“Affairs are easier of entrance than of exit; and it is but common prudence to see our way out before we venture in.” The words of Aesop which have stood the test of over two millennia. A way out of the European Union (or European Economic Community as it was then) was not see by any one at the time the United Kingdom joined in 1973, and a formal exit process was introduced only in 2009 with article 50 of the Treaty of European Union. That article 50 is by far from clear is apparent as the UK seeks to find a deal following its exit from the EU which, barring any dramatic developments, will take place on 29thMarch next year.
Whatever Brexit may mean for the UK, obtaining the right deal is important for Poland given both the trade links and the large number of Poles in the UK, whose continuing rights Poland is keen to protect. To this end, Poland’s prime minister met the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator on Friday for talks about the UK’s impending departure. The prime minister, Mateusz Morawiecki, said via Twitter that the talk with Michel Barnier was “good”, and Barnier called the meeting constructive.
Ahead of that meeting, government spokeswoman Joanna Kopcińska had said that Poland wanted to protect Polish exports to the UK and to ensure that Poles living in the UK keep their rights after UK leaves the EU. She said that Poland wished to convince Barnier that a deal with the UK was possible and that to listen to those who said otherwise was not worthwhile. Of course, a deal is possible, but the EU and the UK have differing objectives: the latter to find a deal which gives effect to a democratic decision, the former, pace Voltaire, pour discourager les autres.
Whether one is pro or anti Brexit, none would claim that the current position is ideal for anybody. The UK, logically, is keen for an exit deal to include an agreement on future EU-UK arrangements, which is what article 50 envisages, whereas the EU has taken a different negotiating stance in dealing with the issues separately. If no deal is agreed – which seems unlikely since it benefits neither party – customs and border controls would return, with trade being carried on under World Trade Organisation rules. And for those who think this would be acceptable, only one country does so – Mauritania, which has a GDP of $4,714million (0.2% of the UK’s), and 50% of whose exports consist of iron ore. I have been to Mauritania and, however delightful the heat and dust of the Sahara may be, this is hardly a model for UK trade arrangements.
All of which leaves us with a puzzle – how did we end up here? A full discussion of the reasons is beyond this piece, but a mistaken perception of reality is the main culprit. Those voting in the referendum to leave EU did so for a wide variety of reasons, from genuinely held convictions in areas such as democratic accountability, and economics, to those who used the referendum as a protest vote against the government for all sorts of perceived ills, not necessarily all attributable to EU membership. This has left the government struggling to give effect to a democratic decision while trying to obtain a deal for the economy that cannot, in the immediate future, be better than the current one.
The UK market is already one of the most open in the EU and, indeed, the world (meaning it has proportionately less to offer in new trade deals), which is why so many EU citizens, especially Poles, chose to take advantage of the opportunities it offers. One can hardly blame the EU for the UK government’s failure to utilise the mechanism which all EU member states have to control immigration if, as seems to have been the case, immigration was an issue in the referendum. Nor can the EU be blamed for non-EU immigration which appears similarly chaotic.
It is no accident that as successive UK governments have reduced the role of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, we are witnessing the casual abandonment of five hundred years of consistent foreign policy. It is simply not an option for the UK not to be closely involved in what happens on its doorstep. With suitable engagement, all the perceived problems could have been solved and, far from losing sovereignty, the UK could have used the EU to expand British interests, for example with the single market, as many in continental Europe believe it did anyway. Alas, as Edward de Bono said: Logic will never change emotion or perception.