The Mansion House speech, delivered by Theresa May, clearly attempted to define what the UK wants out of Brexit. What it did not do, is deliver concrete solutions. If the EU is to abide by its principles, and not sell its soul to a potential bidder, Theresa May should have very little, if anything, to bargain about – she is either “in” or “out” of the binding concept of the European Union. Whereas there is no problem with the UK settling for a free-trade agreement, the UK’s trade status with the EU should not go far beyond that, even if the UK has been an EU member for over 40 years. A special arrangement, reaching far beyond the deal obtained by Canada (a “Canada +++” deal, so dear to David Davis) would be derogatory towards the deals obtained by Norway and Switzerland. Both countries have to abide by single market rules and financial obligations, whilst not being full members of the EU. Michel Barnier is right when he said that the UK can only be offered an “off-the-shelf” deal with the EU.
If you listen closely to the speech, it appears very contradictory. It is almost as if Theresa May is saying to the UK, “if we don’t abide by EU rules, I cannot guarantee that there won’t be commercial consequences”, whilst also warning the EU to, “let us be the exception to your principles, if you know what’s good for you…” It is clear that (i), Theresa May wants to silence her party’s hard Brexiteers and (ii), wants to maintain the economic advantages of the single market, as much as possible, and free of charge. At the same time, the UK wants to limit EU immigration, have free access for services, and maintain complete freedom to negotiate trade deals elsewhere. This is underscored by Theresa May’s somewhat unnoticed cynical remarks concerning continued recognition of broadcasting services, boasting that 30% of European broadcasting services originate from the UK, albeit by companies with a pan-European ownership. Would she be threatening to black out EU television sets, by any chance?
We should explore creative options with an open mind, including mutual recognition which would allow for continued transfrontier broadcasting.
Brexit can no longer be considered as a divorce between the UK and the EU, but as a blatant case of adultery. As with all such cases that go unoticed, the UK is playing a clever double-game. We must now ask ourselves if the EU is prepared to ignore, for financial reasons, what is becoming more and more obvious – the UK wants to stay in the warm comfort of the EU, whilst doing hanky-panky, on the outside.
The UK’s charm offensive
Somewhere, hidden behind her somewhat charming obsession for compromise, and overestimation of the UK’s importance in the world, there was – for the first time – a sense of reality in Theresa May’s Mansion House speech. She managed to make a shrewd assessment of what the UK wants from the Brexit negotiations and – more importantly – by what means the UK is willing to get it. “Compromise on both sides” seemed to be the key phrase. Theresa May seems to have actually come to terms with the fragile nature of the UK’s negotiating position, but still remains in a utopian dreamland, when it comes to finding solutions that will be acceptable to all concerned.
Having closely watched her deliver the speech, and having pressed on the “rewind” icon, several times, I have selected one quote that, on its own, probably summarises the dilemma that the UK finds itself in.
Our default is that UK law may not be necessarily identical to EU law, but it should achieve the same outcomes.
Although Theresa May reemphasized that Brexit would mean taking back control of UK borders, money and laws, it was pretty obvious that she has conceded that most laws would result from a direct import of EU laws and regulations. Furthermore, any divergence from these laws would come at a price, regarding access to EU markets. After months of hesitation, deviation and repetition (to quote a famous panel game), Theresa May has finally come clean on what her vision of Brexit is, for the UK. The Brexit hardliners have been warned and, hopefully, put back in their place – at least for now.
Courting with love
During the last 18 months, a lot had been said about the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), poking its European nose into British affairs. It now seems, however, that Theresa May is prepared to replace the interference from Luxemburg, with a similar interference coming from elsewhere. That would be quite acceptable,to the UK, as long as it’s not the EU acting as umpire. She refers to an “independent mechanism to oversee any differences in arrangements in order not to jeopardise access to EU markets“. What this actually refers to, remains unclear, but it does suggest the presence of some sort of independent body, akin to the ECJ, to oversee the conformity of UK exports to EU markets, in the event of UK legislation changing with respect to that of the EU. Would it have the powers to go against UK rulings?
We will need an arbitration mechanism that is completely independent – something which, again, is common to Free Trade Agreements.This will ensure that any disagreements about the purpose or scope of the agreement can be resolved fairly and promptly.
Love through an agency
The fact that the UK wants to stay in several European agencies, such as those for medicines, aerospace, and chemicals, may sound like good news for those who voted against Brexit. Indeed, it is a step forwards, but is also a prime example of the cherry picking that the UK government is guilty of. Theresa May, of course, defends her global position on what she wants, by arguing that, “if this is cherry picking, then every trade agreement is cherry picking.” Be that as it may, the only problem is that Theresa May has added a lot of cherries on the cake.
We will also want to explore with the EU, the terms on which the UK could remain part of EU agencies such as those that are critical for the chemicals, medicines and aerospace industries.
The fact that the UK makes a large scientific contribution to the European Medicines Agency, hasn’t prevented the Agency from moving to Amsterdam, underscoring the EU’s scepticism of, if not the present government, certainly future ones. Even Theresa May made it clear that although parliament would be sovereign in taking any decisions in these fields, any deviation from Agency regulations will have consequences,
Parliament would remain ultimately sovereign. It could decide not to accept these rules, but with consequences for our membership of the relevant agency and linked market access rights.
I know what I want
Theresa May knows what she wants from Brexit, but if the EU cares for its own abiding principles, it should not like what it has just heard. Even Michel Barnier’s conciliatory words, welcoming the speech, should not hide the fact that the EU finds itself in a more difficult situation than it did, before Theresa May’s plea for a deal.
The EU is now faced with an existential choice. It must decide what to do with a schoolboy who, whilst being extremely intelligent, is not allowing the classroom to advance in the right way. This being said, the schoolboy’s departure should be dealt with, within the context of school rules and, more importantly, the headmaster must learn from the school’s mistakes that led to the crisis, in the first place.
Brexit should warn the Brussels elite about the dangers and undesirability of European federalism and the excesses of the EU budget.
The European Union is not an unstoppable train, speeding towards Federalism…Brussels works for the member states, and not the other way around…We should be working towards a more perfect Union, not an ever closer one. – Dutch prime-minister, Mark Rutte
In a single speech, delivered in Berlin, the Dutch prime-minister has shown to have more insights into the way the EU must develop, than the UK has managed to muster up, in more than 40 years of EU membership. It’s just a shame that, for whatever reason, this vision has not been endorsed and acted upon, a long time ago, by more influential member states than the Netherlands. For Rutte, the EU begins and ends with the sovereign state. It is a community of sovereign states sharing common values and a common goal, “making each other stronger, when a joint approach is needed.”
The EU and UK will survive Brexit, of course. It’s just a question of what sort of EU and UK emerge from the present situation. Jean Monnet, a founding father of the European project, once said, “Europe will be forged in crises, and will be the sum of the solutions adopted for those crises.” History has proved him right, and the EU still survives. Not only was he right but, guess what: the next crisis may just be around the corner – with upcoming general elections, it may be a crisis, “Made in Italy.”