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EU waits for the UK to serve first

1st July 2016

If patience with the UK was running thin before the referendum vote, then it has now hit rock bottom. 

At this week’s Summit, EU leaders nipped in the bud any UK hopes that it may in the future be able to be a member of the Single Market whilst having its own strict immigration rules.

“There will be no single market à la carte,” said Donald Tusk, the EU Council president, and indeed this does appear to represent the views of other countries.

The statement published at the end of the meeting – which took place without the UK for the first time since the 1970s – explicitly stated that “access to the single market requires acceptance of all four freedoms”.

So how will that go down back in the UK? 

Frankly, not many in the Council care a great deal. There is no interest whatsoever in initiating any form of negotiations before Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty is triggered by the UK Prime Minister.

EU leaders also said they wanted the UK notify its intention to withdraw from the EU “as quickly as possible”, but that doesn’t necessarily mean this week, or even over the Summer.

Indeed, French President François Hollande said that this should happen as soon as the new UK government is formed in the Autumn. France, however, is a country that cannot be expected to give any favours to the UK, lest it further encourages support from within the country for Marine Le Pen’s National Front.

Stiff upper lip

There was a very British stiff upper lip to proceedings in the Council this week. Leaders were putting on a brave face, coming to terms with the referendum result, and planning for the future – concrete ideas for which will be proposed at the next EU Summit in September.

Nicola Sturgeon was also in town, desperately seeking support for a possible future Scotland in the EU. Whilst she got some much-needed facetime with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Mr Tusk thought it rather too sensitive at the current time to meet with the leading advocate of Scottish independence.

Ms Sturgeon would also have been left in no doubt as to the level of opposition in the Council to potential Scottish EU membership. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, with an eye on other independent movements within his country, was quoted as saying “I am radically against it, the treaties are radically against it, and I think everyone else is radically against it.”

Ball in UK camp

Scottish independence then remains an issue for the UK to sort out. Indeed, the EU broadly left it to the UK to do the running when it comes to its entire procedure for leaving.

It was clear that the EU will neither bully nor overly hurry the UK, but yes, it will be firm, and no, you cannot, in the words of Dutch Foreign Minister Bert Koenders, “have your cake and eat it” when it comes to the EU’s four freedoms.

Hard-headed practicality

The mood in Brussels is sombre, but there is also a hard-headed practicality to how this issue is being approached. No-one is seriously considering the risk of contagion, namely that other countries will also file to leave in the near future, but there is enough support for populist movements across the continent for leaders to be mindful of setting a precedent. It is therefore not in their interests to do any favours to the UK.

In the meantime, the UK will continue to have a seat at the decision-making table, but it will be a lame duck. Further down the line it may even decide to withdraw from discussions altogether or abstain. So the UK has already left the building.

As regards Brexit itself, the ball is in the UK’s camp. To use a contemporary Wimbledon metaphor, it needs to make the first serve by triggering Article 50. Until then, the rest of the EU will sit on its chair, try and plan for the future, and be determined in its negotiations not to give up some of the very principles on which the EU relies.

But first, the UK needs to serve. Play!

By Rob Francis

Grayling Team

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