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Politics dictates a quick-fire Brexit – but a compromise is more likely than you think

January 26, 2017

Let’s show some ambition and optimism! There really is a deal to be done with the EU27 that works in our mutual interest as we head for the exit.

Not that this will be easy.

I have been struck by the unity of purpose expressed at the highest level by our continental counterparties. Michel Barnier, the EU Commission’s negotiator-in-chief, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and other national leaders invariably use identical wording to set out the basis of the EU’s negotiating position. Cannily, Theresa May has recognised the sincerity of their insistence that the four freedoms – of goods, capital, people and services – must remain intact and that the UK cannot be better off outside the EU than it would be by staying a member (to discourage others from seeking to leave).

Nevertheless, I believe that a practical, imaginative, calm negotiation opens up the potential for continued UK market access in a way compatible with our clear need to take back substantial control over migration. At the outset we have accepted unequivocally that this requirement to re-establish authority over immigration policy means that the UK is unable to remain in the Single Market.

Yet for all the determined rhetoric that free movement is “non-negotiable”, the EU already shows remarkable levels of flexibility in this area. The key for the UK’s trade negotiators is not to be seen to try to “cherry pick” but instead to rely on precedents elsewhere in Europe that already enable some of our neighbours to exercise continued discretionary control.

It is already the case that some governments within the Single Market adopt measures that amount to a significant restriction on free movement. These include controls over migrants accessing health, education and housing unless they can prove their employment status (Belgium); all jobs having to be advertised locally before being offered to residents overseas (Switzerland); caps on overall migrant numbers (Liechtenstein); and stricter rules and limits on access to welfare benefits for a period of five years for new migrants (Germany).

So there is clear room for manoeuvre. However, my discussions with centre-right sister parties in Europe always betray the fact that UK and EU politicians are invariably talking at cross-purposes when debating migration.

Here in the UK we have had decades of Commonwealth migration and, as a result, our more immediate concerns arise from unskilled migrants from low wage EU nations coming here either to engage in low-level criminality and benefits tourism, or to price out of the market (often in the black economy) jobs that our own unskilled Britons would otherwise take. By contrast the EU “migration problem” of recent years is virtually exclusively one of refugees and economic migrants from the Middle East and Africa.

Indeed in most of Europe the right to free movement is viewed as a cherished privilege, not least by those parts of the EU that were under Communist rule until 1989. It is worth remembering that Merkel herself lived behind the Iron Curtain for the first three decades of her life. Any restriction on movement within the boundaries of the EU is essentially regarded as a fundamental betrayal of European values by most of our neighbours. Similarly, when UK politicians talk of the benefits of a points-based system to restrict movement, political leaders in Poland, Hungary and the Baltic States (instinctively inclined to support the UK) interpret this as a British attempt to asset-strip the most talented young people from their nations.

In the midst of a fluid, fast-moving political situation no one can accurately predict the outcome of our exit negotiations, which is why it is sensible to leave as many options on the table for as long as possible. These talks will not take place in a vacuum; domestic elections this spring in the Netherlands, France and possibly Italy will be followed by the German General Election in early autumn. Fresh turmoil in the Eurozone may yet influence the sentiment of UK voters as to the type and speed of Brexit to which we should aspire.

One of the more remarkable, if largely unremarked upon, elements of British public life since last June’s referendum is the largely static public opinion in the aftermath of these momentous events. The catalyst for this changing may come from the realisation that Project Fear has been replaced by a firm commitment to Global Britain and an outward-looking, positive sense of purpose, or more likely still by events beyond the European continent.

Arguably the election of Donald Trump may prove the biggest factor in dictating the terms of our separation from the EU. Rapid regulatory liberalisation in the US financial services sphere may persuade the City of London that the more pressing threat to its business comes from Wall Street arbitrage rather than the tortuous terms of a transition, passporting or equivalence accommodation with the EU.

Equally, Europe’s army of disaffected electors now see that they have within their grasp the power to turn politics upside down – although notionally standing under conventional Republican Party colours, Trump’s victory was as a maverick insurgent. The EU’s elites gravely misjudge events if they believe the answer to contemporary instability is “more of the same”.

Inside a few years, although probably not within the narrow Article 50 timeframe, the EU’s cherished Single Market, alongside its position over the free movement of people, is likely to be diluted beyond recognition. European political leaders grapple with their own waves of populist political triumph in the aftermath of the Brexit vote and Trump’s triumph. While this points to a quick-fire, clean break from the EU, we should all recognise that in the detail there is still much to play for.