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Writing for The Daily Telegraph, Open Europe Co-Director Stephen Booth argues that if politicians simply return to a narrow debate about how much control the UK can secure over migration in return for continued trade access to the EU’s single market, which was also the crux of David Cameron’s negotiations, it is difficult to see how there will be a different result other than further stalemate.
This article was first published in The Telegraph on 2 July 2016.
Launching her Conservative Party leadership bid, Theresa May highlighted the next government’s Brexit dilemma very clearly. “It must be a priority to allow British companies to trade with the single market in goods and services – but also to regain more control of the numbers of people who come here from Europe,” she said.
Following last week’s post-Brexit summit in Brussels, European Union leaders issued a strong statement making it “crystal clear” that access to the single market “requires acceptance of all four freedoms”, including the free movement of people. This trade-off is real. For its remaining members, the EU ceases to be a club if those who leave can keep all the privileges without the obligations. Neither the so-called ‘Norwegian’ nor ‘Canadian’ models deliver enough of what British voters or businesses want. Norway means giving up too much democratic control over regulation and immigration in return for market access, while Canada enjoys independence but far less market access in key industries such as financial services than we’re used to.
As Britain launches into another hotly-contested political campaign, this time to crown a new prime minister, we must all hope that it produces a better plan for reaching a new settlement with the EU than simply re-running the negotiations David Cameron conducted in February. Other EU member states genuinely felt they had given Mr Cameron a significant package but, as the referendum campaign illustrated, it was not enough to convince the British electorate to back continued EU membership. In order to get the best deal this time, Britain must be prepared to think bigger and convince our European partners to do the same. If politicians simply return to a narrow debate about how much control the UK can secure over migration in return for continued trade access to the EU’s single market, which was also the crux of Mr Cameron’s negotiations, it is difficult to see how there will be a different result other than further stalemate.
As many on the Leave side of the argument pointed out at the time, if EU leaders weren’t prepared to offer fundamental reform when voters were on the brink of electing to leave, when will they? Add the fact that, in the wake of the Brexit vote, emotions are running high on both sides of the Channel, and the risk is that a new round of negotiations will degenerate into real bitterness and tit-for-tat mercantilism, which would do real long-term economic harm to Britain but also to the rest of Europe. However, as time allows the implications of this historic vote to sink in, it should become clearer to all parties that there is more at stake than just the details of trade terms and immigration control.
Debating whether Britain should follow a Norwegian or Canadian model in its trade relations with the EU completely overlooks Britain’s wider and pivotal role in Europe’s geopolitics. As Europe’s leading member of NATO, Britain has played a significant part in providing the security and stability which has enabled the EU to develop and enlarge to the East. For Central and Eastern European members that joined in the 2000s, it was NATO membership that preceded EU membership.
After driving such a hard bargain over the issue of free movement in Mr Cameron’s February negotiations, it is telling that it is these countries that have displayed the greatest public dismay at the prospect of Britain’s withdrawal. Rather than treating each as silos, Britain and the EU would both benefit from a new strategic European partnership, encompassing defence, security, trade and immigration. The security and defence element of this partnership might involve joint UK-EU border patrol missions in the Mediterranean or extra British support for NATO in Eastern Europe. Incidentally, much of this is already happening, albeit on a smaller scale. Nothing comes for free and this would entail an economic contribution from the UK. But funding this wider European cooperation rather than paying directly into the EU budget is likely to be an easier political sell to British voters.
Within this broad new strategic partnership, the UK and the EU could simultaneously raise their ambitions for the future and lower the stakes in the current standoff. It would surely be easier to reach a workable compromise that could fulfil Britain’s desire for greater immigration control and provide for a comprehensive free trade agreement if both sides saw these as important elements of a new relationship rather than a damage limitation exercise. The precise detail of this new relationship would be the work of many years but if there could be early joint agreement that this should be the destination then procedural questions, such as exactly when to trigger the EU’s formal Article 50 exit clause, would be easier to navigate.
A strong signal that all these issues will be handled responsibly by Britain and the EU would boost confidence amongst nervous allies such as the United States and investors who are keen on economic and, just as importantly, political stability. There is no guarantee that the EU would accept such a proposal. Realising it would require statesmanship on everyone’s part. But unless Britain is prepared to think in grander terms and put its best offer forward, then it cannot expect the EU to do the same.