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22nd Feb 2019

Interview

Any post-Brexit deal would be tough on the UK

  • Catherine Bearder, the only LibDem MEP, will lead her party's "In" campaign ahead of the referendum in the UK (Photo: European Parliament)

Any post-Brexit deal would be very hard on the UK, warned Catherine Bearder, Liberal Democrat MEP, who will lead her party's campaign to stay in the European Union.

The only LibDem member of the European Parliament after the party’s crushing results last year told EUobserver that she doubts a Norway-type of arrangement - being a member of the European Economic Area - is possible.

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“The deal will be very difficult, because they [other member states] don’t want any other country to join us,” she said in an interview on the sidelines of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) congress last weekend in Budapest. "I’m convinced of it."

Bearder recalled that such a deal would be done without the UK at the negotiating table.

She likened the scenario to someone leaving the family home after a divorce.

“You don’t give them the front-door key and tell them to use the sitting room any time they like,” she quipped.

Yet a new ORB poll carried out in the wake of the Paris attacks and published on Tuesday (24 November) has for the first time showed more support for leaving the EU than for staying in, at 52 % to 48 %.

"This poll underlines just how close we are to a disastrous Brexit,” Bearder commented on the poll on Tuesday.

"All those in favour of Britain staying in the EU, from small businesses to charities, must start speaking out now before it is too late," she added.

Bearder warned that there are huge risks economically for the UK if it were to leave the European Union.

“If we lost the vote and we were to leave, from the fisherman to the farmers, their market would be gone,” she said, adding that all exports would face tariffs.

Bearder also warned that hammering out that deal after the referendum might take a year and, in the meantime, hamper investments.

Cameron’s wishlist

Bearder said UK prime minister David Cameron has come forward with a list of proposals for renegotiating UK membership that are not so difficult to achieve, as they give a lot of leeway.

“I think Brussels will give him a deal,” she added, saying while some are understandably fed up with the UK’s various opt-outs, there is goodwill in Brussels to make sure the UK stays in.

The only point Bearder thinks could be difficult is cutting the benefits for non-British EU workers.

“I can’t see any of the Eastern European countries supporting that,” she said, pointing out that the two million EU migrants working in the UK are economically more active than the two-million British living outside the UK in the EU.

Bearder also said she is not certain Cameron understands that any curbing of benefits will affect UK citizens living in European countries too.

She recalled that the Brits put the phrase “ever closer union” into the treaty of Maastricht, another contentious topic, and a commitment Cameron now wants to exclude the UK from.

“We want to bring the peoples of Europe together,” she said of the phrase. “Not the governments of Europe.”

Cameron has set out to come to an agreement on Britain’s requests at the December summit with fellow EU leaders, but it seems increasingly unlikely he will make that deadline.

Swing voters

The referendum on the UK’s EU membership has nothing to do with the UK and EU, Bearder argued.

“This is all to do with the Conservative party, “ she said, adding that both Labour and the Conservatives are divided over the issue, while LibDems are entirely committed to staying in.

They will start campaigning as soon as there is a date for the plebiscite and will focus on undecided voters.

“We want to explain what the EU is and make sure they realise that it is in our long-term interest to be part of this Union,” she said, adding that staying in is the only way the UK can reform the EU.

For her part, Bearder would like to see more transparency within the EU, especially more insight into the closed-door meetings of the heads of states and governments at the European Council, where major decisions are made.

She noted that 20,000 new members have joined, bringing the LibDem party ranks to a total of 60,000, most of them young and pro-European. That is an increase of 50 % since the general election last May, a wave possibly caused in part by Labour’s shift to the left.

Swing voters could be impressed, she said, with quick and effective decisions by the EU on the migration issue, for instance - something that so far has been lacking.

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