Taking the Brexit Bus Seriously

As Theresa May announces her plan to notify Article 50 by next March, the UK is drawing up its ‘red lines’ on its exit from the EU. Although there is little detail as to what the UK government will seek, one thing is clear: an end to free movement of people is being considered as the major implication of the British people’s vote to leave. Everything else – including single market membership – must come second to this goal. Even the Labour Party has stepped in line with this new political orthodoxy. The interpretation is that the referendum result was a vote against free movement for EU citizens to the UK.

The problem with this approach is that Theresa May is not just abiding by the result of the referendum, but she is trying to infer a single reason for the vote.  And the choice she has made has huge implications for the Brexit negotiations. So what if there was another basis for the negotiations, a different ‘red line’ to limiting immigration?

We send the EU £350 million a week. Let’s fund our NHS instead


There were many arguments used in favour of leaving the EU, but the most prominent was written on the side of the Leave campaign’s bus and driven around the country.  It dominated large parts of the referendum campaign, formed the backdrop to hundreds of photo opportunities and interviews, shaped the news agenda for weeks, was hotly contested, but was never erased, and never withdrawn. After years of austerity, the official Leave  campaign zeroed in on the EU membership fee as one of the major solutions for over-stretched public services. Opinion polls in the run-up to the vote showed that many people shared the sense that the UK paid too much into the EU, and as a net contributor was somehow being ‘taken for a ride’.

So let’s imagine basing our Brexit negotiations on repatriating the £350 million per week that is handed over to the EU. How does that change our approach to the EU27?

The first result is that the focus shifts hugely towards discussing the Article 50 separation deal, rather than ignoring that in favour of discussions on a future relationship. The terms of the separation are crucial to getting the UK a good Brexit deal, one where we can save money and reinvest that for the public good. Instead of an army of trade negotiators, the UK government recruits hundreds of accountants, to go through the EU’s books and find ways to limit the UK’s future liabilities. So what are the Brexit bus red lines?

1) Brexit means a clean financial break: Once the UK is out of the EU it will not accept making any transfers to the EU27. This will include payments for future EU liabilities, such as pensions for EU officials, EU institutions and agencies (including the cost of their relocation). A settlement may have to be made with regard to the current budgetary period.

2) The costs of immigration should be limited: the access of EU migrants to U.K. social security was a major feature of the referendum campaign, so the question of who pays for the social benefits of EU citizens in the U.K., and UK citizens living in EU Member States will be a major factor in the negotiations. Expect the UK to try to drive a hard bargain about social security payments and liability for health and social costs incurred by U.K. retirees in Spain, and liabilities for EU nationals in the UK.

Of course, the benefits of Brexit can only be truly realised if the new UK-EU relationship is also based on financial neutrality. So the negotiations about the future relationship should be driven by this key principle. The next principle is therefore:
3) Solidarity is a national issue: EU Member States can fund solidarity and social cohesion from their own budget; the UK’s relationship will be based solely on trade, not the redistribution of wealth via social programmes.

Finally, the UK will argue for a single market, but with no fees:
4)  No pay for play: no contributions from the UK to the EU’s budget in exchange for single market access. The UK will have no political say in the making of the single market’s laws, so should not have to pay a fee to access them. If the EU wants to continue to trade smoothly with the UK, then the UK will accept adopting the single market’s rules, but will not subsidise its operation. The financial benefit that the EU27 will receive through the UK’s large balance of payment deficit should be sufficient without further contributions.

Together, these key red lines will ensure that Brexit can respect the clearly expressed will of the British people, and make Brexit a success for the NHS, and for Britain.

Of course, most, if not all of these red lines might prove impossible to realise. And at some stage, the fact that the £350 million per week claim was a lie would also have to be addressed. However, it is certainly not unrealistic to imagine that a UK negotiation in Europe might be based entirely upon money.  Margaret Thatcher’s ‘handbagging’ of Brussels to secure the UK  budget rebate should remind us that the UK is often happy to take a transactional approach to Europe.

