The British referendum of 23 June 2016 was the most dramatic – although not fatal – blow to the European project as we know
it. As one of the most internationally minded countries chooses to withdraw from the Union that connected it with its nearest neighbours for 44 years, the looming reality of Brexit has become one of the EU’s most pressing issues. Given my personal connection to Scotland through my Glasgow-born father, it is not surprising that I was deeply affected by the outcome of the British EU-referendum.
Just a few of days after the European leaders gathered to mark the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, Prime Minister May notified Brussels of the United Kingdom’s intention to leave the European Union. In her letter to the European Council she presented the British vision for our future partnership.
At the heart of the new arrangement, Prime Minister May proposes “a deep and special partnership between the UK and the EU, taking in both economic and security cooperation”. An agreement on these terms will be in our mutual interest, but how this might look in the future is still unclear. The treaty would be unprecedented, since the European Union has never negotiated such a free trade agreement with a country whose economy and institutions are so tightly connected with ours. The European Council took a clear stance when it noted in these negotiations that the European Union will act as one and preserve its interests, and our first priority will be to minimise the uncertainty caused by Brexit for our citizens, businesses and Member States. So it is very important to conduct the negotiations in a calm and responsible way.
The Prime Minister is confident she can reach such a comprehensive agreement within the two-year-period. This is very optimistic. However, as the European Parliament has made clear, the withdrawal arrangements have to be sorted out first, before talks on a future partnership can start. Given the vast scope of the negotiations, it will be extremely challenging to finalise this deal
within two years. The talks for a free trade agreement between Canada and the EU (CETA) began in 2009. Eight years later, CETA still needs to be ratified by almost every European Union Member State.
It is not the European Union’s aim to punish the United Kingdom. There will be no spirit of revenge. However, there will be no favourable treatment either. A third party country cannot have better conditions or more rights than a member state. One cannot leave a club and retain all the benefits. Thus, the future deal will not be better than the status quo.
Within the UK, the referendum was bitterly divisive in political terms. In my view, a major problem for both the UK Government and the Parliament is the lack of consensus about what kind of future relationship the country should seek to have with Europe. Differences of opinion prevail both within and between the Remain and Leave camps.
The UK stands at a crucial junction, facing its future, against a backdrop of uncertainty – and while I am hopeful bright days will lie ahead after the withdrawal, there is no doubting the significance of the task ahead. Fundamentally, the arrangements we come to between the UK and the EU will define how life is lived in the British Isles – not just in economic terms, but geopolitically, and culturally. Many on the Leave camp have been keen to underscore that the UK cannot be separated from its geographic proximity to Europe – but the tone and substance of our relationship will ultimately prove most important. There is a decision to be made – will Britain not just stand, but feel close to Europe?
In practical terms, there will most likely not be a quick, simple or straightforward transition from full British membership of the single market to the new patchwork regime. It is evident that no privileged British access to the EU’s internal market will be possible post-Brexit unless a new regulatory system is put in place. A new apparatus is needed to verify that British and EU trade, health and safety standards are equivalent and their rules of origin procedures are sound.
After all, we have to remember that the outcome of the negotiations will not just be about business, it will be about the people. The European Parliament has made very clear that safeguarding the rights of the 3.2 million EU citizens living in the United Kingdom as well
as the 1.2 million British citizens who live in the EU-27 is a top priority. Rights for workers, pensioners, students, etc., will have to be guaranteed on a reciprocal basis.
Given the common challenges we face, we still have to find the ways and means of close partnership and cooperation after the British withdrawal, not least to ensure the rights and security of our citizens. This process will cost time and resources and worsen economic conditions. Brexit is a historic mistake. Yet, to minimise harm, we ought to act responsibly and seek a fair and acceptable settlement for both sides. If we have learned anything from the failings of historical treaties, we must eschew thinking in terms of punishment or the arrogance of exceptionalism, and ensure the two parties can leave negotiations with a shared sense of common purpose. The United Kingdom will remain our neighbour, trade partner and important NATO ally.