Goodwill and pragmatism should prevail in European Union talks

By Seema Malhotra
Labour MP for Feltham and Heston

Just a week in to negotiations for Britain’s exit from the European Union, already there are concerns about prime minister Theresa May’s ability to deliver a good deal for Britain. Whether we supported Leave or Remain, we can all agree that the prime minister must deliver on a deal that meets the needs of our economy, our businesses, and makes sure that living standards of British people do not fall behind that of our European neighbours.

Yet the prime minister already seems determined to lose goodwill and the productive climate necessary to make a success of negotiations for Britain.

In July last year, soon after the referendum result, I laid out our six-point plan for Brexit in a joint article with Stephen Kinnock MP. We argued that we should remain a member of a reformed single market with greater controls for nation states to control freedom of movement and immigration particularly in line with the needs of their economy. Businesses tell me that one of the reasons for investing in Britain has been our access to European markets, so our relationship with the EU and the ability to trade with other nations such as India are not mutually exclusive. I remain hopeful that with a pragmatic and cooperative approach to negotiation, we could achieve this.

I argued that we should protect the financial services, including by retaining passporting rights and continue our relationship with the European Investment Bank. Likewise, it is vital that the UK does not fall behind our European neighbours with respect to workers’ rights, environmental legislation or tackling tax avoidance – we must not become the weak link when it comes to tacking international issues. For a host of issues, from the border with Ireland to our involvement in Europol, we need productive cooperation.

If we are to achieve a good deal for Britain – and a good deal for the EU also that sees mutual benefit to our closest trading partner – we need to begin negotiations with goodwill and cooperation. We also need to start negotiations with pragmatism and a sense of reality. For this reason, we also need to recognise early on that we will have to make a contribution to the EU budget if we are still to benefit from our relationship with the EU.

The Labour Party has also consistently argued that we must immediately guarantee the rights of the three million EU citizens living the UK: Partly because it is the right things to do for those living in such uncertainty over their future, but also because it sends an early message of goodwill. This also was the unanimous recommendation of the Brexit Select Committee of which I have been a member. In addition I have argued that foreign students from the EU and outside the EU should be welcomed and valued. The benefits go both ways and young people in Britain live and study with people from across the world who in the future can become trading partners or business colleagues. This message I then reinforced when the Brexit Bill went through Parliament – I tabled amendments to call for the opportunities of young people to work, travel and study abroad to be protected following Brexit, such as continued participation in the ERASMUS scheme. This would not only ensure that the younger generation keeps the opportunities that their European counterparts have, but it also sends a message that we must protect the cultural, intellectual and social bonds linking our countries.

STUDENTS WELCOME: Foreign students should be valued in Britain

The prime minister has ignored all advice to begin negotiations in a positive, pragmatic and cooperative way and instead has been rapidly losing friends across Europe.

So far the prime minister has offered a plan for EU citizens which EU leaders have said are “vague, inadequate and below our expectations”. Former Chancellor George Osborne said earlier this week that as home secretary, Theresa May had “blocked” a unilateral offer of guaranteeing citizenship to those concerned in the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum. Civil cooperation, moderation and mutual respect needed are needed on both sides and her approach will not help our cause in the corridors of the Commission or with Michel Barnier and his team.

The prime minister has clearly decided to play hard-ball with the EU. I might be more understanding if this tough-talking, uncompromising approach to negotiations might be helpful to British interests instead. However, we can see already that this approach is not going to work either.

Secretary of state for exiting the European Union, David Davis, has been insisting that we will negotiate a future trade deal at the same time as negotiating our exit from the EU. The EU wanted us to conclude the exiting arrangements first (the “sequencing” approach). Davis referred to the fight he will have over this as the “fight of the summer”. His position did not last one day of negotiations and we are, as predicted, going to discuss exiting arrangements first, just as the EU said. We capitulated within one day and the EU refuses to discuss our possible future arrangement until we have decided the divorce bill.

If you are going to gamble the nation’s prosperity on playing a hard game, you had best play it well. If not, then you are far better off taking a less aggressive and more cooperative approach to negotiations. The stakes are too high – particularly as so far the government has failed also to do any economic impact assessment of its plans as well as of no deal. I hope the prime minister quickly realises how much goodwill she is losing and takes a different approach to negotiations in the interests of the jobs. People who voted to leave in the referendum did not vote to be poorer. They won’t thank a government that makes them so.