As the political season kicks-off in Europe, one of the recurrent issues that will stay up on the agenda is the negotiation between Brussels and the UK following its referendum on EU membership. Now that both sides have appointed their negotiating team, the meeting in Bratislava should also provide insights as for the EU’s negotiating line, while the UK government remains divided.
Negotiations between the EU and a specific country have usually turned nasty, as the case of Greece last summer can assess. Thus it is likely that the bargaining between Brussels and the UK government will be filled with the same kind of disinformation campaigns that usually fill the public space during such tense talks. Trickery has already started with EU officials spreading different opinions on whether talks should start before PM Theresa May actually triggers article 50 of EU treaties.
Down the line, the leverage will likely be on the EU side, since it can play several hands at the same time (with 27 national leaders) in front of the UK government. Talks are expected to focus on several key policies, which all have an impact on both the UK and European culture sectors, including on trade, free movement and access to funding. Already, several case scenarios as for the future alternative to membership can be envisaged.
First, the UK government could decide to base its new relationship with Brussels solely on a WTO trade agreement, and stripped of any political commitment. This option would succeed in bringing back sovereignty for the UK, but it would leave the cultural sector highly exposed, as new trade deals would have to be passed with third countries, including with the United States, which has consistently tried to ignore the cultural exception concept. Additionally, the sector would not be eligible for EU funding (beyond 2020), and artists would lose the opportunity to move freely across the Channel, which would eventually result in cultural isolation.
Another option is to use the Swiss relationship with the EU as a source of inspiration, meaning that both parts will have to reach a series of bilateral agreements. The idea of negotiating point by point can seem attractive for the UK government. However, this approach would open a period of bargaining that carries many risks for the UK cultural sector, including the threat of seeing free movement linked to access to the Single Market, or UK contribution to EU budget in exchange for EU funds. Even once deals are passed, there is no guarantee that a shift in political commitments in the UK would not break them, as was the case in Switzerland where a referendum limiting immigration through quotas prompted the EU to suspend funding, including for the cultural sector.
This is why a partnership of the type Norway has with the EU seems more appreciable. By joining the European Economic Area (like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein), the UK would keep access to the Single Market and EU funds in exchange for budget contribution and accepting the freedom of movement. In this scenario, the cultural sector would preserve the benefits of EU membership. The real question here is whether the UK government would accept such a deal that seems to cross many of its red lines.
Finally, the scenario that would see the UK remain a EU member is not totally off the table. Two years is an eternity in politics. Possibilities include the current government being ousted in snap elections, a new referendum on the new kind of relationship with the EU or the UK Parliament rejecting it. Thus the last scenario would see the UK cultural sector retain its privileged position, access to EU funds and opportunity to keep feeding into the EU cultural landscape while using it as a source of inspiration.