All eyes were on Malta last week, as the leaders of Europe’s centre-right gathered in St. Julian’s for the European People’s Party congress. For the first time in nearly a decade, the UK’s conservative party was represented at the congress, after David Cameron decided to exit the centre-right “political family” in 2009.
Mark Field, who has been an MP for the cities of London and Westminster since 2001, and was appointed as Vice-Chairman of the Conservative Party in 2015, sat down with New Europe’s Editor, Alexandros Koronakis, to talk about the UK’s difficult negotiation with the European Union.
Bitterness in Rome?
Recently, the EU celebrated the 60 year anniversary since the signing of the Treaty of Rome, but the United Kingdom’s Theresa May was not there. Field says that the intent was not negative. “I think there is a misinterpretation of why we were not there. Clearly we aren’t going to be part of this club for very much longer, and our being their would be a reminder of the decision that we made,” Field said. “Part and parcel is not just the celebration of the 60 years, but presumably also the intention to be there for many decades to come, and I think Britain being there” would have shifted attention to Theresa May instead of “some of the achievements of the European Union. All of us will recognise that there have been significant achievements.”
Field, whose mother was German, said that this issue is very personal to him.
“Britain joined for Economic reasons, and had a more transactional attitude towards being members of the European Union. If you look at the vast expansion of the last 15 years of the EU; for many people, Europe was something to aspire to [for] countries that were previously behind the iron curtain … We were a larger nation, we were an empire nation, and we are still a nation of over 60m people. We feel that even in this world today we can go it alone and be a significant player.”
Brexit – a model for others?
Though the referendum was held on June 23 of 2016, it was only one month ago that leading EU member states and the European institutions confirmed their willingness to go down a path of a ‘multi-speed European Union’, that could see different countries receive different levels of membership depending on the level of their involvement. Asked whether the UK would have gone down this path if this had been an option half a year ago, Field took a step back and examining what led to the result in June: “We had been members for long enough and felt that our voice wasn’t being heard.”
But a well-structured result, could find more countries opting to look for a similar deal, Field says, not in a multi-speed European Union, but a multi-speed Europe. “There will be other nations like the UK that have not been part of the Eurozone, and it might well be that the deal we are able to negotiate in leaving the EU while remaining partners in a strong partnership in the economic and defense & security terms, is one that will be a template for a number of other countries that will want a different speed of Europe.”
Rekindling relations with the EPP
Though the break-up between the EPP and the Conservative Party had not been amicable, Field sees the re-establishment of a relationship with the EPP as being of great importance not just for the Brexit negotiation, but also for the tackling of common issues in the long-term.
“I was very honoured to be invited by the EPP … I’m the first representative from my party to be here for nearly a decade. And it was very much at their behest. I think it’s a great sign that there’s so much more that binds us together than pulls us apart. The Conservative MEPs, who belong to a different group in the European Parliament, are also very supportive of my being here. They feel it is important to ensure that there is as timely a deal as possible that we have to keep all lines of communication open.” Field explained – elaborating: “We’ve got to maintain strong relations [with the centre-right parties of the EPP] through and beyond the [Brexit] negotiations”
Specifically, Field pointed to the handling of Russia, and the important battleground of terrorism; “we must ensure that Britain leaving the EU does not weaken our resolve in any of those areas, he said.”
On the morning of the first day, the EPP’s press conference revolved around Brexit, as the letter triggering Article 50, which officially started the process for the UK leaving the EU, was to be delivered in the following hours.
The Vice-Chairman of the Conservative party was hopeful, but frank about the time that has passed since the referendum, “By waiting 9 months, we’ve allowed some of the shock and potentially the anger to dissipate. I am confident that we can get a sensible deal that will be good, not just for the United Kingdom, but for the EU as well.”
Leaving the EPP was a turning point for the Conservative Party, and Field says that the UK could have had a clearer view of things if they had never left the European Party. “I’d like to think that had we been an active member of the EPP we would have had more of a realization of what was achievable with the negotiation, and it might never have come to pass,” Field conceded, continuing to explain however, that the turning point in the relationship with the EU was not the EPP break-up, but much earlier with Maastricht Treaty:
“We were never going to join that single currency. And the sadness, of course, is that Maastricht came about partly because of the deal that was done because of the enlargement of Germany with unification – to tie Germany in economically, therefore not having the power of the Deutsche Mark.”
Priority #1: EU and UK Citizens rights
The most important issue for Field, was the settling of the issue of the rights of UK citizens residing in EU member states, and EU citizens residing in the UK. But despite media uproar, the experienced MP explained that the surge in inquiries from EU nationals had not exploded: “I can understand there are some individuals who are quite worried. In the centre of London, we have had inquiries, but there has not been as big a surge as I would have thought. We’ve had much bigger surges before general elections when migration gets talked about,” Field explained.
Despite this, Field thinks that this will be the first issue in the agenda of the negotiation. “With good will on all sides – the rights of individuals should become a priority and be over and above any other facets,” he says. “Whilst I accept that it may well be that other aspects will become bundled and complicated, I feel this is one that all parties [would like to treat separately].”