The point of this post is not to suggest that this would be a better Brexit strategy, but merely to point out that there is more than one type of Brexit possible. Brexit does not mean Brexit – there are many different versions. The one that is chosen over the coming months will have huge ramifications for both the UK and the EU.

Why Brexit Britain should still be interested in the circular economy action plan

Another piece on the Green Alliance blog:

Why Brexit Britain should still be interested in the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan



Brexit and the Brussels Brits


euukAmidst the shock and carnage of Brexit, Brits living in Brussels will be particularly shocked, and indeed horrified. An expat community is witnessing its own country tearing itself apart, lashing out in anger, inflicting pain and unleashing chaos on itself, but also on the rest of Europe. Adding to the shock for many is the questioning of our own identities: is this still the Britain that we left?

Beyond the political, economic, social and environmental questions, Brits in Brussels will eventually have their own concerns: what will become of them? Jobs, lives, families in Belgium have all been built by UK citizens taking advantage of the UK’s membership of the EU, so what will happen to them now? The statement of the (outgoing) UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, to Brits living abroad that, ‘there will be no immediate changes in your circumstances’ is hardly reassuring.

So what will the impact of Brexit be for those of us in the ‘Brussels bubble’?

The first harsh truth is that today, this is a very minor issue. The seismic shock of Brexit is so big that the minor rumblings of a few expats will have little impact on UK politics. Even when the question of UK citizens abroad rises up the agenda, the biggest issue will be the future of retirees in Spain, not working age expats in Brussels. This will be a long way down the list of priorities of the next British Prime Minister. And to be fair, for many British citizens working on EU issues in Brussels their own situation may be at the back of their minds today as they think of the impact on the UK, Europe, and the world.

 The legal uncertainty is perhaps the biggest issue: will expat Brits still have the right to live and work in Belgium once the UK has left the EU? Of course, this depends upon the nature of the new UK/EU agreement. EEA membership would safeguard the right to work in Belgium. But it’s extremely difficult to see how the UK could keep out EU migrants from Britain, whilst retaining the right for UK citizens to work abroad. Brits have the right to Belgian citizenship after living in the country for more than five years, so that will be a solution of sorts for some. Many Brits, of course, already live in mixed nationality families, with intertwined lives that make a Brexit even more complex and threatening.

So what future for the diverse range of Brits in Brussels?

  1. The ‘Eurocrat’

Brits working within the EU Institutions are in a state of shock. There are implications for their lives and careers, but these are also people who are committed to an idea of Europe, and an idea of Britain’s relationship with the EU, which has just been put in question.

When the UK leaves, will they lose their jobs? Jean-Claude Juncker has already written to them to promise that he will fight for their jobs. But whilst their contracts may continue, they risk marginalization within the Institutions, with no senior roles allocated for Brits. Those on fixed-term contracts are most under threat. And those working for UK MEPs will clearly be looking for new careers after the next Parliament elections in 2019.

  1. The Lobbyist

 Brits in Brussels have traditionally traded off two things: access and communication. For lobbyists within the public affairs agencies, uncertainty creates business. Expect a boom in the next couple of years for political lobbyists in Brussels as the convoluted process of negotiating a new UK / EU relationship begins. British lobbyists will be in demand, both from UK companies seeking to understand the regulatory impact of Brexit, and from EU companies who are concerned about their export markets and adapting to a new way of trading with the UK.

But at the same time, those dealing with the regular EU policy-making will take a hit. Who will employ a British lobbyist to steer a path through a legislative process that will not include the UK? The value of having British contacts in the EU Institutions has just gone through the floor. Understanding the Franco-German political axis will become more important, along with growing powers like Poland. So maybe it will be short-term gain for some, but long-term pain for all?

  1. The Communicator

The second advantage Brits have in Brussels is their ability to communicate in English. Unfair as it may seem, amongst all these polyglot Europeans the mono-lingual Brit is still valued for their ability to write in their mother tongue. English is likely to remain an important language in Brussels – within both political and business circles.

