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August 12, 2022

EU and UK: Free movement vs. access to common market

The title refers to Brexit. I want to say that, if before 23 June 2016 one could not talk in terms of separation between the UK and the EU, from that date on, even though Article 50 of the Treaty has not been invoked, the UK is no longer part of the European organisation (UK did not take part in the EU’s Bratislava Summit two weeks ago).

At least that is how I understand the sentence that British officials obsessively repeat – “Brexit means Brexit” –, which states that the applicability of the result of the June 23 referendum is beyond any doubt – whether it’s the doubt of some renowned experts or that of petitioners (numbering in the millions) who are asking for a referendum redo –, so the divorce is absolutely certain.

In fact, this conclusion is also induced by the recent information offered by one of Brexit’s architects (Boris Johnson, UK Foreign Minister), namely that Article 50 will be invoked by next January or February. But certain events come to question this decryption of “Brexit means Brexit,” so of this idea that UK’s separation from Europe is irreversible. Firstly, we are talking about what at a first glance seems to be the process by which both London and Brussels are establishing their positions to negotiate UK’s exit. And, from this standpoint, a first file concerns the issue of UK being part of the EU common market, while the second concerns the creation of the “European army.”

When Brussels made it known that, according to the founding treaty, last amended in Lisbon in 2009, membership of the EU’s common market is non-dissociable from the recognition of the EU citizens’ right to free movement on the territory belonging to the members of this market, London remained somewhat passive. For British officials, the pressing issue was thought to be choosing the EU exit model – the Swiss or the Norwegian one –, although these methods indissolubly linked the two aspects too. A “tip” – as “The Economist” dubbed a report authored by Japanese specialists on Tokyo’s stance toward Brexit – had to come from Japan, alerting London sufficiently as to adopt a position toward Brussels in this file.

The warning was thus presented by the conservative magazine: “The paper advised Mrs May to try to retain full access to the single market, to avoid customs controls on exports, to preserve the ‘passport’ that allows banks based in London to trade across Europe and to let employers freely hire EU nationals.” And the magazine also characterised the cold shiver felt in London, the gateway through which more than half of Japan’s investment in the EU enters the European common market: “These interventions worry Tory Brexiteers, who fret that having won a famous victory in June, they could lose the war.” Thus warned at the G-20 Summit, British Premier Theresa May sought to rein in the enthusiasm of some supporters of a “hard Brexit” (Brexit at any costs and as fast as possible). For instance, when they claimed, like Boris Johnson did on September 23, that Article 50 will be invoked early next year, but also when the owner of the Brexit portfolio stated in early September that it is “improbable” for the UK to remain part of the European common market without enforcing immigration controls. On one hand, Theresa May pointed out she rejects any attempt to have a Brexit negotiations timetable forced on her, this falling under her decision-making prerogatives, but also that the opinions expressed by ministers are personal and do not reflect the opinions of the Government.

Moreover, experts who are carefully watching the moves of the British Government have noticed that conservative leader George Osborne is committing to leading the campaign against “hard Brexit,” the draft of a speech he gave in the U.S. on September 22 reading: “Brexit won a majority. Hard Brexit did not” and “There will have to be compromise.”

But the most serious reply to the illusions entertained by some British officials (particularly Foreign Minister Boris Johnson), in the sense that there is no link between the EU’s free movement principle and access to the common market, came from the finance ministers of Germany and France. In reply to B. Johnson’s remark that this link is “complete baloney,” both EU minister stated: “we will gladly send her majesty’s foreign minister a copy of the Lisbon treaty. Then he can read that there is a certain link between the single market and the four core principles in Europe /…/ /we/can also say it in English. So if clarification is necessary we can pay a visit and explain this to him in good English.” Thus, for London the “free movement – access to common market” file has become a top preoccupation and has thrown a spanner in the works of the initial strategies to operationalise Brexit. On one hand, Premier May is trying to calm the zeal shown by some hardcore fans of leaving the EU, trying to establish an efficient strategy for the upcoming negotiations with the EU, delaying the invoking of Article 50 for as long as she thinks necessary. On the other hand, the emergence of distinct camps within the conservative party is noticeable, namely one of “compromise” (in what concerns the free movement of persons?) opposed to that of the “hawks” (“hard Brexit”) who are trying to expedite the process of leaving the European organisation.

It is not by chance that the dilemma in which London finds herself sparks unexpected statements on the continent, statements that combine irony with seriousness. Like the statement made by N. Sarkozy, the contender for the French presidency in 2017, offering to change the EU Treaty in order to allow the UK to get out of Brexit if he wins the elections. “I would tell the British, you’ve gone out, but we have a new treaty on the table so you have an opportunity to vote again,” Sarkozy recently stated. “But this time not on the old Europe, on the new Europe. Do you want to stay? If yes, so much the better. Because I can’t accept to lose Europe’s second-largest economy while we are negotiating with Turkey over its EU membership. And if it’s no, then it’s a real no. You’re in or you’re out.”

Any way one looks at it, it’s obvious that the EU is facing a great challenge. To identify the most suitable way for the UK to leave the EU without altering its principles and legal foundations, but at the same time not to deliver a severe blow to one of the planet’s large economies, which would have a massive impact on the global economy – this is the preoccupation of London as well as Brussels but also of other capitals, from Tokyo to Paris.

Of course, a different interpretation is possible, but the credence given to it is smaller. Namely that negotiation strategies are being established on both coasts of the English Channel, the search being on for the best position in a clash which, far from being “win-win,” can become a zero sum game with significant consequences in Europe but also for the Transatlantic relationship. Maybe the deciphering of the “European army” file will help us steer between these hypotheses.

Because, after all, the UK has always been an opponent of this concept of “European army” – with no need to list the reasons in full, but particularly in order not to harm the Transatlantic alliance –, and suddenly, along with Brexit, this concept has become a constant reference in Brussels. As known, alongside France, the UK has the most important military capabilities in the EU, and the UK’s exit from the organisation would impact its global stature, being also a challenge for NATO’s viability and efficiency in Europe.

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