A new policy paper released today by the Conservative Group for Europe (CGE), the main campaign group for Conservative pro-Europeans, argues that the risks are high that the outcome of the exit negotiations will cause significant damage to the political and economic interests of both Britain and the EU, blighting relations for a generation. The CGE brings together over 30 Parliamentarians as members, with Ken Clarke MP as President and Neil Carmichael MP as Chairman.
The full paper available here
In the Group’s first policy paper in a planned series during the Article 50 period, author and CGE Vice Chairman Edward Bickham sets out the risks from a bad or chaotic Brexit, saying that the British Government is in serious danger of ‘asking for the wrong things, in the wrong way and on the wrong timescale’.
Bickham: “With the Article 50 process starting, the Government should change direction to deliver a better Brexit that unifies the country and maximises the economic and political interests of both the UK and the EU. That will involve disappointing the Brexit zealots. The negotiations will be difficult, but the UK government faces a choice – either pursue a Brexit with a strong UK-EU institutional relationship that could be a win-win, or settle for a deal that destroys prosperity and influence.”
The paper’s main points include:
- The Government has adopted an intimidatory stance towards critics, claiming that the Referendum has given it a mandate. It is not defying the ‘will of the people’ to believe that the Government is pursuing an unnecessarily extreme form of Brexit – there is no mandate for “rupture”. Its White Paper adopts a divisive ‘winner takes all’ approach, which threatens to perpetuate divisions and risks further alienating the Conservative Party’s natural supporters in business.
- The Prime Minister has expressed a desire for “a new strategic partnership between Britain and the EU”, but has provided no clues about how this would be organised. The Government’s determination to rule out preserving any aspects of the current relationship – such as membership of Euratom – seems driven by hostility towards the EU in particular and supranational institutions in general rather than a pragmatic pursuit of the national interest.
- It is in Britain’s interest to preserve a uniquely close relationship with the EU through a new institutional relationship rather than ad hoc arrangements, with the fullest possible participation in the Single Market, continuing co-operation in areas like the environment, science and research, higher education and aviation, and the preservation of uniquely close working arrangements on security, crime and foreign policy. The volatile nature of the new US Administration and the aggressive behavior of Russia make this a bad time to reduce the ability of European countries to work closely together on foreign and security policy.
- Negotiating a new ‘institutional relationship’ could build on ideas around ‘variable geometry’. Potential approaches worth exploring include an Association Agreement; the Continental Partnership idea championed by the think tank Bruegel; or the creation of a bespoke Britain-EU Partnership Council.
- It is wrong to assume that it is impossible for Britain to retain Single Market membership whilst limiting freedom of movement. If negotiations are conducted in a constructive spirit, a grand bargain might yet be achieved. If Britain were, for example, willing to trade some influence over Single Market rules, then it might be possible to secure restrictions over freedom of movement such as an emergency brake, greater constraints on access to benefits and requiring job or study offers before people move to Britain.
- It is unwise for Britain’s negotiating strategy to be driven by an ideological hostility to the European Court of Justice. It has been a good arbiter of Single Market rules and doesn’t deserve to be accorded ‘bogey man’ status. Any UK-EU Free Trade Agreement would involve accepting rulings by a supranational arbitrating authority.
- Any EU Free Trade Agreement will fall far short of replicating the benefits of the Single Market, especially in services. Independent estimates warn that FTAs with new countries are unlikely to make a big impact in softening the impact of loss of Single Market membership. So if an exit from the Single Market becomes inevitable, the Government should negotiate a significant transitional period, during which Britain should retain its place in the European Economic Area (EEA). The UK would suffer more than the EU from a ‘train-crash’ Brexit.
- The EU 27 also have a significant interest in a positive outcome. They should ask themselves whether an institutional, rather than ad hoc, relationship with Britain may facilitate a continuing alignment in areas like foreign policy. Similarly, they should consider whether helping Britain to meet its problems regarding migration may be a price worth paying for maintaining the current scope of the Single Market. Do they want, even unwittingly, to abet the nationalist elements in the UK by imposing a ‘hard’ Brexit which maximises the schism between Britain and the EU?
- Some European politicians suggest that the costs of a ‘hard’ Brexit will be too high and that British opinion will ultimately demand that the country rescind its decision. They are almost certainly wrong. The more likely scenario would see the EU used as a scapegoat for Britain’s ills; so for the EU 27 to plan on the basis of a British change of heart would be a serious miscalculation.
CGE Chairman Neil Carmichael MP commented: “This publication is a powerful contribution to the necessary debate following the referendum decision as the period of negotiation under Article 50 begins. Securing the best possible deal for the UK is essential for peace, security and prosperity but the ultimate outcome must also enjoy widespread support in order to enable leavers and remainers to come together in the national interest. It should be studied with these objectives in mind.”
Bickham added: “Many statements from British Ministers have lacked empathy with our partners and failed to create the mutual confidence essential for successful negotiations. Many Continental leaders see the British approach as transactional, nationalistic and hostile to the EU.
“The Prime Minister has been disingenuous in simultaneously urging that the country should come together, whilst setting out negotiating objectives that polarise opinion. The Government is mistaken in its rigidity towards the ECJ, and its current approach is likely to cause serious economic dislocation and damage to employment, living standards and public services.
“The greatest weakness of the Government’s approach is that it is piecemeal. Like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz it lacks a heart. There is no vision for the new relationship: how it would work and how we would hope to have influence over the policies of our closest neighbours.
“Britain’s interests, values, security and prosperity are so inextricably linked with the countries of the EU that these must be managed in a structured way. Negotiating a new ‘institutional’ relationship will require goodwill and a longer-term strategic sense from both sides. Otherwise the real danger is that the negotiations will be hijacked by nationalist elements and that relations will be poisoned for a generation.”
The Conservative Group for Europe
Every Conservative Prime Minister, from Macmillan to Cameron, has recognised the importance of strong and committed British participation in European political and economic institutions. The Conservative Group for Europe was founded almost fifty years ago initially to campaign for British membership of the European Economic Community and thereafter for Britain to play a leading role in the European Union. Although we believe that the 2016 Referendum was a flawed process, Britain is now embarking on a course to leave the EU. The role of the CGE in these new circumstances is to campaign to preserve the fullest practicable political and economic co-operation between Britain and the EU in pursuit of our shared interests, prosperity and security.