Brexit begins – Time to put the people first

EPA/OLIVIER HOSLET

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May leaves the podium after a press briefing during the European spring summit in Brussels, Belgium, 09 March 2017.

Brexit begins – Time to put the people first


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One of the frustrations of the last 8 months since the UK’s referendum on EU membership has been the lack of clarity around the future of bilateral relations.  All that however, is about to change. The close of March will represent the last moment where Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May will trigger Article 50.

The shadow boxing of public statements from both sides of the negotiating table has not aided matters. Early attempts to settle the position of EU and British residents within each other’s jurisdictions fell on deaf ears, while others have lauded competitive tax policy as a punishment for intransigence in negotiating.

Yet despite all the posturing and preening of politicians on both sides, my major concern remains how these same politicians are able to deliver on the concerns of people.

While on an individual basis people’s primary concerns differ, at heart they require similar considerations: the conditions to provide for their families, the confidence to take calculated risks and stable services to support them in times of need.

These are universal. To deliver in this disruptive and ever-changing world requires strong, values-based leadership which seeks to re-engage the frustrated.

In contentious negotiations, it is easy to paint the other side as malevolent, base or out-of-touch. But the people of Europe need a constructive outcome, because at heart, they want the same thing. No one should seek dominance in a relationship which must be constructed between peers. If Britain wishes to be considered a serious player now ‘free’ of the hand of Brussels, it must engage constructively; if the European Union still holds aspirations of global leadership, it must demonstrate humility and acknowledge its failings. Only then can the people’s needs be put first.

For example, is it in the interests of anyone to introduce trading barriers or tariffs between the UK and the EU? I ask this not to be provocative but to point out that revocation of ‘free’ trade between the parties has real world consequences. Neither the British economy nor that of the Euro-bloc can afford to make life more expensive for their citizens out of spite or principle. Tariffs do that. In an era of populist politicians, squeezing the incomes of working people will surely drive more voters into their arms, endangering the long-term interests of the EU and Britain still further.

Another sticking point is likely to be the future of immigration policy. Here we need to acknowledge the concerns of large numbers of European voters and simultaneously ensure the benefits of immigration are kept. The people’s concerns are not necessarily borne out of racism or xenophobia.

This means relieving pressures on local community services and ensuring that host countries and their cultures are respected. This need not descend in to the jingoism or nationalism of by-gone eras. Failing to address these concerns head-on perversely creates the conditions for political nationalism. By tackling these issues directly, confidence can be brought back to the system and by extension reduce xenophobia and intolerance.

Brexit has been viewed through the prism of a backlash against unelected officials at the EU level. While there is an element of truth in this, the bigger fear is that other multilateral organisations will be undermined. NATO is already under threat as a result of the new US administration. The UN is widely criticised for its lack of accountability too. The leaderships of these and other groups need to reconnect with their eventual end stakeholders – ordinary people. Whether that means being more responsive to their needs, reflecting these concerns in policy or in their communications, multilateral cooperation works best if it reflects the needs of people accurately.

There are plenty of areas where cooperation is needed – law, the environment, financial services, human rights and crime. At all points it will be critical to ensure that the people of both Britain and Europe are faithfully and fairly represented. Neither side should be seeking ascendancy over the other. Politicians who view this episode as a zero-sum game – where in order for one to win the other must lose – fail to understand the opportunities this renegotiation presents.

Despite the nativist streaks of populist movements across the West at present, the long-term trend is of the world binding itself closer together through technology, through business, through politics and through our common global challenges.

Whether you are pro or anti Brexit, the electorate has spoken. This process should be seized as an opportunity, not just for Britain but for Europe too, to put people back at the heart of politics. To do so will require real leadership. Our common humanity implores us to ensure the negotiations are a win-win, not for fly-by-night politicians who will be gone tomorrow, but for the peoples of Europe and Britain.

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