Brexit: So far so good…

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

Prime Minister-in-waiting Theresa May, because of the UK's new-found-sovereignty, should be able to start negotiating with the EU when Britain wants to, not before. [Policy Exchange/Flickr]

I got my present earlier than expected. Britain voted to leave the EU. I still have to convince my wife, who voted to stay in, that this was a good idea… but as my family was split equally on both sides, we didn’t alter anything, writes Philip Geddes.

Philip Geddes spent ten years as a European correspondent for the Financial Times’ TV News Service, and 15 years as an adviser to various parts of the European Commission.

The big question now is to make it work. Forget the people in Britain saying we will have another vote, or overturn the referendum decision in the courts or parliament. That won’t happen. Britain is leaving the EU and we have to work out how to make this work for everyone – both for Britain and for our good friends in the EU. Whatever else happens, Britain is still a solidly European nation – we have not lifted anchor and moved to Asia.

This was driven home to me by attending last week’s very moving commemoration of the start of the battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in Europe’s history. Over ten thousand of us, British and French mainly, gathered at the impressive Thiepval Memorial on the Somme for a brilliantly organised event of commemoration to those who died in the mud – including a young officer relation of my wife, who died within minutes of the start of the battle.

It was good to be there, alongside the leaders of friends in Europe, like France and Ireland; it was even better that a former president of Germany was there too. It reminded me that when the chips are down, Britain remains committed to a free and independent Europe and is willing to sacrifice thousands of lives to ensure that.

It is significant that, at this weekend’s NATO summit in Warsaw, Britain has been the first country to offer a battalion of troops to form the first element of a NATO deterrent force based in Eastern Europe. We are, after all, rather good Europeans.

The tough bit is to make the economics work. The initial reaction of markets was to panic (that’s how traders make their money after all), but now things are starting to settle – a bit. Britain’s wisdom in staying out of a single currency has been proved – the effective devaluation of the pound has taken a lot of pressure off the economy.

Indeed, Boeing – a huge employer of workers in Britain, with over 2,000 directly on the books and over 12,000 indirectly, has quietly indicated that it will maintain and may increase its investment in the UK. British SMEs are similarly thinking positively of the opportunities offered by a cheaper currency. Italy and Greece must be wishing they could use the same weapon to revive their faltering economies. Being members of the Eurozone, they don’t have that opportunity.

Other nations, like China, irritated with the frustrations of negotiating with the lumbering EU machine, have stated this week that they look forward to concluding free trade agreements with the UK.

The economic argument has a long way to run before it is decided. But given Europe’s miserable economic performance against the rest of the world in recent years, it is unlikely that Britain’s nose will be pressed up against the glowing window of the European shop at any time soon. There’s a bigger world out there and it is growing much quicker than the EU.

There is a lot to do in the meantime. It is critical that whoever the new leader of Britain is (and I’m sure you are more than happy that I haven’t gone into all that in this piece) confirms the status of current EU residents in Britain as permanent. We must remember we are all long standing friends and allies.

When a Polish cultural centre in London was daubed with racist slogans a few days ago, the press was full of indignant reminders that around 150 Polish pilots had taken part in the Battle of Britain – a battle that would have been lost if it had not been for the hundreds of pilots from other countries who came to Britain’s help.

Much energy has been devoted to discussing at which stage Britain should register its desire to leave the EU under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. No one seems to have noted that this is, of course, not very relevant, since the UK parliament, as a sovereign body, can simply annul the legislation that made the Treaty effective in UK law, and make its own decisions as to when and how it will negotiate with the EU. It will then be up to the EU to respond as it wishes. The point about sovereignty is that it means just that.

I hope that our new leadership will be looking closely at the numerous valuable EU initiatives and programmes of which the UK is currently part – such as joint scientific and industrial research and the widely admired Erasmus programme – to see how we can remain part of them. We must not throw out the baby with the bathwater.

The challenge for both the EU and Britain is huge, but with luck both will remember that well known wartime slogan “keep calm and carry on”. Melodramatics are not what we need right now.

This may all sound optimistic, but I am one. Anyone who has worked for the EU for 15 years, as I have, has to be. Of course, I may be like the man who jumped off a 30 storey building and says, as he passes the 20th floor, ‘All well so far’; but I have the feeling that, as in all good Hollywood movies, there will be a load of cardboard boxes on the pavement to ensure a good bounce. I may be wrong but it is better to be positive. No movie producer ever got famous by killing off stuntmen.

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