Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs.
As MEPs returned to Brussels this week after the summer recess, the job of Conservative members was clear: to help our Government secure the best deal for Britain as we negotiate exit terms from the European Union.
For me, a key message that came through loud and very clearly from the EU referendum was a desire for the Government to take control of the number of people entering our country.
I do not believe the majority of Britons are opposed to immigration. Far from it: they recognise that migrants are indispensable to many sectors of the economy and enrich our culture.
But uncontrolled immigration, and the pressure it can put on our schools, housing and hospitals, worries people. New restrictions on the payment of benefits that David Cameron secured in his renegotiation were far too little to persuade voters that ministers could limit the number of EU migrants arriving.
Now that the dust has settled on the vote and we begin to plot our exit from the EU, this message must remain front and centre of negotiations if we are to implement the will of the British people. The problem is that, in the eyes of many, it conflicts with that other key priority – retaining as many benefits of the Single Market as possible.
There are voices both at home and here in Brussels that say we cannot have both, that we must decide between continued full membership of the Single Market or exerting the level of control over immigration that voters demanded. A succession of European politicians have lined up to say as much, with Sigmar Gabriel, Germany’s Economy Minister and Deputy Chancellor, being the latest to join the chorus this week with a warning that the EU will be in deep trouble if it allows Britain to “keep the nice things” that come with membership.
I do not agree. The starting point for our negotiations should be to retain full access to – but not membership of – the Single Market, while also taking full control of who can and cannot enter our country. If that sounds like and having your cake and eating it, then I presume it is a policy that our new Foreign Secretary will favour!
The EU has a large trade surplus with the UK – £23.9 billion in the first three months of 2016 – and while some politicians in Germany, France and elsewhere may want to put a heavy price on leaving the union, I suspect that such posturing will ultimately be trumped by economic reality. It simply makes no sense for Europe to erect barriers to trade in goods and services with Britain, knowing their own companies would face similar restrictions.
I have no doubt the negotiations will be difficult and time consuming. Flexibility will be required on both sides. But the EU is going to remain our closest trading partner and co-operation will continue in areas such as security, so it is in no-one’s interest to drive a wedge between us.
New ground is about to be broken and our ministers face many challenges, but as they enter talks they need to bear in mind something that MEPs quickly learn. In Brussels, every red line is also available in various shades of pink.
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Hopes that the flow of migrants into the EU might be starting to ease suffered a setback on Monday when 6,500 people were picked up off the coast of Italy. The previous day 1,100 migrants had been rescued by Italian coastguards.
The EU’s slow and confused response to this crisis has sadly encouraged more people to put their lives in the hands of ruthless traffickers. By failing to act decisively and in a co-ordinated way, the door has been left ajar to unsustainable numbers of migrants.
Now, at last, the returns deal with Turkey is beginning to have an effect, and a strengthened FRONTEX frontier guard service for Schengen countries – something Conservatives called for years ago – is also a step forward. But Brussels remains a long way from having a co-ordinated policy that all member states feel able to sign up to.
Into this vacuum the European Conservatives and Reformists group, to which Conservative MEPs belong, has prepared new policy proposals on immigration.
Drafted with input from my colleague Timothy Kirkhope, the document calls for stronger border controls, steps to prevent the secondary movement of migrants, greater co-operation with third world countries, an effective returns policy and a review of how EU money is currently being spent. It also highlights the need to clearly distinguish between how refugees, legal migrants and economic migrants are dealt with.
Britain has never been part of the Schengen zone and most of these provisions would not have applied to the UK even if we had chosen to remain in the EU. It is though clearly in our interests that the Schengen area has an effective border policy, not least because thousands of migrants arrive in Europe with the goal of crossing the English Channel.