Sunday, 26 June 2016

A fine balance between the breakup of Britain or the EU

After the British vote to leave the EU, what should the EU offer the new UK (or England)?

The first thing that the EU must offer is time. Time to let the Brits reflect on what they wish to do about their new position in Europe and whether they wish to do it together in the UK or separately.

This should not stop the EU from setting the maximum it can offer. There is an obvious answer to this, which is the signing of a European Economic Area agreement. This is the obvious offer whether the new Britain decides to rejoin EFTA or not.

This would allow the English to participate in the EU internal market which is what they value most.

However, this creates a major problem because it forces the signatories to accept the EU rules on free movement of people, goods and services without much substantive discussion. Yet, not being ruled by Brussels was precisely the main motive for the leave vote.

Without signing an EEA agreement Britain may be in a position similar to Switzerland, which also did not sign with fear of labor mobility and loss of independence. However the Swiss Cantons are not as pro-European as Scotland and Northern Ireland are.

So, what are the options?

Basically, the EU can design a new type of EEA agreement to meet the Swiss and British fears and hope that it would be enough to prevent the choice of independence in Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Alternatively, it might advise the UK to rejoin EFTA with a promise to let Scotland and Ireland sign separate EEA agreements, by using a reverse of the formula found for the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. I doubt that this would be enough to stop the breakup of Britain, but it is worth consideration.

What the EU should not do, is to give Britain better terms than the current EEA members have or encourage a breakup of Britain. The first would encourage more EU exits and the second would weaken NATO’s role and the prospect for lasting security and peace in Europe.

So, let us hope that the European Council meeting this Tuesday to discuss what to do about Brexit is a calm one, which decides to preserve the unity of Britain and of the remaining EU above all else.

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