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Caught between a rock and a hard place

Submitted by on 29 Sep 2016 – 09:05

The people of Britain voted to Leave the European Union, in a decision which will transform the political, economic and cultural relationships between Britain and the EU. FRANÇOISE GROSSETÊTE MEP analyses the potential consequences of the Leave vote and explores what a new relationship between Britain and the European Union might look like.

As the real consequences of the Leave vote slowly unfold, Britain’s decision to put an end to its EU membership appears for what it really is: an economic catastrophe. While Prime Minister Theresa May and her government are building an action plan to make Brexit a reality, the United Kingdom is indeed confronted with a Shakespearian dilemma: choosing between its economic interests and the sovereignty of its people.
Among the many promises made during the referendum campaign, the most serious is probably the one saying that Britain would regain its true sovereignty after leaving the EU. In fact, it now seems as if the country, the birthplace of the modern parliamentary democracy, will have to accept and apply rules without participating anymore in its making. The largely unfounded fear of imposing regulations from Brussels is ironically becoming true as the UK is quitting the European Union.

Indeed, of all the options drawn by legal experts to the EU membership, none can truly reconcile British political aspirations to more “independence” and “sovereignty” with the necessity for the country to keep its economy afloat in an era of free trade and globalisation.
Part of those options, for example, being a member of the European Economic Area (like Norway) or negotiating sectorial bilateral agreements with the EU (like Switzerland), would entail applying and respecting an important part of the European legislation decided in Brussels, with no more say in it. That is, only if the UK wants to preserve the free access of its enterprises to the common market. Moreover, the country would still have to contribute substantially to the EU budget. All these inconveniences would come without the advantages.

The rest of the options would entail that the UK fully cuts itself loose of the common market, and is considered by its European trading partners as any other third country. Britain could indeed decide to renegotiate a form of free trade agreement with the continent. First, the UK would have to negotiate with the block of 27 countries, without any picking or choosing. Second, such an agreement could only confer the country a limited access to the continental market, with high tariffs remaining for certain products. Third, it would also mean that the UK would have to renegotiate all by itself and therefore with less weight, all its trading arrangements with non-European countries.

Of course, the preferred option of Brexiters would have been a sort of special status for the United Kingdom within the EU, by which Britain could have remained a full member of the common market while being exempted of all other European policies. Such an alternative is, however, made impossible by current treaties. It was also foolish for us to believe that UK’s partners could find any justification for such a preferential treatment, which would have opened the Pandora box of Europe “à la carte.”

The best solution, in the end, would have been for Britain to remain. As a member of the EU, the UK was able to heavily weigh in the shaping of the common market policies, through the legitimacy of its government, its Commissioner and it’s democratically elected MEPs. Outside the EU, it will find itself caught in a difficult situation and will have to choose between applying foreign legislation and cutting access of its companies to the largest consumer’s market in the world.