Today the leaders of 27 member states of the European Union met for fifteen minutes or so in Brussels to sign off a prepared statement on their negotiating stance with the UK as it leaves the group. The statement says ‘Throughout these negotiations the Union will maintain its unity and act as one’. Well, maybe.
The 27 member states are a heterogenous group with very different interests. It is hard to get them to agree on much these days beyond lofty ambitions. Even when they do agree to act in concert, as with the migrant crisis, their different interests soon take them in diverse directions. This is a real danger in the negotiations. The UK has but one interest. The EU, in spite of its strong words today, has 27 separate interests and they cannot be suppressed throughout this process especially when it gets down to the details.
Even if the negotiations come to an agreed conclusion between the UK and the 27 other governments (acting as one), the issue of ratification remains. It is not yet clear precisely which elements of any agreement are likely to require ratification processes beyond the agreement of the heads of state. But any agreement on relationships following agreement on terms of departure – which Article 50 indicates should be part of the process – is likely to require ratification by the Parliaments of the member states and in some cases through popular vote in a referendum. There are several examples of failures at this stage from the European Defence Community in the 1950s onwards.
There are many hazards on the way to a successful agreement. First the question of the money – which reveals just how expensive membership of the EU is to the UK. Then the question of citizens’ rights. While the UK may agree rights for EU citizens living in the UK it is by no means clear just how the EU intends to get 27 different countries to agree reciprocal rights to UK citizens living in the EU. It will probably have to agree a new Regulation or Directive to ensure that all comply.
Some other key points emerge from the document. The EU insists that the UK cannot have the same rights as it had as a member. There is no mention of the obligations that membership entails. The UK has weighed up the balance between the rights and obligations of membership and decided that the obligations outweigh the rights. The membership fee is high, there is little evidence that the subs are put to good use (read the reports of the EU’s Court of Auditors), and the EU’s closed attitude to trade means that the UK cannot exploit its comparative advantages globally so long as it is tied to the EU.
The negotiations will be long and arduous but do not expect that the stunning display of immediate EU unity displayed today in Brussels will last the course. The UK has only one interest to defend – the EU has twenty seven interests.
One thing is clear. Membership of the single market includes freedom of movement for people to live, work and study throughout the EU. Most parties in the UK’s general election say that they want to control immigration. Those that also argue that the UK should ‘stay in the single market’ should read the document issued today. Leaving the EU means leaving its single market – there is no way the UK can leave the EU and stay ‘IN’ its single market.