 0.01% of the EU's economic output.

Negotiations always lead to hard choices. There is a temptation to leave the complexities of Brexit to the European Commission's negotiators to drive a hard technical bargain focused on short-term issues. But this would be a mistake for the EU.

Europe’s long term interests lie in being seen to deliver a positive and constructive relationship with the UK that benefits its citizens. That is also the wish of the majority of the British people.

Brexit is an opportunity to build a new EU approach to trade and investment negotiations. This must maximise transparency and accountability, and demonstrate how new deals support the interests of EU citizens on issues such as health, sustainability, quality public services and climate change.

Achieving this may be less emotionally satisfying than extracting the maximum price from the UK’s departure, but it is the best foundation on which to build a Better Europe.

The writers work for Third Generation Environmentalism (E3G): CEO Nick Mabey, Head of Berlin Office Sabrina Schulz, and Head of Brussels Office Manon Dufour

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