Our Opinion: 2017

No need for a bust up in UK/EU talks

One of my main reasons for backing ‘Leave’ was to guard against the UK being dragged into further EU integration plans. That may seem unlikely today, but barely ten years ago joining the euro was still a live political issue for Britain.

In the absence of Brexit it could become an issue again in the future. Beyond that, on trade, I’d like free trade with the EU and everyone else too. As for immigration, it would be sensible to have an open and honest discussion about the social and economic impacts of free movement, and how to offset those impacts, rather than sweep those questions under the carpet for ideological reasons.

It seems that most British voters agree. A post-Brexit survey of UK voters by social research institute NatCen found nearly universal support for maintaining free trade between the UK and the EU. Equally, notes BuzzFeed, while “a majority of Leave voters backed free trade, financial passporting and following EU manufacturing regulations… a majority of Remain voters supported limiting immigration and introducing customs”. In other words, it shouldn’t be hard for the government to find a Brexit route that will be acceptable to all but the most ardent Leavers and Remainers: free trade with Europe and others, accompanied by a more flexible border control policy. All that needs to be haggled over is the price.

European voters don’t want to see Britain get both free trade and an opt out from freedom of movement. And that’s entirely understandable – why should Britain get all the upside of Brexit and none of the downside? However, Europe also has a highly eventful political calendar coming up in 2017. How might that affect the Brexit talks? The precise treatment of the UK on terms of trade is unlikely to be a big electoral issue in other countries.

However, immigration is another matter. According to YouGov, voters in Italy, France, Germany and Spain – the four biggest EU economies – are all more concerned about the impact of immigration than the British are. If politicians in those nations want to forestall the rise of populist parties in their own backyard, they’ll be encouraging the EU to be more flexible in its approach to freedom of movement.

In other words, 2017 may see the EU as a whole move closer to the UK in its stance on migration.

That leaves the European Commission itself. While Jean-Claude Juncker and colleagues might want to make an example of Britain, this is a presentational issue more than anything else. They can portray any deal as demoting Britain to a second-class member of “greater Europe” with paid-for access privileges; the government can say that it has met the demands of the British people without being overly disruptive. It’s the path of least resistance – and if there’s one thing we know about politicians, that’s often their preferred option.

Of course, the EU may well feel that it has no need to do a deal, and that the Article 50 process givesit an unassailable advantage. After all, if Europe doesn’t like the deal on offer from Britain, then all it has to do is stall until we end up with hard Brexit by default. That would damage the EU too (it would miss Britain’s budget contributions, for a start), but it’s certainly a possible outcome.

Which is why Theresa May must be prepared to do what any good negotiator does in a no-win situation, and walk away. Perhaps the only way for the UK to get what it wants is to opt for a hard Brexit, and then negotiate from there. If that’s the case, then so be it. It was good to hear Mrs May affirm last week that was her stance. No deal is better than a bad deal for the United Kingdon’s long term prosperity.

27th January 2017