Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

U.K. Brexit Agreement May Take Up to a Decade, Open Europe Says

  • EEA accord would fall short of ambitions set by Brexit backers
  • U.K. must seek interim solution while setting long-term goal

Britain’s future relationship with the European Union may take up to a decade to negotiate as a Norway-style membership of the European Economic Area won’t be enough to meet the pledges of Brexit campaigners and regain control over immigration, a report by Open Europe showed.

Membership of the EEA, touted by some politicians as an easy-fit solution for Britain’s future relationship with the EU, would undermine its importance as a G-7 country and limit its options in controlling immigration, a key driver of the vote to leave the bloc, according to the report published Thursday. Britain may have to seek an interim accord mirroring Norway’s membership to buy time to complete a stand-alone free trade agreement, it said.

The report highlights the difficulties faced by Prime Minister Theresa May’s government as she seeks to meet the popular demands of the June 23 referendum to leave the EU, while maintaining Britain’s economic and investment ties. The government will only have two years to find a working agreement once it triggers Article 50. With EU leaders reluctant to allow the U.K. more time, a temporary agreement will likely have to be reached to allow the government to find a more suitable longer-term model, according to Open Europe

‘Sticking Point’

“The wider public is probably not aware of the scale of the challenge,” Open Europe policy analyst Pawel Swidlicki said in a telephone interview. “We are optimistic in the long term, if Britain adopts the right domestic policies and is open to global competition. But freedom of movement is the sticking point for now.”

As well as not allowing curbs on freedom of movement, EEA membership offers restrictions that may not fit with the U.K.’s ambitions for Brexit, according to the report. While allowing the U.K. to start trade negotiations aimed at reducing tariffs with countries such as India, China and Brazil, it would force the government to adhere to most EU business legislation currently in place, limiting scope to reduce its regulatory burden.

It would also reduce the U.K.’s position to that of an EU-satellite, ill-suited to its current position as a G-7 member with a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council, the report says.

Sweden indicated that it will rebuff any attempt by the U.K. to bypass the European Commission and negotiate directly with member states. “We want to counteract all such attempts,” Swedish EU Minister Ann Linde said at a press briefing in Stockholm Thursday. “There shouldn’t be separate agreements but only with the EU as a whole.” 

Surveys suggest that EU members are not disposed to be lenient to Britain in its negotiations with the bloc. While 56 percent of Britons think the EU should offer favorable terms to the U.K., only 30 percent across EU countries agree, according to a survey by Ipsos Mori published on Thursday. Almost 60 percent of those in EU countries believe the U.K.’s exit was the wrong decision for the bloc, and 53 percent believe it will be bad for Europe’s economy.

“Concluding a comprehensive trade agreement could take up to a decade,” Swidlicki said. In the interim “we just don’t know what the scope is for a high level agreement on freedom of movement. The question is now is how much the government is bound by promises made by vote leave.”

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