PR professionals, Communications Directors, writers and editors will all hope that their skills will remain bankable in a Brit-free EU. But whether they will have the right to continue to use those skills by working outside the UK is another question.  

  1. The Facilitator

 Brussels is full of trade associations, alliances, and coalitions, and the people who bring these groups together. British staffers in these offices will be feeling nervous: what future for them if they work for an association without any UK members in future? For those involved in the world of EU funding the prospects are even more uncertain. UK participation in EU programmes and funds is not guaranteed. And the role of British regional offices in Brussels, universities, and others who seek to build partnerships around EU funds is clearly under threat.

  1. The Campaigner

There is a large community of Brits working for campaigning NGOs in Brussels, across all sectors. Almost all of them were strongly in favour of Remain, on the basis of preserving social and environmental rights and values. They are now already campaigning to ensure that the issues close to their hearts are not damaged by Brexit, whether in the UK or the rest of Europe. Many will argue that there is more need than ever for progressive British voices in Brussels. But will those voices still be heard? It is clear that the political landscape has changed, perhaps forever. Responding will certainly require new approaches.

  1. The next generation

Beyond the fate of the Brits who currently live and work in Brussels, perhaps it is more important to think of those who are to come. Or rather, those who may not be able to come in future. Brussels is a European city of movement – people arrive, work, live, love, and then often leave. Some of us stay, but many simply take advantage of free movement to experience living in another country for a few months or years. That right is now under threat. The ‘Brussels Brits’ who are already here have their own concerns, but the next generation may not have the right to come and live in this confusing, infuriating, complex, delightful, and wonderful city – or in the rest of the European Union. And that’s the real shame.


Simon Wilson is a long-term Brit in Brussels. This article is written in a personal capacity.


Designing out waste

The Environment Council has just given its views on the circular economy – here’s my take on how to design out waste for a circular economy, published on EurActiv:

Let’s design out waste for a circular economy

The Biggest EU Referendum Myth?

There is a lot of competition for the biggest myth of the UK referendum campaign. Viewed from the outside – by a Brit who has lived in Brussels so long I don’t have a vote – it’s like watching someone shooting themselves in the foot (‘See? That’s showed you!’). A horrified fascination that you just can’t turn your head away from.

But amidst all the lies, myths and misinformation, there is one that jumps out at me (today at least).

It was summed up this morning on the radio by a leave voter interviewed in a pub. ‘Once it’s all done and dusted they’ll find something else to talk about’, he said, with an air of boredom about the whole EU debate.

Yes, I’m sure that people in the UK are going to be thoroughly bored of talking about, reading about, watching stories about the EU by 24 June.

One year ago, only 2% of Brits thought that the UK’s relationship with Europe was the most important issue facing the country (according to this Ipsos MORI survey). But now, the country is on the verge of voting to make it not just the issue of the week, or month, but the defining issue for years to come.

A Leave vote will make the European Union THE story in the UK for years. The economic, political, legal, social consequences will dominate the news, the economy, and the political agenda.

Negotiating a new relationship with the EU will take years. And with every other Member State getting a veto, the negotiations are likely to prove complex and uncertain. The UK’s position will be unclear and incoherent, since Parliament will have vastly different views on how to proceed to the Brexit Tories. (What model to go for: Norway, Switzerland, Canada, Turkey, WTO?) Other Member States have their own issues to worry about, and domestic elections to win – which will hardly make them likely to cave to the UK’s self-hostage situation (‘Give me the money or I’ll shoot…. myself’).

And in the meantime, pretty much everything that happens in the UK will be viewed through the lens of the Brexit. Environment? Social policies? NHS? Unemployment? Infrastructure investment? The danger is that there will be no space to discuss any of these things seriously for years. It will all be on hold as the UK deals with the crisis and uncertainty, tries to rebuild trade relations, and to find the answers to hundreds of questions that have not even been asked yet.

So bad news for those sick of the EU debate. After years of wilfully refusing to discuss Europe, Brexit will put it at the heart of British political discourse for years to come.

