The British establishment is slowly coming to terms with the enormity of the legal and political cluster bomb that Brexit has unleashed on our society. The UK government and the EU will now define at the negotiating table what Brexit means in concrete terms. May´s government is aiming for the hardest of Brexits.
A Comment by Chris Ruff
In theory, once the UK government triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty it will have two years to negotiate the terms of their exit from the EU. Recent events have shown that nothing can be taken for granted and that the road will undoubtedly be bumpy. But it is in no-one’s interest for a long pitched battle. Britain must acknowledge some difficult truths and rethink its negotiation strategy – it is our only hope for a compromise.
Freedom of Movement: the Itch We Just Can’t Scratch
Of the many issues behind Britain’s exit, the right to live and work on equal terms anywhere in the EU has been the most painful for the UK government post-referendum. It will also be the most consequential in future negotiations, as the EU representatives have shown remarkable unity in their defence of the four freedoms.
The question of EU migration was not anywhere to be found on the ballot paper. We can also point to statistics that state that the effect of immigration on wages is negligible, or that the actual financial effect on our National Health Service is much smaller than perceived, and fails to take into account the amount of EU citizens working in the system. But anyone who spent more than five minutes campaigning on the Brexit issue (outside London) could tell you that the EU migration issue is not going anywhere fast, no matter how many well-meaning facts you throw at it.
This simmering issue is therefore never far from the surface of the Brexit negotiations, and Theresa May has now laid her cards upon the table. She is picking unilateral limits on the rights of other EU citizens to work in the UK over membership of the single market – the hardest of Brexits. What she has failed to explain to the country is the true extent of the economic damage this will entail.
A Change of Attitude
Imagine how frustrating it is for European politicians to have to deal with politicians like Boris Johnson and the other Brexit zealots, intent on playing to the crowd rather than serious governing. The government must rethink its entire way of dealing with our European colleagues. In order to find a positive outcome for both sides, a wholesale change of ministers would be preferable, but is unlikely – at least for the moment – for the sake of Conservative party unity.
Instead, it might help to have a few ministers educated in the way Brussels works. You simply cannot talk to European leaders like you talked in the Brexit campaign, and you will look like a fool if you do.
Our politicians must also be prepared to upset the right-wing press, whose support in the Brexit campaign was invaluable – possibly a deciding factor – but whose impossible demands are poisoning the debate and paralysing government action.
Find Commonalities With Our European Friends
For the Brits, they must realise if they are to get anywhere, they must first acknowledge common concerns. There are plenty to be found: on economic growth, on trade, on Russia, on tackling terrorism, and yes, on freedom of movement.
France and Germany famously both implemented transitional restrictions on citizens from the new European states in 2004, while Britain did not. Germany has also recently taken steps to combat the perceived ill effects of ‘benefit-tourism’. If concerns can be framed as common ones, then the EU is willing to negotiate, as we saw with the pre-referendum deal.
What absolutely will not fly is any notion that Britain is getting a special deal: à la carte, cherry-picking, having and consuming cake – whatever you want to call it. EU leaders know this would be the beginning of a death spiral for European unity and will defend it at all costs.
It is truly hard to believe that the referendum was a matter of months away. In that time, Donald Trump’s astonishing win and Matteo Renzi’s downfall have altered the political scene immeasurably. This year, similar surprise results in the Netherlands, Germany and especially in France, could yet have unpredictable effects on the negotiating climate.
The common understanding of the Brexit dynamics is that due to the time pressures imposed by Article 50, it will be us Brits under pressure to sign a quick deal. But not taken into account is the degree to which Europe itself could change during this period.
The pre-Brexit offer to David Cameron is now presented as the absolute limit to which the EU can go on issues of importance to Britain. With extra domestic pressure to reform freedom of movement and continued economic stagnation, there is nevertheless a tiny chance that other EU governments might be more receptive to a new compromise.
Former Prime Minister Harold Wilson – who, unlike David Cameron, called for and won a referendum on EU membership – once stated: “a week is a long time in politics.” Judging by the last few months, two years will be an eternity.
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