Could UK choose a ‘Ukrainian model’ after Brexit?

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A sign of what's in store for future EU-UK relations? Ukrainian Prime Minister Volodymyr Groysman in Brussels earlier this year to discuss the association agreement. [European Commission]

British confusion has given rise to hopes and fears that Brexit may not actually mean Brexit. Andrew Duff makes the case for an association agreement when the UK leaves.

Andrew Duff was a MEP for the UK’s Liberal Democrats from 1999 to 2014 and a prominent member of the Constitutional Affairs Committee in the European Parliament. 

The EU institutions now have a keen desire to resolve the British problem as expeditiously as possible. There is mystification as to why few British politicians seem to be rising to the occasion. The UK, meanwhile, is preoccupied with what can unite the Tory party, first, and the House of Commons, second. Too little thought is given on how to bring the EU 27 around to a satisfactory Brexit settlement.

It is clear that the British need help in devising a fresh prospectus for their future relations with Europe. The EU’s embargo on serious talks until Article 50 has been formally invoked is not helpful. The focus of the debate has got stuck on what is impossible — in other words, the alternative models of Norway, Switzerland, Turkey, Canada or WTO. We need to move on to what is possible.

Here, one useful option is still overlooked, that of a new association agreement. In 2014 the EU signed an association agreement with Ukraine. At its heart is a deep and comprehensive free trade agreement based on tariff-free access for goods to the single market once Ukraine approximates its own standards to that of the EU acquis. Subject to negotiation, Ukraine’s participation is foreseen across a range of EU common policies.

The three principles of free movement have to be respected, but not the fourth where people are concerned. Instead the agreement aims at a system of work permits and visa liberalisation. Because Ukraine is not a member of the customs union, it is free to conduct its own trade policy.

Coupled to the free trade area is an institutional machinery involving cooperation at summit, ministerial, technical and parliamentary levels. A judicial tribunal of three judges arbitrates disputes. Collaboration is envisaged in foreign and security policy as well as in fighting terrorism and international crime.

The association agreement is decidedly intergovernmental not supranational and, unlike EEA or customs union countries, Ukraine is not offered the prospect of EU membership. I have developed these ideas further for Policy Network.

Of course, the UK is not the Ukraine. But the template of the Ukrainian association agreement could be adapted to suit what Theresa May told the House of Commons she wants on 24 October. “A new British model” of a “close partnership” with the EU, allowing the UK to “trade with and operate in” the single market.

An association agreement aimed at minimising disruption from Brexit would permit continuing British engagement with the EU 27 in core areas, saving the best of the mutual legacy of 45 years of full membership.

Under such a scheme, for example, the UK would be able to keep its membership of Europol and other essential EU agencies, as well as to buy into selected EU programmes such as Erasmus and science R&D.

The difficult part of an association agreement will be trade policy, especially in services, where any British bid that is too selective will open up division among the EU’s 27 states and rivalries between business sectors. But trade talks will be eased if the Article 50 treaty, intended to extricate the UK from its catalogue of EU rights and obligations, has provided a perspective as well as passerelles towards a final settlement.

Most of the Article 50 treaty will be technical, although some of it will be complex, such as the deconstruction of financial and other commitments given by the UK as a member state under both EU and international law. Continuing British involvement in the EU budget, the European Development Fund and the European Investment Bank will pose particular difficulties.

But the fact is that any half-decent new relationship with the EU will come at a price to HM Treasury that might not be much lower than the UK’s existing net contribution to the EU budget. It would be useful for Philip Hammond to admit as much in his Chancellor’s autumn statement.

At any rate, it is high time to stop unilateral, ill-informed and uncoordinated statements by UK ministers. In return, the EU leadership should begin to share in public some strategic thoughts about how it intends to cope with the British over the longer term. The path to Brexit will be much eased if both parties begin to prepare the ground for a new, comprehensive association agreement.