Priority #2: The Brexit bill
If the first priority for the UK and the EU is the rights of its citizens abroad, the next item that will be discussed is the cost of the UK-requested ‘divorce from the EU’. With figures circulating in Brussels coming to circa €60 billion, London’s initial reaction of shock has become much more tempered. Both the European Commission negotiator, Michel Barnier, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel have said that this issue will need to be dealt with first. Field says that this is logical.
“I can understand that Barnier wants to focus on this, and it is an important part of the process. The issue is that one thing that the European Union will miss is that we were the second largest contributors.”
But also pragmatic in that there is only a limited amount of time, shorter than the two-year period on paper, Field wants to open up more chapters at once. “I hope we can get into negotiations more broadly, about other things because this [financial issue] may take some time.”
How much is it going to be? Field used the vagueness that only a politician can pull off with such grace: “I think that I can be confident in predicting that we will end up paying between zero and sixty billion Euros,” he said, laughing when asked if it is then to be assumed that the UK will not be requesting to get money back from the EU. Instead, Field conceded that the UK will have to pay to participate in specific areas, saying that “there will be elements of European programs that we would want to continue to be part of, and clearly, we would expect that some sort of financial contribution would be required.”
But no matter what final figure is arrived at in a settlement, Field agreed that a shock to the public and to the finances of the government can be avoided by spreading the payment out over time: “I think we all know that there are ways in which that a sum that one has to pay, can be made more palatable and I’m sure that it would be in everyone’s interest for that to happen,” He said.
The City has support beyond London
With the issue of the financial sector of the City of London being one of the most sensitive issues in the negotiation, Field’s set the bar quite low in discussing the issue. “I’ve spoken to many City figures during the last months, and of course, they too started this process saying, ‘we need to be in the single market, we need the passport, we need a full equivalence deal’. There’s been a realisation that that’s not going to happen. Of all institutions and of all industries, The City is very pragmatic.” But Field says that it is of common benefit to the UK and the EU to find a solution that echoes this: “Michel Barnier, and Wolfgang Schäuble [have] both said that to kill the city would be a disaster for the EU economy. It is the very critical wholesale market we have, therefore we need to make it work. I’m very encouraged that all sides recognise the importance of this in the deal.”
Scotland should wait
With Scotland having voted against the majority in the UK referendum, its citizens choosing to ‘remain’ in the majority, there has been political manoeuvring to have a new independence referendum that would see Scotland break away from the United Kingdom. But with the last referendum on this issue taking place as recently as September 2014, Field has a different position:
“I regret that Scottish National Party seems keen to play politics at this stage.” The referendum of September 2014, he says, “was supposed to be a once-in-a-generation referendum.” I know the circumstances have changed with the UK getting out of the EU, but it would seem sensible to me that rather than trying to conflate the issue of another referendum with our EU membership, that this is something that is dealt with after the Scottish nationalists have a further mandate, assuming they are re-elected to the Scottish parliament. So it is something that shouldn’t really be dealt with till the 2020s.”
There is no way back, and no buyer’s remorse
Despite the foreseen triggering of Article 50, there are still advocates of remain, inside and outside the UK who would like to see the European Union of 28 not lose a member state. While legally, Article 50 may be revocable under specific conditions, Field says it won’t happen. “For the purposes of clarity and certainty, that is a non-starter,” he says matter-of-factly, continuing to explain that he has been resolute on this during his discussions at home and abroad. “As Vice-Chairman, during the last 9 months, in conversations I’ve had with counterparts who have said that ‘maybe there is a way to have a second referendum or to reverse the process’, I’ve made it clear that this is a non-reversible process. We are going to be out.”
With citizens in the “48%” remaining vocal across all public fora, many have been asking whether a second referendum would reverse the result of June. Field – who follows the issue closely, says that there no evidence of buyer’s remorse. “I think people want to get on with it now. Of course some are very upset, but all the polling suggests that if you were to have a referendum again today, it would be a similar result with a bigger margin to leave the European Union.”
A deal ASAP
Though the two years is the absolute maximum for the negotiation of the UK’s exit from the EU (unless the European Council unanimously agrees to grant an extension), the reality is that the time needed for the logistical and legislative procedures reduces the real negotiation time to 18 months. Field says that there needs to be a deal as quickly as possible. “We are committed in not taking part in the European elections of 2019, and being out of the EU well in advance of our next general election in 2020.” But not everything has to be ironed out to the letter in this very tight time period, according to the Conservative Vice-Chairman: “There will be some threads that will remain to be dealt with. I don’t think anyone [believes] that the absolute process will be fully over in 18 months, but the foundations of the agreement will be in place for the UK to be ready to be out within the two-year process.”
Failure is an option, but a bad one
Any deal achieved, will then have to go through Parliament in the UK. Should the deal fail to go through, “the government will fall,” Field says, recognising however that this is not a realistic choice.
“The practicality of the situation is that if Conservative MPs were prepared to do that, that would be pretty unprecedented in our party system. I think what we can see is that the option will be to accept the deal, or to walk away with no deal – which is what Theresa May has made clear.”