Being an MEP is a bit like being a DHL package: no sooner have I arrived in Brussels for meetings with businesses, NGOs and sometimes bigwigs like Guy Verhofstadt (the European parliament Brexit coordinator), than I’m being shipped off again to London for marches, rallies and occasionally some rest in my garden in Oxford (very occasionally). Being shipped back and forth across the English Channel isn’t always easy – but it does give you some great perspective on Brexit.
Everyone I meet, wherever I am these days, asks me the same thing: “What are the Brits doing?” Even Brits ask me what we’re doing. And I wish I knew what we were doing, I really do. The trouble is that all we’ve received from the British government in the last year and a half has been overused slogans, half-baked threats and undercooked plans. Just one thing has been resoundingly clear from the government: Brexit means Brexit.
According to the government, Brexit means we are leaving the EU’s institutions, the single market and the customs union. That makes the UK a “third country”, just like Canada or South Korea. Being a third country means you don’t have the same privileges as EU members.
As a third country, it has been confirmed by EU negotiator Michel Barnier that the UK will not be in the EU’s crime-fighting intelligence agency Europol or the EU’s satellite project Galileo. It’s not a matter of money – no amount of cash is going to allow Britain to continue being in Europol or Galileo. It’s about trust.
Nick Gutteridge, a journalist in Brussels, recently tweeted a comment from an unnamed EU official who summarised the third country conundrum perfectly. I will quote the entire thing because it is really quite brilliant: “There is not an issue of general distrust towards the UK. That’s not the issue, but the EU is a rules-based system. Why is that? It’s because 28 member states do not trust each other spontaneously; they trust each other because they work on the basis of agreed common rules with common enforcement, common supervision and under a European court that will make sure they all apply the same rules in the same manner. They trust each other because there are remedies available. If you don’t have these remedies, you’re a third country.”
Since the UK has self-imposed red lines preventing it from signing up to the “common rules and common enforcement” we are out the door – with no special treatment.
But this concept of a third country being different from an EU member has fallen on deaf ears – not just amongst many Conservative MPs, but also some Labour MPs who are making gallant attempts at keeping the UK in the “nice bits” of the EU like Europol, the European Arrest Warrant and Galileo.
This was clear for the eye to see when Verhofstadt appeared in front of the Exiting the European Union Committee in Westminster recently. You could hear the same question, repeatedly from the MPs: “So we can’t stay in Galileo?” “So we can’t stay in Europol?” The answer from Verhofstadt was always the same: “No, because you will be a third country.”
Andrea Jenkyns even asked: “Why is the EU not just giving the Brits what we want?” Verhofstadt explained this is not a simple two-way negotiation: the single market is a legal entity and you cannot just break those rules to appease a member state who wants to leave.
Are we really being serious when we ask the EU to give the UK, as a third country, the same level of access as a member to sensitive information like satellite development and criminal databases?
I’m sure I’m not the only one who finds it incredible that a lot of Westminster still doesn’t get this. But they should get it – the UK signed off on a joint report with the European Commission in December 2017, which makes it abundantly clear that you cannot cherrypick the bits of the EU you do like and pretend the other things don’t exist.
We are Britain! We are a grand, important country – that’s what they say. And maybe some people still believe that. But it doesn’t change the fact that we will soon be a third country.
Catherine Bearder is the UK’s only Liberal Democrat MEP
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