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The EU And The UK - Parting Ways But Working Together

23/09/2016 14:58 | Updated 23 September 2016
JUSTIN TALLIS via Getty Images

Commentators and politicians have interpreted the lessons of the Brexit referendum in many different ways. Free movement of persons was also plainly a factor. But I refute those for whom the vote was a clear popular mandate to sacrifice single market access on the altar of "migration". For me the result was first and foremost the symptom of social inequality, stagnating wages and a middle class which felt threatened and whose concerns were not properly listened to. It was also the product of an urban-rural divide, of a generational and geographical divide. The referendum did nothing to mend these divides. It amplified them.

The main lesson for the European Union is that we cannot win the trust of its citizens by repeating the idealistic vision of globalisation which has held sway for decades. Globalisation is increasingly being seen not as opening up a world of opportunities, but as causing a race to the bottom and eroding our core values. It is now perceived by many as a threat to jobs, state finances and social systems. Therefore we need to guarantee protection to EU citizens as a strong bloc.

We can only achieve this by being united and by equipping the EU with the instruments needed to carry out the functions attributed to it. Take just one recent example: the European Commission's decision in the Apple competition case. Big corporations are playing "divide and rule" with national governments, confronting them with the threat of relocating to the lowest bidder in terms of fiscal rules and oversight. Only through joint, firm and European action can we prevent such abusive practices. And the European Commission is delivering. In this case like in so many others, citizens do not ask whether the decision was supranational or intergovernmental: they just want to see things done.

But if the issue of how to shape globalisation is key for the EU, it will be no less important for the UK after Brexit. British politicians will have to sketch out how Britain will sail in the turbulent waters of the 21st Century. The United Kingdom helped to deepen and strengthen the EU single market and open it to other trading partners in the world. It was the UK that decided to leave a Union that it had helped to shape, not the other way around. Will Britain outside the EU remain the outward-looking nation which so many of us know?

Most of my colleagues in the European Parliament hope so. And I suggest they listen carefully to their voice. Contrary to how it is sometimes portrayed, the European Parliament is not out on some punitive mission - and I would like to set the record straight on this. The institution over which I preside is tackling Brexit in a level-headed and fair manner without the slightest hint of retaliation. The nomination of the British Commissioner last week is a fitting example. The European Parliament will play its role to the full in setting the new relationship between the EU and the UK - not least because we must consent to any withdrawal treaty and subsequent treaty setting out the full relationship.

The European Parliament, like all the other EU institutions, is abiding by the principle "no negotiation before notification". This may seem irritating but it is in fact common sense. It was the UK's decision to have a referendum. The European Parliament fully respects the result of this referendum but it is not up to the EU institutions to draw conclusions about what the UK should do. We first need the UK to tell its partners formally what future its sees with them.

It is understandable that such a complex task as the triggering of Article 50 is not a mere formality and requires detailed preparations. But what we can't afford to do now is press the pause button on EU activity when it is in the midst of a migration and refugee crisis and when the EU must complete its Economic and Monetary Union. Moreover, if Article 50 is triggered too late, we run the risk of facing European elections in the UK in 2019 at the very same time as it is leaving the EU. That would be a very difficult thing to explain to UK and to European citizens! That is why I called on Prime Minister May to notify the UK's departure from the EU as soon as possible.

It is the interest of both sides to come to a fair deal. However I am convinced that the best possible deal with the EU is membership of the EU. Any other arrangement necessarily entails trade-offs - there will be no à la carte menu on offer for the UK. I also see a clear majority in the European Parliament for insisting that the fundamental freedoms are inseparable, i.e. no freedom of movement for goods, capital and services, without free movement of persons. I refuse to imagine a Europe where lorries and hedge funds are free to cross borders but citizens cannot. I cannot accept any hierarchy between these four freedoms.

Looking at Europe and beyond, perhaps the single most important issue in the upcoming negotiations will be trade. I think many tend to underestimate the complexity and delay involved in the UK setting up its own trading relationship with the EU and the world. We also need a setup through which we can continue to project our core values on human rights, democracy and the rule of law towards other continental blocs. On foreign policy we must stay close partners. This also applies to security and defence policy: although the EU loses a key Member State, paradoxically, such a separation could give the necessary impulse for a closer integration of the remaining Member States. And there are many ways in which the UK could engage and contribute to such a new more coordinated EU of 27 without standing in the way of such integration.

We cannot shape a new European future at such a time of fragility by indulging in nostalgia - none of us, including the UK, can bring back the past. The European Parliament and myself are committed to keep the European Union and its Member States fit for the challenges of the 21st Century: to increase citizens' rights, their freedom and their security. I believe a close relationship between the EU and the UK is instrumental to ease this task, but clarity is needed. The ball is in the British camp.

Martin Schulz is president of the European Parliament

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