Monday

22nd Jan 2018

Opinion

London alone cannot find all Brexit 'solutions'

  • It takes two to tango - Brexit requires solutions from Brussels, not just London (Photo: European Commission)

Since becoming prime minister Theresa May has made clear her desire to forge a "deep and special partnership" between Britain and the EU post-Brexit. I want that too and believe it would be in the interests of both sides.

But to make it happen we must have a genuine exchange of ideas over how the new relationship might work and I am concerned many in Brussels still believe that because Britain voted to leave the EU, it must come up with all the solutions.

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This view is being used to justify a refusal to budge on key issues like the sequencing of talks and the content of the deals being struck on citizens' rights, the financial settlement and Ireland.

Yet it singularly ignores the long-term opportunities and costs for Europe.

When the rest of the world looks at the Brexit negotiations, it sees a European problem that the European continent must work together to solve.

Whether that is Australian officials saying "the onus is on the EU as well", or the Japanese government calling for London to maintain its euro clearing rights.

Placing the entire burden of responsibility on Britain also fails to understand the result of the shifting political plates.

Washing hands

Europe cannot wash its hands of Brexit. Those who support the political project of the union – a union of European people with common ideals in the pursuit of prosperity – must ask themselves what went so wrong for 17.4 million Europeans to vote against it.

When over one million more people vote leave than vote remain in any European nation, there are lessons for all of Europe to learn.

If the European project is valuable then it must be able to work for all those involved.

The competing visions set out by Jean-Claude Juncker and Emmanuel Macron are attempts to answer this question, but the assertion that Britain is to blame has already had a poisonous consequence in the negotiations.

The EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier claims that the negotiations "are not about concessions".

His implication is that Britain must sign up to all of the Commission's demands, whether it is the direct jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK, which would lead to an unprecedented situation of a sovereign nation being bound by the court of an organisation of which it is not a member; or a maximalist interpretation of on-going financial obligations that has a weak moral case and an even poorer legal one.

Sensible proposals

Meanwhile EU negotiators have stalled or rejected sensible proposals from the UK, many of which would have a significant benefit for people on both sides of the English channel.

Both sides are sensibly starting from the position that citizens should be able to enjoy the rights they currently have in the same way once Britain leaves the EU. The devils lie in the detail, and it is here where sensible suggestions have been dismissed.

The British side wants to work to ensure both sets of citizens can continue to vote and stand in municipal elections. The EU says this is a matter for member states and has refused to lift a finger to deliver it.

On the mutual recognition of professional qualifications, whose origins are in a liberalising EU Directive which has benefited Europe immeasurably, the EU has not agreed that citizens studying for a qualification at the point at which Britain leaves the EU should have those qualifications recognised across the EU.

Finally, the UK government offered to give EU citizens with settled status in the UK the unlimited right to return, beyond the two years currently offered by the free movement directive, in exchange for the continuation of onward movement rights for UK citizens who live in the EU. The EU is yet to accept or reject this offer.

These proposals would go a long way to reassuring some of the people nervous about what Brexit could mean for their lives. The fact that supposed champions of citizens' rights in the European Parliament have ignored them is a terrible shame.

Giving ground

There are things to be positive about in the negotiations, such as progress on the Irish border issue and the continuing optimism of the two negotiators.

But ultimately a successful conclusion will only come from both sides giving ground.

On the financial settlement the EU is currently asking Britain to part with €40 billion to €60 billion in exchange for only a transition agreement and the promise of a trade deal.

That is untenable, but the UK government could pay a larger share of its obligations if the EU allowed it to be presented in the context of the future relationship.

Solutions lie within our grasp. However, while important figures continue to believe that all the responsibility lies with Britain, the talks will go nowhere and everyone will lose out.

Ashley Fox is leader of the UK Conservative MEPs

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