Everyone is trying to second guess the negotiating strategy of Theresa May, and how the EU will respond. No country should be more concerned about this than Ireland, the only EU country to share a border with the UK. Next week, the Irish government will host an all Ireland civic dialogue. Political economy considerations have never been more important.
In hindsight Brexit might be conceived as a long-term inevitability, which can be traced back to the structural fault-lines of EU enlargement, and the free movement of peoples into Europe’s largest ‘open’ labour market. Helen Thompson, a professor at Cambridge has suggested as such:
- The euro crisis politicized the city of London, which became the default offshore finance centre for euro clearing.
- EU enlargement, and then the euro crisis, turned Britain into Europe’s employer of last resort, turning it into an offshore labour market.
- This spurred and politicised a latent immigration concern within large swathes of public opinion, and the electorate.
- Very quickly, the euro crisis, and the response to it, not least the Fiscal Compact Treaty, exposed the future of Europe as a two tier Union: between the Euro area, and the rest of the EU.
- The balance of power (i.e. the rise of Germany) changed and weakened Britain, who were increasingly “outside” the EU process, despite being the employer of last resort for the euro area.
In terms of the political economy of Brexit, the biggest risks don’t really pertain to the city of London (who’s core priority will be to allow some sort of system for the free movement of workers within their sector). The city’s strengths, paradoxically, make it a source of weakness. The Conservative government are confident London’s financial service based economy will adapt. This is much less the case with medium-tech trade and manufacturing (think Nissan and car manufacturing).
For all sectors of Britain’s political economy, a Norway style deal is probably preferable (European Economic Area). Theresa May, and political elites, are not likely to push for this, as it implies complete free movement, and won’t wash electorally. However, Theresa May will want access to tariff free trade, primarily to ensure that the North of England is not badly effected, and that firms such as Nissan in Sunderland don’t pull out and move to Spain. Manufacturing has more to lose than Finance.
This implies that Theresa May will push for a customs union – tariff free – allowing imports for British based manufacturing supply chains. The question then is whether it is a customs union for everything? Theresa May could opt out of agriculture, and then use this as a bargaining card in negotiating other international trade deals, outside the EU.
The question of free movement will be determined by how Teresa May considers Ireland. If she gives priority to maintaining free movement within Ireland (north and south), which I think she will, then this implies there will be no visa controls at the British borders. Hence, it is probable that Theresa May will aim to get a series of sectoral deals – and allow for the free movement of people within sectors, particularly ICT and Finance. This is what ultimately matters for the city of London.
Those most affected within the City of London will be legal services. British lawyers, who predominately rent off the finance sector, will no longer have a hearing on mergers and acquisitions within EU law. But I can’t see Theresa May negotiating a strategy to ensure British lawyers have access to EU courts. What she will want to ensure, on behalf of business and finance elites, is that the city remains a magnet for high-skilled talent. This could be achieved with sectoral deals.
Britain’s main bargaining card is that their consumption-oriented economy, and open labour market, in addition to a high-tech cluster in London, has carried the employment burden of the Eurozone’s labour market woes, in addition to absorbing so much labour from central and eastern Europe. Germany has done little, if anything, to increase domestic demand, to compensate this. So it’s worth asking, absent the liberal-oriented British economy, where will unemployed EU workers go?