What is your analysis of the recent Brexit vote and what do you think were the key drivers behind this decision?
On the 23rd June, a narrow majority of the British people decided that their country should leave the European Union. Of course, I respect this democratic decision, but I deeply regret what happened to the European Union and I think it’s a terrible mistake the United Kingdom is about to commit.
There were a number of reasons which finally led to this quite surprising result. One was the question of sharing national sovereignty, which was never really explained to the British people over the years of EU membership. It is not about giving up national sovereignty but sharing it within a multinational institution. It makes you stronger in a globalised world.
The second reason was immigration. Obviously, voters were very concerned about too many people coming to the UK every year. The concept of EU citizenship was not understood by all UK people nor was the fact that the four fundamental freedoms of the Single Market come together.
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Another reason was, perhaps, a protest vote against the Westminster establishment in general.
Then the fourth reason would be that the ‘Remain’ campaign argued very much on economic issues. In my view, these were very good arguments, very strong arguments but, perhaps, they did not address the emotional side of the debate – where the ‘Leavers’ were campaigning on those more emotional issues of migration and national sovereignty.
Perhaps the time between the announcement of the referendum and the referendum taking place was too short for the government to make clear what the advantages of the British EU membership are.
The ‘Leave’ campaign ran a campaign that was hardly based on fact; it was, rather, based on emotion. They were not always telling the truth. In fact, they were lying to the British people, but things have turned out the way they’ve turned out.
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You have mentioned already the four basic freedoms. If we look now at where we are in the run-up to Article 50 being triggered by the end of March next year: some of the key discussion points here in the UK are whether there is a way to effectively have Single Market membership without freedom of movement. Is there any way these four freedoms can be negotiated in any shape or form or is it just basically a binary question: “Either you take them all or you don’t”?
First, it is up to the UK government to decide what they are aiming for. If they want full access to the Single Market, they are very welcome because it consists of more than 28 EU member states, it includes other countries like Norway, Liechtenstein or Iceland.
It would be also in the interest of the EU to get a good trade deal with the UK. However, if you want full access to the Single Market, if you want to enjoy all the benefits it provides for a national economy, there are a few rules that you have to accept. This includes, first of all, the four fundamental principles of the Single Market and these four fundamental principles come together. They cannot be separated; the Single Market is not only about the free movement of goods and services and capital, it’s also about the free movement of workers. You have to accept all four freedoms.
The appetite for further British cherry-picking, as we’ve had it at the European Union for the last 40 years, in my view, is not very large. All other 27 member states have made it very clear that they are committed to all four principles.
It’s not only about the four freedoms, by the way, it is also about following rules and regulations. In the Single Market there is a set of rules and regulations which apply to every single participant.
Finally, this also means accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. The British Prime Minister has said that one of her goals is that ECJ rulings should no longer apply to the UK. That does make it difficult to enjoy the full benefits of joining the Single Market. Not accepting the fair and equal treatment of EU citizens, not accepting ECJ court rulings, not accepting other rules and regulations would rule membership out. Finally, of course, becoming a member of the Single Market means that you have to pay for certain benefits.
Wanting to limit the freedom of movement for people on the one hand, and on the other, wanting to have full access to the Single Market means squaring the circle.
The UK government is here making a rhetorical difference in the discussions in the UK between membership of and access to the Single Market. Everybody has access, even if it is under WTO rules with tariffs and some other restrictions. The government seems to be giving up on membership because it would come with all the freedoms and some joint regulations and some jurisdiction issues as well. They seem to be focussed on negotiating a preferential access to the Single Market. Can that be done in any way?
It’s up to the UK government to deliver the details of what they are up to and once they’ve submitted their details, once they’ve triggered Article 50, then on the European side, the negotiations can start. I do not think you will find many officials from the European institutions, neither the Parliament, nor the Commission, nor the Council nor the other 27 member states commenting on these details. The UK plans to leave the European Union, not the other way round. It is up to the UK to find out and say what it wants to do.
What kind of role can the European Parliament play in the Brexit negotiations?
First, any agreement to leave the European Union will require the consent of the European Parliament and it will also need to approve any new trade deal and other agreements. The Parliament will therefore play an important role while the member states will also have to support the agreement for the UK to leave the EU and all the other agreements.
Apart from that, the European Parliament will be involved during the negotiation process. In general, there are three phases.
The first has already begun: the period until March 2017 and until Article 50 is triggered. At the moment the (‘Brexit’) Committee Chair has been asked to identify where legislation will probably have to be changed in the European Parliament to make British withdrawal possible. So, this is the first line. I don’t think the Conference of Presidents has started that process yet although there may be a resolution in the Parliament before March 2017setting out very fundamental principles on this question.
The second phase will be the negotiation process, say from March 2017 to perhaps March 2019. In this stage, it’s important when the Commission or the Council, especially the Commission, are working on the detail that the European Parliament is informed on a regular basis. My understanding is that the Conference of Presidents needs to confer on the work required of the European Parliament and this will be informed on a regular basis by Mr (Guy) Verhofstadt, the Parliament’s Coordinator on this question.
At the end of the negotiation, the European Parliament will have to approve the deal which has been signed with London. Then MEPs will probably be involved for years to come afterwards because there will be so many bilateral agreements we will have to fix with the British.
So the European Parliament plays an important role in the process…What do you think the European Parliament can do now and in the coming years to strengthen cohesion among the remaining 27 member states?
An important message after the UK referendum was that all other 27 member states made it very clear they want to continue the project of the European Union. No other country wants to follow the British line.
There was also an important signal making clear that it’s not about punishing the British on the one hand and on the other giving them unjustified advantages. What we want is a fair deal, a good, balanced deal with the United Kingdom, which will remain our neighbour and political partner in NATO, in the G7, in the G20 and the United Nations. We’re talking about the third largest economy in Europe. Of course, we retain an interest in having a good trade relationship with our British friends and partners. We want to remain good neighbours and friends.
Angela Merkel and others have said: “The UK referendum is also the starting point for a stage of critical self-reflection about the state of the European Union and about the future.” The heads of government have identified four political fields for more and smarter European integration: defence and security, migration and border protection, fighting terrorism and crime and strengthening the economy. Battling the far too high level of youth unemployment in Europe is especially a key priority.
The European Parliament has made clear that, besides these projects, we want to encourage the Commission to continue its work programmes. That means strengthening the Single Market, especially the Digital Single Market. It involves getting on with the project of an Energy Union. We want more common European policies when it comes to foreign affairs, defence and security. We need more engagement in keeping the common currency, the Euro, stable and sustainable.
In general, I would say Europe should be bigger on big things and smaller on small things. Not every issue in Europe is an issue for the European Union, but issues that have been identified as being better placed at the European level should be addressed there and that should be done well. Therefore, you need strong and active European institutions, including the Commission and a Parliament ready to deliver.
I believe the European Union has a future. I believe that we can regain the trust of citizens, although the current situation is rather difficult. We can regain that trust and confidence if the European Union delivers and if it is seen as able to deliver. This is not only a question for the European institutions, it is first of all a question for the 27 member states. If they agree to do something at a European level, they should support the European institutions in tackling these challenges and, as always in Europe, consensus is required on the key issues. What we’ve been seeing in the last two to three years is, I’m very sorry to say, a lack of willingness to compromise or to find joint solutions among the 28 member states.
This is an edited version of an interview conducted by Henning Meyer, editor-in-chief, Social Europe. It is the latest contribution to a new Social Europe Project on ‘Europe after Brexit’ organised in cooperation with the Macroeconomic Policy Institute of the Hans Böckler Stiftung and the Bertelsmann Stiftung.