International Affairs

A post-Brexit Europe

We are leaving the EU but not Europe writes Kathryn Cracknell.

This has become something of a cliché which has been stated on numerous occasions by British politicians since the 2016 referendum.  But what does it actually mean?

In his Christmas Eve press conference with Commission President Ursula von der Leyen in the afterglow of their Trade Agreement, Boris Johnson stated that “Although we have left the EU, this country will remain culturally, emotionally, historically, strategically, geologically attached to Europe”. There is not much that the most swivel-eyed Brussels-hater could do about either our shared history  (don’t forget that Waterloo [not the train station] is just south of Brussels!). Nor indeed could they do anything to change the existence of the European Continental shelf – the geological connection. Nevertheless, it is important that Boris  mentioned the cultural, strategic and emotional attachments which have endured the tumult of Brexit. 

In a speech in 2017, Theresa May opined her expectations of the UK’s future relationship with Europe:  “The British people voted to leave the EU, but they did not vote to leave Europe or in any way to step back from the world. It was not a vote to become any more distant from our friends and allies in Europe but to restore, as we see it, our parliamentary democracy and to become even more global and internationalist in action and in spirit

In other words, Brexit can make Britain even more open and outward facing, whilst remaining European. This is something she genuinely believed.  Even not being a member of the EU, there are many important European organisations in which Britain is still a vital member such as the Council of Europe, the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR), the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe  (OSCE),  and of course NATO. I will come on to these shortly.

The key point is that agreements and co-operation between nations in Europe do not need to be done via the EU. David Cameron learned this to his cost in 2011 when he tried to use his veto to block a change to the European Union’s Lisbon treaty.  The other EU members sidestepped his veto by agreeing to the changes via an inter-governmental agreement among all of the other member states, leaving Britain in the cold. This incident was a diplomatic disaster at the time, and will be seen by history as one of the portents ( along with his shameful withdrawal of the Conservative Party from the EPP, the main centre -right bloc in the European Parliament) of Cameron’s doomed strategy to remake Britain’s relationship with the EU while remaining a member. The main lesson we should take though is actually a  positive one for the future  – we do not need to make agreements between European nations under the auspices of the EU.

So let’s come back to European bodies that we are still a member of: Perhaps the most important (apart from NATO) is the Council or Europe, which established the European Court of Human Rights to administer the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) which is in turn is incorporated into British domestic legislation by the Human Rights Act (HRA).  Part of the Brexit deal agreed between the UK Government and the EU was contingent on  Britain’s continued adherence to the tenets of the ECHR.  This will enable continued co-operation on security, in particular tackling cross border organised crime and terrorism. The ECHR and the HRA have often been targeted by the popular press, and unfortunately sections of the Conservative Party have been sometime made ill-informed populist comments which echo the press sentiment, a recent example being the case of voting rights for prisoners, for which the ECHR provided a perfectly well-reasoned argument. The Council of Europe was signed into existence on 5 May 1949 by the Treaty of London  (note London, not Rome!)  and represents a key milestone in the establishment of a post-war order in Europe based on the rule of law. In my view we need to change the narrative on the ECHR, from something that remote judges in Strasbourg do to us, to instead being seen as Britain’s major contribution to Europe through having a continent which is governed by the Rule of Law. Fortunately, ECHR withdrawal is only advocated for a few outriders on the far-right fringe of the Conservative party, and  luckily the Brexit deal now makes this step  impossible. 

The mandate of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) includes issues such as arms control, promotion of human rightsfreedom of the press, and fair elections. As well as all Western European countries, it includes the countries of the former Soviet Union, such as Russia  that signed the Helsinki final Act. NATO probably doesn’t need much introduction or discussion , because it provides the cornerstone of our security, and will continue to do so, especially with a new occupant in the White House. I note that it also has its headquarters in Brussels!

I could mention many more organisations, which Britain continues to be a member of post Brexit:  For example, the European Broadcasting Union (EBU) doesn’t just organise the Eurovision Song Contest, it also carries the Vienna New Year’s Day classical concerts.  

So, what Boris said about Britain being attached culturally, strategically and emotionally attached to Europe really is true.  The only adjective he omitted was “economically”. As Nick Clegg once pointed out in his pre-Facebook days:  “if you double trade with America, Canada, New Zealand and Australia you still would not trade as much as we do with our nearest neighbours in the European Union”.  It is a truism of economics  that countries always trade more with their nearest neighbours , assuming they have reasonable relations, and therefore I would argue that we are also economically attached to Europe, whether we like it or not. 

The Brexit deal already gives Britain tariff -free access to the European market for goods, albeit with increased paperwork. Wales tends to rely more on the trade in goods rather than services; however,  the associated  paperwork is creating an issue for exports such as seafood where rapid delivery is paramount. There is also  evidence that a higher proportion of  Irish trucks are travelling directly to France, rather than using Welsh ports to go to the continent via the UK.  There are some really positive elements to the Brexit deal  such as Britain’s continuing participation in the Horizon Europe programme which will spend €85 billion over the next sevenyears. It means that U.K. scientific  researchers  in industry and academia will remain eligible for European research funding despite the country having left the European Union, and scientists will be able to continue to collaborate across the continent. This is particularly important for research intensive universities such as Cardiff.

Wales can also benefit from the effective continuation of EU structural funding for Wales  through the UK Shared Prosperity Fund.  A vital  element of the UK Internal Markets Act is that it defines the UK Government’s role in this process.  It is vital that Wales continues to receive the current level of  structural funding, as defined under the EU criteria, but that the Welsh people realise that it comes from the UK Government instead of the EU. 

We can build on the trade deal signed in December 2020.  The short-term goal is to streamline the issues over paperwork, which are proving so disruptive and threaten the future of Welsh ports. In the medium term, we can seek to turn the trade deal into something more mutually beneficial without seeking to re-join the EU. There is an organisation that is “oven-ready” for us to join, to coin a phrase, – that is the European Free Trade Association which the UK helped to found in 1960. We only left EFTA when we joined the Common Market  and it makes perfect sense to take our place once again. . EFTA members have trade deals with the EU, either via bilateral agreements (e.g Switzerland) or via the European Economic Area (e.g. Lichtenstein, Norway and Iceland).

So, Britain has left the European Union, but not Europe. Britain is still a leading member of multiple organisations that bind Europe together.  There are,  as the Prime Minister said, so many ways in which we are attached to Europe. It is time now to make our new relationship work. 

Kathryn Cracknell is a Welsh Conservative activist