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Britain: Friend or rival

Europe must strongly and calmly defend its own interests in the post-Brexit agreement with London

Members of the European Parliament after the Brexit agreement was ratified by parliament.
Members of the European Parliament after the Brexit agreement was ratified by parliament.YVES HERMAN / AFP

The United Kingdom leaves the European Union today, but the practical effects will only be felt after the end of the transition period, scheduled for the end of the year. Despite what British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says, it is very unlikely that this short period of time will be enough to reach and approve in parliaments a new agreement on trade and cooperation that maintains, for the most part, the good relations and complicity that have been forged over four decades of close cooperation.

It’s not worth repeating what has already been stated. The United Kingdom is entitled to follow the erroneous path it has chosen, even with the scarce support the Brexit referendum won. That is its decision. Europe also has the right to rigorously adopt decisions that are in its own interests. Today this is what our emphasis must be on, because, as British culture has popularized, it is not shameful but wise to speak of one’s interests instead of rhetorical ideas. The interests of European citizens must be placed above all else.

A negotiating mandate for a new agreement must be urgently reached according to this criteria, with a better and close relationship as its cornerstone. A hard exit would be worse for Britain than for Europe, given the difference in economic and demographic size. But keeping this in mind does not mean that a fluid economic relationship is not of interest to the European Union. It is, if we consider that the greater the distance, the greater the damage to both sides, although the United Kingdom would be hit harder, as indicated by dozens of studies and international economic reports.

It is better to have a friend than a rival (the option that London has chosen), and it is better to have a rival than an enemy, a scenario that could occur through a second wrong choice. The willingness to work on a mutually beneficial agreement must be reflected on both a global level and in each one of its elements. As Europeans, Spaniards are willing to assume the global balance of the final deal. But they will fight without faltering, and they will condition their vote without any hang-ups – if that is what suits them – to defend a positive balance for the sectors of their economy that are most vulnerable to the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Namely, in defense of rights and better treatment for their citizens who immigrate in the future to the United Kingdom (those who have already settled have their rights guaranteed); respect for Spanish interests on the issue of Gibraltar, access to traditional fishing grounds near the United Kingdom, the export of fresh agrifood products, Spanish investments – including their financial investments in London – and the Spanish tourism industry, in which British visitors make up 20%.

The negotiating mandate must observe the principle of reciprocity, meaning that the best treatment of one side must be matched by the other. It must unequivocally establish that Britain can only access the EU’s immense internal market if it observes the same labor, environmental and tax standards as the European Union. It must rule out all unfair competition, especially on applying low taxes. Reaching a complete and harmonious agreement is crucial. All time pressure in these important issues must be rejected. Making mini-deals in separate sectors to avoid extending the negotiation deadline – which the weakest side, the United Kingdom, wants to do – could lead to a situation where only areas of common interest are addressed, and those that the EU considers of greatest interest are left out.

If British leaders have taken four decades to reach the specious conclusion that leaving the EU will make the country stronger, then it should have the patience to learn that dismantling the amazing achievements achieved together requires calculation, reflection, transparency and democratic debate. A former EU member, no matter how much of an imperial past it may have, cannot hope to impose a single regulation, let alone laws, on 27 member states. If Brexit “is done,” there is all the more reason for the European Union to say that it is done as well. And no one will capriciously break it apart.

English version by Melissa Kitson.