Saturday 21 September 2019

Kevin Cunningham: 'EU must offer Britain new opt-out clauses or face a difficult future'

When self-preservation tops the agenda, history tells us the EU is not afraid to make concessions

DEDICATION: Anti-Brexit protester Stephen Bray moved to London a few months after the June 2016 referendum. The rare-coin trader from Port Talbot in South Wales lives in an apartment near Westminster — and has spent the last 17 months wearing an EU flag and a Union flag, waving placards. ‘I’m here every day Parliament sits,’ he said. ‘I do Monday to Thursday, half 10 till six.’ Photo: Adrian Dennis/Gettya
DEDICATION: Anti-Brexit protester Stephen Bray moved to London a few months after the June 2016 referendum. The rare-coin trader from Port Talbot in South Wales lives in an apartment near Westminster — and has spent the last 17 months wearing an EU flag and a Union flag, waving placards. ‘I’m here every day Parliament sits,’ he said. ‘I do Monday to Thursday, half 10 till six.’ Photo: Adrian Dennis/Gettya

Kevin Cunningham

It is time for the EU to offer a new membership deal for the UK with new opt-out clauses.

The current deal, situating the UK as a vassal state of the EU, can only be a temporary solution as it satisfies no one, omitting too many key benefits of the UK being either in or out. In the end, an outcome closer to either full EU membership or a more complete exit is more likely.

It would not be the first time the EU has listened to voters to break a deadlock. The initial rejections of Maastricht in Denmark, and both the Lisbon and Nice treaties in Ireland were responded to with minor concessions, and in the second referendums that followed, the majorities were overturned.

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The mechanism for this change involves the campaigning group People's Vote. The People's Vote campaign seeks to force a referendum on the deal being presented. It has wide support from across the Labour benches and, crucially, includes a number of Tory backbenchers. YouGov polling also reveals that it is supported across Britain by a majority in all but 45 safe-conservative constituencies.

The format of such a vote is where the EU must come in. The ballot could include: leaving with no deal, remaining in the EU or even membership of the European Economic Area. However, the key problem is that these alternatives are just as untenable as accepting a deal, as they force an embarrassing about-turn from the UK. The EU must step in now to offer a new membership deal for the UK, with some new opt-outs. As a result of the December 2017 amendment, the UK Government must pass a motion on the Brexit deal which yields the opportunity for amendments to be made. At this point, the People's Vote amendment will be tabled. With a new membership on the ballot, the initiative would gain considerable momentum.

Goaded by nationalist politicians playing on anti-Brit sentiment, the negotiations have facilitated a myopic, zero-sum analysis of our interests. However, it remains the case that full EU membership for the UK is the solution that benefits Ireland most. It is also the solution that benefits the UK the most, and indeed the EU.

The EU is, like all institutions, primarily concerned with its survival. Its approach to the Brexit negotiations has thus far focused on ensuring that the British exit doesn't yield a contagion of other states seeking to leave.

Indeed, if Britain does make a success of Brexit, then why wouldn't other - particularly wealthier - states in the EEA follow suit? Economically, the EU benefits from having a wide-ranging free trade agreement with the UK, and if it doesn't, it also devalues membership.

So, while the optics of the negotiation have succeeded in terms of making Brexit look unappetising, the economic progress of a UK outside the EU may, five to 10 years down the road, still destabilise EU loyalty. Europeans must admit that the UK is an enormously valuable member with soft power far exceeding its enormous economic power.

Finally, to the opt-out on migrant benefits. It is clear that concerns about immigration were critical to the majority in favour of Brexit. Equally important is the perception of democratic responsiveness in the European Union. While much is made of the sacrosanct nature of the four pillars of the EU, there are plenty of exceptions, opt-outs and arrangements that underline the EU's democratic responsiveness.

Concessions to the UK on immigration should therefore not be feared as something that might undermine the EU, but it would send a signal that the EU is responsive to citizens. It would not drag the EU towards an ideological position incompatible with its vision.

An examination of public-opinion data highlights the relatively positive attitude in which British citizens view migrants. Furthermore, British immigration policy has long been more liberal and accepting of multiculturalism than perhaps all other European states - particularly France. A clear imbalance arose due to the enlargement of the EU when only the UK and Ireland accepted citizens from Eastern Europe.

Failing to accommodate such an adjustment is more of a threat to the future of the EU than not doing so.

Dr Kevin Cunningham is a lecturer in Politics at DIT and is the former UK Labour Party targeting & analysis manager

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