Let the British leave the EU – but do not throw them out

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

UK Commissioner Jonathan Hill resigned shortly after the referendum result was announced. [European Parliament]

Offended Eurocrats should resist the desire to punish the UK during the Brexit negotiations. Britain and the EU will suffer enough as it is, writes Christofer Fjellner.

Christofer Fjellner is a Swedish Christian Democrats MEP (EPP).

Let the British leave the EU. But do not throw them out. Many of us are disappointed with the result of Friday’s referendum. And it is hardly surprising that large parts of Europe feel rejected by the British. But that is not an excuse to instigate a chaotic and painful divorce. Nobody will benefit if Europe tries to punish the British for wanting to leave the EU. It will be difficult enough for them anyway. Now we must focus on getting a functional agreement in place between the United Kingdom and the EU.

Representatives for both the leave and the remain sides have said that they do not wish to immediately invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. I understand them. They are not in an easy position, having to figure out what the referendum result actually means – and the pressure is mounting. That the British want to leave the EU is clear; the question is what kind of relationship they wish to have with the remaining 27 member states. Because Europe and our common challenges will not disappear in the wake of Brexit. And when it comes the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the EU, the victorious leave side has not exactly been crystal clear.

In my experience, having worked with trade negotiations in the EU for the past twelve years, there is one key to achieving a successful negotiation result: both parties must have a clear mandate with broad political support. And in that area, our British friends obviously have some serious homework to do before sitting down at the negotiation table. It would be completely irresponsible of David Cameron to apply for withdrawal from the EU before the British government even has an idea of what its mandate for the subsequent negotiations with the EU might entail.

Negotiations under these conditions would not run smoothly. The EU’s most recent trade agreement was struck with Canada; it spans over 1,600 pages, took more than six years to negotiate and has not yet been ratified. After the British have applied for withdrawal, we have two years to reach an agreement. After that, the United Kingdom’s EU membership will expire. Without an agreement, the British economy risks falling apart and important collaborations encompassing everything from the fight against terrorism to banking regulations will cease.

Therefore, it is imperative that United Kingdom’s exit should be well-organised rather than rushed. But in Brussels, many feel rejected and want to get rid of the British as soon as possible. Commissioner Jonathan Hill has already been forced to resign, and British members of the European Parliament have been asked to hand over responsibility for important legislative dossiers. But there is no reason to give the United Kingdom a bad start in its negotiations with the EU. Their burdens will be heavy enough when leaving the Union. The British economy risks shrinking by 6% by 2030 and British households could lose as much as £4,300 per year, according to the Treasury. This would serve as a warning to others, without the EU having to crack its whip.

But the United Kingdom is also important to the EU. The British economy is the EU’s second largest and the United Kingdom accounts for 10% of all intra-EU trade in goods – equivalent to more than €300 billion. An estimated three million non-British EU citizens reside in the United Kingdom. The significance of the City of London as the entire continent’s financial centre cannot be overstated. The future of the EU is intertwined with that of the United Kingdom. Therefore, it would be completely unreasonable of the EU to refuse to cooperate with the British, while bending over backwards to finalise a free trade agreement with Canada.

While Brexit has caused minor chaos in the EU institutions, the country that now has chosen to leave the Union will likely suffer from a much more severe and prolonged crisis. The referendum has caused a deep rift in British society, and it is difficult to imagine how that rift will be bridged in the near future. The decision to leave the EU is not only a blow to the Union — it shakes the United Kingdom to its very core.

Offended Eurocrats need to curb their enthusiasm. There is no reason to throw the United Kingdom out of the EU. Such a strategy will only generate losers. We do not need to punish the British to make an example out of them or demonstrate that the costs of leaving the EU are high. They are facing enough hardship anyway. Instead, we must ensure that the United Kingdom can leave the EU on the best possible terms. That will benefit all of Europe in the long run.

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