Brexit, the 28-way tango

by Bill Emmott | 04.08.2017

It was good of 10 Downing Street to make that clear: if your daughter or son is graduating in 2019 and fancied seeking their first job in Italy, France or Germany, or perhaps if your brother had thoughts of emulating the Geordies from the sitcom Auf Wiedersehen, Pet and seeking a construction job when Germany starts to rebuild its crumbling infrastructure as part of an EU-wide growth-boosting plan, then they will have to think again. Freedom of movement between Britain and the EU will end in March 2019.

So UK citizens’ chances of landing a job in another EU country will be dependent on their choice among those 27 states, each of which will have to choose which immigration system – if a reflection of our mooted plans it would often probably put UK citizens into an immigrant category based on work permits depending on estimated skills requirements – to use to deal with UK applicants.

Since such schemes will be set up in a spirit of reciprocity based on whatever scheme the UK sets up once its Migration Advisory Committee has delivered its recommendations in September 2018, the chances are that it will take a little longer than a mere seven months to agree upon such schemes and make them work smoothly.

Oh, sorry, you didn’t realise that Britain’s future relationship with the EU is a two-way street, a matter of reciprocity? Did you think it was just a matter of us “keeping faith” with the referendum result, as Liam Fox, the trade minister, insisted?

That sense of reciprocity is one of the big things currently missing from much of the media commentary on our Brexit plans and transitional arrangements, and especially from remarks by ministers. For matters to work “smoothly” when we leave at the end of March 2019, whether in terms of migration, customs procedures, aviation and countless other complex issues, it will require both the UK and all the EU countries having new or at least alternative procedures agreed and in place – unless, that is, we follow Philip Hammond’s recently slapped-down recommendation of using an “off-the-shelf” transition arrangement.

For that is the strength of taking something off the shelf: all sides can put it into force with the minimum of fuss. When Theresa May returns from her walking holiday in the Swiss Alps and starts preparing the clarifying statements on Brexit she is said to be planning to deliver in September, let us hope that she reflects upon this point. It takes 28 to transitionally tango, not just one.

Perhaps this past week’s tabloid headlines about EU “airport chaos” will have drummed this into Brexit-negotiators’ minds. It is, at least, clearly in Michael Gove’s mind, given the storm caused in Scotland by his promise to Denmark that Danish boats will still be able to fish in British waters after Brexit.

It is a pity he wasn’t more careful in his earlier statements, about renouncing long-standing fisheries conventions and “taking back control” over British waters. Now, though, it seems he acknowledges that we will have to collaborate with our neighbours and come to agreements about fishing in each others waters and about how best to conserve fish stocks.

Here’s a proposed name for it: a Common Fisheries Policy. Why didn’t the EU think of that? Perhaps Britain could send some experts over to other European capitals to help advise on such a thing – if they can get work permits, that is.

This article was updated on August 5th to reflect the fact that all EU member states, like the UK, already have in place immigration systems for various categories of non-EU citizens; if freedom of movement is discontinued, it will be a question of each country making a political choice as to which category in which to place UK citizens, or to design a new category and set of requirements for the UK

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    Edited by Luke Lythgoe