Breakfast meeting on Brexit July 14 2017 with Andrew Lewer
It was a squally wet morning at Chapel Golf Club as High Peak Business Club settled down with their Danish and coffee to hear Andrew Lewer. A year on since the EU referendum, with the Great Reform Bill starting the legal process of withdrawal just published, what would Andrew, who has been both Leader of Derbyshire County Council and a member of the European Parliament, make of it?
“It is,” he said with feeling, “the world’s most complicated subject.” Part of the problem is the “existential confusion” which has haunted Britain’s relationship with Brussels almost since we joined 44 years ago. The Brits give the impression that all they are interested in is trade, business, finance and the City of London (we might nod at that). Given a choice of which Commission departments to run, we usually plump for Finance. We do not seem aware that the others are interested in a host of other subjects from the environment to defence.
Similarly, the most senior operators in the EU, the Commission, are regarded in Britain as mere civil servants who should be doing what they are told by elected governments – forgetting of course that in countries which have endured occupation and dictatorships, the honest public servant has a high standing. So in 2014 when Jean-Claude Junker was nominated as President of the Commission, the UK was against; but it’d have taken “months of diplomacy and very hard work” to displace him, whereas our then PM simply breezed in thinking it could be done in a weekend. And, it goes without saying, making an enemy.
We appear, said Andrew, to have been going through “stages of denial” about the need to knuckle down and start negotiating. Theresa May’s line has softened from the Lancaster House stance in January more to “we want the EU to be successful.” For their part, the Commission’s approach is not punitive, he insisted. They feel that the EU is a great organisation to be a part of, and all the reasons for staying in are positive ones; in any case it would be difficult for them to be awkward, with the British economy as big as 21 out of the 27 remaining countries.
The Australian and New Zealand governments have been very helpful seconding experienced negotiators to the UK. Now we have to get on with it. The negotiations have to end by March 2019 with all the regulatory framework in place: “That is not an option.”
One club member asked whether we could continue as a member of the Single Market, but instead of a simple Yes or No, Andrew said, “Opinion on the Single Market is massively divided. Is it a regulatory regime over which we have no control? Or is it a free trade environment (which we like) but one limiting what we can do outside it (which we don’t like)?” Most British business is in the service industries, which are barely touched by the Single Market – telecoms is the big exception. And there are both formal and informal barriers to trade and to the movement of people, whatever the rules say. So a dentist in Derbyshire may hail originally from Greece; but try setting up a practice in Athens when you’re not Greek (or being a builder in France, or an architect in Italy) and you will soon hit the buffers.
The EU itself is struggling to adapt to the idea of Britain leaving. The current Commissioner of the Regions is a Romanian, determined to increase her budget to spend in poorer countries like her own. But as the UK quits, 15% of the EU budget is set to disappear. Up till now other wealthy countries have left the finger-wagging to Britain. It’s dawning on the Dutch and Germans that they may have to tighten the purse-ighten the pursestrings themselvesman taxpapers that they may have to take on this role.
er budget to spend in the poorer countstrings themselves instead.
It’s not all grim news. 21 out of the biggest 30 countries who trade with the EU don’t have any trade agreements with it, including the USA, China and India; and whereas the average time it takes the EU to conclude an agreement is 8 years, elsewhere it’s only 28 months. On balance Andrew was for Leave, but he can see all the disadvantages. Troubling? Frustrating? Yes, indeed.