One of the perverse outcomes of yesterday’s formal and largely symbolic rejection of the European Union is that, for the next two years at least, our collective fate will depend more upon events on the continent than perhaps at any time since 1940.
Europe will dominate our politics and public life until at least March 2019, and the time will pass very quickly. Few things in political or diplomatic life have quite such a definitive end point. Trade negotiations can last years or decades. Government policy initiatives can find themselves in the ‘implementation stage’ long after they’ve been forgotten in the popular consciousness. Politics and diplomacy, complicated as they are, typically don’t ‘do’ hard deadlines.
The ubiquitous ‘Europeaness’ we will enjoy for the next two years isn’t the nice, fluffy Europe of free movement, collaborative academic papers and cultural exchange that we have got so used to and campaigned to keep. This is the Europe of tortured negotiations, competing national interests, and messy and phenomenally complicated compromises that typically leave no one happy. The kind that occurs once every few years at summits and budget negotiations, or recently in crisis meetings to save the Eurozone: a massive row ensues before everyone makes up at the last minute. In fact, it’s exactly the idea of Europe that many leading Brexiteers were so adamant to be rid of.
The chain of causality in determining the fate of various individual sectors across the UK economy, from education to the environment, agriculture to automobiles, and finance to fisheries, is phenomenally complex. The interdependencies of different negotiating areas, which will be divided into ‘chapters’ by the EU Commission and Council in the coming months, will each, in turn, be dependent on the varied priorities of the EU’s member states.
Each of the EU27 has a different interest or priority area. For Germany, the integrity of the single-market is considered vital to secure continued success of automobiles, education and other ‘knowledge economy’ sectors. In France, the agriculture and fisheries lobbies loom large, as does a growing manufacturing sector keen on keeping its supply-lines open.
Spain is concerned about how Brexit’s effect on Scotland might impact its own autonomous regions nagging for a shot at independence, and then there’s the not insignificant problem of Gibraltar and British citizens sunning themselves in Andalucía. The former Soviet Bloc states wish to protect the rights of their citizens living in the UK. Ireland will obviously have a huge stake in the six counties to its north.
And several countries, including Ireland, France, Germany and the Netherlands, want a piece of the City’s command on global financial services. The sheer quantity of issues to be ironed out in what amounts to only a year of ‘real’ negotiations is astonishing.
And everything – everything – could well revolve around two ‘wicked’ problems. First, on immigration and movement of labour; the whole reason we’ve ended up in this mess in the first place. Agreement on this could be a precondition of further agreements on trade, financial services, and research and innovation.
And then there’s the UK’s ‘divorce bill’, which the EU claims will be up to 60 billion euros, as well as any further money the UK might be willing to send Brussels’ way to secure ongoing participation in some aspects of European collaboration, including research and innovation.
In the background, there’s the next round of EU budget negotiations, which will begin after the German elections in the autumn. How much the EU is willing to give up to Britain will be partly dependent on the extent to which they can agree between themselves how to cover the lost British contributions to the EU budget, which have been exacerbated by the pound’s falling value.
As universities have gradually tried to get over the catastrophe of the referendum result, there have been some mixed messages emanating from Whitehall about the extent to which their interests will be looked after through this labyrinth process.
On the one hand, Philip Hammond was quick last summer to offer guarantees of funding for EU students and research projects in the immediate future. The Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech included research and innovation at number ten in her twelve negotiating priorities. And the extra £4.7 billion of science and research funding announced in the Autumn Statement as part of the new industrial strategy is an indication that the government sees universities as vital to any post-Brexit economic realignment.
Yet by contrast, the PM’s Lancaster House objectives also included higher priorities inimical to continued success in research and innovation, such as complete national control over thorny issues of regulation, and ‘control’ of immigration. A leaked Whitehall document showed education rated as a ‘low priority’ sector for the negotiations. And the Prime Minister’s continued refusal to guarantee the rights of European citizens has been a particularly sore spot for the 17% of academic staff who are non-British EU citizens, the largest cohort of whom are from Germany.
Universities’ priorities in all this are becoming relatively clear, and relatively simple:
- Guaranteeing citizens’ rights for EU staff currently working in universities.
- Continued ease of collaboration between British and EU researchers, ideally enabled by relatively liberal movement for high-skilled or ‘knowledge’ workers.
- Intertwined with the above, continued access to European Research Council funding and participation in research and innovation projects.
- Arrangements for movements of students, including the ability to continue to participate in the Erasmus+ program.
Agreement on these outcomes – some of them relatively small-fry compared to the matters of tariffs, defence and security – will be dependent on an agreement over the headline political issues of immigration, funding transfers, and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice on matters of trade and regulation.
It is impossible to predict the extent to which the Prime Minister will be able to face down the Brexiteers within her own party (and indeed her cabinet) over getting a good deal on some of these issues. David Davis’s recent appearance before the Brexit Select Committee was not encouraging in this respect; there is a growing wing of the Conservative Party that seems intensely relaxed about coming to no agreement at all.
This path towards so-called Brexit ‘Plan B’ – no trade deal, slashing taxes, dumping regulations, drastically cutting EU immigration, becoming the ‘Singapore of the West’ – should be of significant concern for universities.
But there’s enough reason to hold out hope that all this politicking can still make room for a deal that the sector, the government, and the EU can live with. One where ‘sovereignty’ is regained over the UK’s borders, but used to enable movement of skilled labour, researchers, and even students (on new funding arrangements). A deal where money is paid by the UK into the ERC, but perhaps even more returned to UK researchers. And where the rights on current EU citizens working in universities are guaranteed in perpetuity.
These should not, in theory, be sticky negotiation points on their own, but that’s a whole different issue compared to whether they will be. There’s still a chance that the government will have raised expectations too high and be unable to sell any deal to the hardliners. But the definite nature of the timescale almost makes the matter moot. We are setting off on this journey, like it or not. The die is cast, and so over the Rubicon we go.