Vicky Ford is Conservative MEP for the East of England and Chairs the European Parliament Committee for the Internal Market and Consumer Protection.
Over the past forty years, politicians across the world have worked to tear down barriers to trade but increasingly we now risk tipping into a new era fueled by protectionism. Public support for trade agreements will not be regained if politicians only focus on the small minority of elite consumers who shop across borders: after all, the vast majority of consumers consume in their local area. Decisions on the new relationship between the UK and the rest of the EU’s Single Market or what trade agreements we should make with other parts of the world need to be made from the viewpoint of the ordinary consumer.
During the referendum there was much debate on the impact of the Single Market on business, on jobs, on workers, on services and standards, but its value to everyday consumers was hardly mentioned.
The abolition of mobile phone roaming charges was briefly highlighted but whilst this may be important to younger voters and to those who regularly travel overseas it did not resonate with many older voters, those of lower income, and those in less affluent areas. It was only recently when suddenly British consumers found that Marmite and Ben & Jerry’s Cookie Dough might not be quite as readily available that the discussion on the impact for consumers really began.
Margaret Thatcher championed the Single Market. It is about more than just tariff-free trade. There are a plethora of networks for practical co-operation which have been built up under the past forty years. When we are preparing for the negotiations ahead we should look at these networks and the practical benefits they bring to many every day lives and consider which we might wish to maintain. I have encountered many examples.
Important for children is the Rapex alert system. If a dangerous toy is spotted in one market, this system is used to alert trading standards officials all across Europe so that recalls can be made across the supply chain.
On the subject of health, at the Conservative Party conference in Birmingham MPs from all over the UK visited the Cancer Research UK stand to pledge their support. Clinical trials for those with rare cancers are increasingly run across borders as larger numbers of participants give more meaningful results. The charity’s top priority post-Brexit is to make it easy for British patients, especially children, to take part in joint clinical trials run across many EU countries so that they will be able to access latest treatment. The common approach across the Single Market to sharing of medical data and tissue samples enables these trials.
Patient safety today is also backstopped by an Internal Market Information Sharing System. This enables the UK’s General Medical Council to easily check the qualifications of doctors from other countries, and ascertain whether they have ever been barred from practice. We are the largest sharer of information on this system. In Brussels we are currently looking at using the same system to share information on applications for firearms certificates.
Last month in Ware in Hertfordshire I saw lifesaving new asthma inhalers rolling off the production line. The manufacturer, Glaxo Smith Kline, has just invested £74 million in additional capacity at the factory. The management team’s top ask post-Brexit is to keep close UK/EU cooperation on approvals for medical devices so that new innovations can come to market faster.
A common declaration system for imports from outside the EU helped customs authorities across Europe to seize over forty million counterfeit goods last year , not just illegal cigarettes, but fake medicines, toys and household electrical goods too. However, our port operators warn that if full customs declarations are also needed for goods moving between the UK and EU this could lead to huge delays at ports and airports. HMRC estimates that the number of customs declarations they would need to process would increase from 100 million each year to 350 million. If the Conservative Government is really committed to preventing unnecessary red tape then we must look for a simpler options.
Some of these Single Market networks are currently only used by the 28 EU countries, others are also accessed by EEA members, Switzerland or other neighbours.
In the UK, the Single Market is under scrutiny as never before. Having free movement of goods across the Single Market has on the whole given consumers greater choice, greater diversity and lower prices – even despite the propensity for the European political left to add extra costs into the supply chain or ban certain products.
Import prices matter to consumers, and trade deals with other parts of the world will bring new opportunities in the longer term, but currently over 50 per cent of the products that we import into the UK come from other EU countries. If we have to rely on a World Trade Organisation backstop for these products then British consumers will face expensive tariffs especially on food products, and negotiating a new free-trade agreement with Brussels to rectify this could take many years of uncertainty.
Therefore before we fully walk away from our entire relationship with the Single Market it is important to consider seriously strategies. Some politicians in other EU countries may say no to an “a la carte” relationship for the UK, but when one examines the EU’s own scoreboard for how individual countries implement Single Market agreements it is clear that some of those same countries already take quite an “a la carte” approach themselves.
Our on-going relationship with the Single Market will of course be partly shaped by the decisions we make to ensure the UK has control over migration, but even in this area things are not as inflexible as sometimes portrayed. Politicians on both sides of the channel risk being locked into positions based on theological purity, laying down absolutes as non-negotiable whereas real world examples show that there already exist many examples of more flexible approaches.
In practical terms it is impossible to move to Belgium without a reasonably well-paid job, Switzerland is about to introduce new rules so that jobs must be advertised to local people before non-domestic residents, and in its relationship with Lichtenstein the EU has already conceded the principle that a country with a firm cap on migration can have preferential access to the Single Market.
After Brexit, a new relationship between the UK and the rest of the EU’s Single Market will be needed but this is not a simple “leave” or “stay” decision. It requires sophisticated consideration and a multi-layered approach