5 things you should know about the Circular Economy Action Plan

I’ve recently started working for Green Alliance, the environmental think-tank, as their representative in Brussels. They are a UK think-tank, and it makes sense to have someone in Brussels to promote the great work that they do. At least, that’s the idea!

The main thing I’m focusing on is the circular economy, hence this piece I’ve written over at the Green Alliance blog:

5 things you should know about the EU’s Circular Economy Action Plan

I’ll be writing some more blogs over there, and will link to them here.

As part of my work for Green Alliance I am coordinating an alliance of think-tanks and progressive business from the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands, the Alliance for Circular Economy Solutions (ACES).

Contact me by email or Twitter if you’d like to know more about what ACES is doing, or about Green Alliance’s work.

Plan G, the EU, and the Commonwealth: a summer story

The scene: a couple enjoy their summer holidays, on the beach in Brittany. 

J – Mais oui, c’est bien lui, regard – it’s him, I’m sure! Là-bas sur la plage, dans ce petit maillot de bain…mais qu’il est rouge comme une tomate – ou plutôt un rosbif! Just like all the Englishmen on the beach!

F – Ecoute, chérie, j’en ai marre maintenant. First you were seeing Valérie everywhere, then you thought Ségolène was following us… really, just relax and stop imagining things!

J – Coucooouu! Daveed! {Et sa femme, regard} – Samantha! Comment vas-tu Daveed ? Mais, oui, viens dire bonjour !

F – NON, Julie, qu’est-ce que tu fais?!!…  {Oh god it is him, merde!} … Daveed, mon brave!

D – Oh, er …Bongiorno! François – what a shock. I mean surprise. What a pleasant surprise, great to see you. Sam… you know François, and have you met Ség…Val… ermm.. well anyway you are looking well, and wow! I see those stories about the French abandoning topless sunbathing were wide of the mark, eh?!

S – David!! Stop staring, now!! {bloody French actresses, shameless…}

D – Yes, anyway – but I thought you two were… I mean the papers said…

 Ah ben, oui… how you say – ‘it’s a bit complicated’, Daveed. To be honest, it’s been a bit of a difficult time. You know, that feeling of not being loved, being under-appreciated, not getting the respect you deserve…

D – Oh right, so Julie wanted to be ‘official’ then – to move into the Elysée?

F – Quoi? Non, non, non, mon frère ! I was speaking about myself and the French people. I mean have you seen my approval ratings lately? They just seem to have fallen out of love. It’s outrageous really, being cast aside for a younger woman, that Marine just waggled her hips and they were all besotted. Honestly, is there no loyalty any more?

S – Outrageous, I agree – some people have no loyalty do they, I was just saying to so my friend Valérie the other day.

D – SAM! Really! Sorry François, I don’t know what’s got into Samantha… ever since I promoted a few women into the Cabinet she’s been like this. Keeps complaining about being stuck in the kitchen instead of on the Downing Street catwalk or something…

{mind you, François, you’ve fallen on your feet this time, you old dog, she may not have the brains, but wow, not bad!}

F – {Ah, oui, t’as raison Daveed – I’ve had enough of the brainy types!}

Et alors, Julie thought we should come here to Bretagne for a holiday. Something about ‘Nos plus belles vacances’, I think it was from one of those little films she watched, n’est-ce pas ma chérie ?

J – I didn’t watch it, I acted in it! {Imbécile!!} And you should watch it, you might learn something.

F – But what brings you to this pays magnifique de Bretagne Daveed?

D – Oh just a break as well. To tell you the truth I needed to get away, I wasn’t feeling too appreciated back home either. And I wanted some time away to plan my re-election campaign for next year.

F – Ah oui, exactement! I have been doing the same thing, planning my triumphant re-election! Julie, are you ok, you seem to be choking?

