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The Stakes: Brexit

Where are we at?

Brexit has dominated politics and policy in the UK ever since the polarising referendum campaign ended in a vote to leave the EU last year. Negotiations that will determine our future relationship with our closest neighbours will start eleven days after the election, and debate around which party would be better equipped for those negotiations have become a focal point of the election campaign. In the meantime, the EU negotiators and the Conservatives have been hardening their approach to the negotiations.

The chief EU negotiator, Michael Barnier, has released documents setting out the EU position on the rights of EU citizens in the UK and vice versa, along with some details to be included in the so-called divorce bill – the final financial settlement of the UK’s obligations to the remaining 27 member states. It’s clear that the remaining EU countries are ready for negotiations to begin; they’re just waiting to find out who their negotiating partner will be.

I know from my time in Brussels that the Conservatives are not popular. The Conservatives left the largest political group in the European Parliament, the influential European People’s Party, in 2009 to placate strong anti-European sentiment in their party. Since then, the Conservatives have had less and less influence. Post-referendum the reaction from many European colleagues was frosty to say the least. The view in Brussels is that the Conservatives have put the entire European project at risk for the sake of internal party battles. This history, as well as increasingly aggressive rhetoric from Theresa May, will make a good deal even more difficult to achieve.

While Labour have a better reputation in Brussels and a new negotiating power could neutralise the relationship with European leaders, nothing is certain. The stakes couldn’t be higher.

What’s at stake?

There's no doubt that Brexit is the biggest challenge the next government will face, and the policy implications for the UK are hard to overstate. Our laws and regulations have been entwined with the EU for decades, including everything from environmental protections to safety requirements for flammable materials. More broadly, the EU has acted as a redistributive mechanism between regions in the UK, with Wales and Cornwall net recipients of EU funding.

For everyday people in the UK, the worst possible outcome of Brexit negotiations would be no deal. This would mean huge uncertainty for EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU, many of whom have built lives in their adopted countries and work in our public services. It’s difficult to imagine how the NHS could cope with losing 10% of doctors and 4% of nurses at a time when new applications to study nursing are down 23%.

Leaving without a deal would also leave UK trade worse off. 44% of UK exports and 53% of UK imports go to and come from the EU tariff free, and while economies outside of the EU will become increasingly influential in the future, the immediate and potentially long term effect of import and export tariffs on EU-UK trade would be dramatic.

While we should welcome the Labour party’s decision to rule out no deal, which far from being a concession to the EU negotiating team is a welcome olive branch, the Conservatives continue to state that no deal would be better than a bad deal. Even more worryingly, in a speech earlier this year Theresa May stated that if the EU wouldn’t agree a good Brexit deal with the UK, we could become a low regulation tax haven.

What can be done?

The evidence points to a soft Brexit being the least damaging option for the UK economy, which means maintaining a close relationship with the EU. However, with both major political parties promising to end freedom of movement our options are limited. Without freedom of movement we will have to leave the single market and negotiate trade terms with the EU as a third party.

Immigration has dominated conversations about Brexit since the referendum was announced. Although the Labour party has promised they would guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK on day one in office, the Conservatives have refused to do so until negotiations begin. A responsible government should immediately guarantee the rights of EU citizens in the UK. EU migrants keep our NHS running, and they have become part of our communities, there is no excuse to leave them looking at an uncertain future. For a more detailed discussion on the stakes for immigration at this election, read Maya Goodfellow’s blog for CLASS.

EU funding has provided much needed investment in UK regions, and we need a rethink on regional investment from the next government to ensure that certain regions aren’t hit harder than others by Brexit.

Finally, the Conservatives must stop their aggressive approach to negotiations. While Theresa May uses this language to appear strong and ready to get us a good deal, it is isolating us from our EU neighbours. The next government, whether it is Labour or Conservative, must recognise that Brexit negotiations are far too important for the future of the UK for political posturing.

Work areas: Europe. Tags: brexit, general election.