Britain and the EU: we can work it out

James Perry has come up with a way for Britain and the EU to go forward together. It'll require some work from both sides though...

A massive marital. That ‘what have I just done’ feeling. Yup, it’s been written all over the faces of all the Leave campaigners – or at least, the ones whose eyes don’t swivel. The remorse is not just felt in the UK. Brussels is oozing with regret. Things were said. 

After the mother and father of all rows, we wake up with the question – do we really want to break up? In the cold light of day, maybe things aren’t so bad. Maybe those compromises that, underneath, we both know we need to make aren’t so unreasonable. Maybe we have more to gain by staying together.

Long term relationships require sacrifice. If we are to move forward together, we must both release things that we hold dear. The key word in that sentence is ‘both’. Only by doing this can we both thrive.

we must start by looking at the problem through the lens of our partner

Like anyone who’s just had a huge row and needs to make up for their own good and the good of the kids, we must start by looking at the problem through the lens of our partner. Empathise and listen. Acknowledge and engage with our own failings. And then re-focus on what we have in common, what unites us, what we love about each other.

Paradoxically, after a row like this, the first move often must come from the injured party. In this case, the EU.

We haven’t started well. In Europe, Jean Claude Junker’s immediate response was petulant and immature. It suggests that, like Cameron, he must probably go - this is his failure too. Meanwhile, in camp UK, the Leave leadership have been muted and sheepish. Boris Johnson looks suspiciously like someone who never intended to win the vote, who was playing a different (i.e. his own) game.

The initial reaction on both sides is taking us down the wrong road. This obvious road leads us to a messy divorce, a war of attrition over the terms of Britain’s exit. Two years of rancour where everyone loses. It will give succour to the swivel-eyed, both in the United Kingdom and across Europe. It could lead to contagion which will lead to the disintegration of both the UK and the EU. 

The EU’s initial refusal to have ‘informal’ discussions in light of the Brexit vote is the opposite of what we now need. It says that they will try to inflict maximum pain on the UK to disincentivise others from leaving. This will only serve to pour petrol on the contagion, just as the core approach of the Remain campaign did. 

Instead, the obvious response to all of this, with so much at stake, is to enter into a period of marriage counselling, a safe space to resolve our differences. Rather than wait for the UK to trigger Article 50, there is now a wonderful opportunity for the EU to re-discover the founding principles that I quoted on these pages before the referendum and take the initiative. In doing so, it has an historic opportunity to re-establish itself as the foundation from which all of Europe operates, and in doing so push back against the forces of division and hatred that threaten to engulf it. 

Like a good marriage, it would require deep change and compromise on both sides

The opportunity, surely, is this. We already have a two speed Europe. We have the Eurozone (those European countries that have adopted the Euro as currency) and we have the rest. This is obvious. The EU could decide that now is the right time to formalise this reality through the explicit separation of the Eurozone and the European Single Market of non-Eurozone European countries. Both would comprise a new and expanded EU.

Members of the European Single Market would have to accept certain market related legislation (e.g. employment law, trading standards, state aid). And, as non-Eurozone members, they would have to surrender their veto over these laws. They would also have to accept the big one, the free movement of labour.

But as members of the European Single Market rather than the Eurozone, they may also be given flexibility around other ‘sovereignty’ issues such as human rights. And, the big one, a distinction might be made between movement of labour and movement of people – or to put it bluntly, the movement of the families of the labour. This could help resolve the welfare state related issues that drove the UK’s vote to Leave.

Membership of this new European Single Market would not be restricted to the UK, and could be negotiated by the UK along with other potential European Single Market members – Norway, Turkey and Switzerland as well as the non-Eurozone members of the EU.

Should such an option be offered by the EU before we had invoked Article 50, it would be perfectly correct for – even incumbent upon – Parliament to enter into such a discussion.

The logical conclusion of such a discussion would be a plebiscite – either another referendum or a general election. 

The details of formalising the two speed Europe would be complex and not without controversy. This is why it has not thus far been attempted. Like a good marriage, it would require deep change and compromise on both sides. The EU would have to give up its pretentions to the creation of a pan European super-state – this would be restricted to the Eurozone only. The UK would have to give up its pretention that it can be a leader of Europe from outside of the Euro – the ‘have our cake and eat it’ conceit.

After Thursday, we all face a new risk equation. We need our leaders to respond with something positive, inclusive, pragmatic and constructive. Something that responds to the concerns of working people across Europe without allowing rancorous fragmentation to overcome us all. They must reset the foundations of Europe to preserve its stability. Let’s hope that the EU is able to step up to the challenge and make the first move.

Photo credit: Number 10