J – Ungghhh – cough – heummm, excuse me, must be something stuck in my throat…

F – Well, maybe it won’t be so easy for either of us eh, Daveed? We are both how you say – under a cloud – whilst that woman Merkel just floats above us all – maddening! Have you had any bright ideas then, any brilliant new policies?

D – Gotta say I agree with you about that woman François. I’ve had just about enough to be honest. Lording it over us with her election results, putting her foot down about Juncker, and then to cap it all they won the bloody World Cup again as well! We really need to do something about the Germans. But I can’t think what.

S – Oh Dave babe – but what about that idea you were talking about this morning honey, you know, that Plan G thingy – go on, tell François!

D – Sam! That’s private – you shouldn’t be listening in to my strategy meetings with Lynton. Besides, Plan G was just something I came up with, it’s not really…

F – Daveed, mon frère – we are all friends here, non? Tell me your idea, this Plan G.

D – Well it just came to me the other day. I was watching the Commonwealth Games on the telly – I’d asked Alex for tickets but he told me I’d need a visa to cross the border to Scotland so it seemed easier to watch it at home. Anyway, the great thing was, we were winning all these medals! I mean, hundreds of them! And there were no Germans there to beat us on penalties, no Nico Rosberg to pip us to the chequered flag, and most of all, no Angela Merkel in the grandstand doing that smug thing with her hands while Germany triumphs again!

So I started thinking, you know, well why not invite a few more mates to come and join us, make it a really big party. I know it’s mostly ex Brit colonies, but it’s all a bit of a laugh, none of that boring Brussels bureaucratic stuff. We could invite the Swedes to join, they’re always fun… and I get on pretty well with the Hungarians so they could come too. I mean, the sports are fun, but the best bit is that we get to go these great places for the summits, not like the EU!

F – Ah oui, so you don’t like coming to Brussels for those terrible Summits either eh? Me too – I have to say, if I have to eat any more moules frites while being lectured about fiscal prudence by that woman…

D – Exactly – for Commonwealth summits we get to go to places like Trinidad, Australia, – we’re even off for a jaunt to Vanuatu in a bit, how’d you like to top up your tan on a Pacific island Julie, eh love?

S – DAVID! I won’t tell you again babe, stop drooling!

D – Sorry, where was I…? Oh yes, and the best thing is, we only have to meet every couple of years.

F – Quoi?! But we get summoned to bloody Brussels twice a month at the moment for some crisis meeting or other, ce n’est pas vrai!

D – Yes I know, the Commonwealth is really much more fun than the EU. Her Majesty does rather try to keep everyone in line, but we still manage to sneak out for some fun… and well, you’d know all about sneaking out for some fun, eh François, yeah?!


D – Soz, yeah. So… I was kind of wondering… if you’d like to join us sometime…? I mean, I know we haven’t seen eye-to-eye about things in the past, but, well, better the devil you know and all that. I know France wasn’t a British colony, but there are plenty of other members who weren’t either, like… well… Rwanda, but that’s not the point. And to be honest, the Aussies are a good laugh and everything, but maybe we need a bit of French culture to knock the edges off that Tony Abbott. Of course, the main thing though, is that you could get away from Merkel, and outflank Marine at the same time on Europe – that can’t be bad eh?

F – Waow… quelle idée Daveed! A Commonwealth Union without the Germans! Bye-bye Eurozone, welcome to the party-zone! Magnifique n’est-ce pas, Julie? You really have surpassed yourself with this!

J – Ah oui… what did you call it Daveed, your ‘Plan G’? Wherever did you get that name from?

D – Er, well, I’m not sure really, it just came to me…

J – And your friend Lynton, non? Has he been doing some holiday reading as well?

D – I don’t know what you mean Julie?

J – Well, I know I’m only an actress – not as bright as you brilliant politicians – but I do know some history… Guy Mollet… Anthony Eden…Plan G, the proposal to bring France into an extended Commonwealth to keep them away from the Germans… when was that, 1956? Not exactly a new idea, M. Cameron. Perhaps I’m not the only one here who is a little over-exposed.

Is that more sun-burn, or have you just turned a little red?