By Robert Seiler
On the face of it, Theresa May’s Brexit strategy has been reduced to accepting unilateral concessions (otherwise known as “sufficient progress”) in Brussels along with political defeats (otherwise known as “parliamentary sovereignty”) to her own party in the Commons. Beyond the headlines, the Prime Minister is also presiding over the slow but steady decline of British influence within the halls of European institutions.
In some instances, that loss of sway is swift and sudden: Britain’s failure to maintain an advocate general position at the European Court of Justice (ECJ) offers one clear example. In many others, however, British representatives within the various European institutions continue to exploit their voting powers and influence EU institutions despite Article 50. While Brexiteers moan about EU influence on British policy, it is in fact our side unabashedly shaping decisions on the continent – and not even on behalf of those who need the help the most.
Our counterparts on the Continent are, for their part, perfectly abreast of all this. Other EU countries have expressed their concern over British influence in shaping (and subverting) EU policies from the inside since immediately after the referendum. Britain has consistently been one of the most pro-business and pro-market voices within the Union. Despite being outvoted more than any other country in the European Parliament between 2009-2014, British MEPs managed to secure many of the most powerful agenda-setting positions within EU institutions.
The UK may intend to retain full membership rights through its official exit in 2019, but other European deputies are calling for British MEPs and other representatives to surrender their committee chairmanships and influence over post-Brexit European policy. Unfortunately, some UK MEPs – like the ever-popular Nigel Farage – insist on remaining in Parliament to influence Brexit proceedings, even threatening to return to Strasbourg in the not-so-distant future. Farage, for the record, also appears more than happy to take a generous pay-out upon Britain’s departure from Brussels – upwards of £140,000 for a term he describes as a “whale of a time.” No word yet on whether he plans to donate that sum (which will be covered by the British taxpayer) to the NHS.
One would think Britain might use its residual presence within the EU to advocate on behalf of the 1.2 million British citizens residing in other European countries and currently left in limbo by Brexit negotiations. This has, of course, not been the case in the slightest. On the contrary, Britons living elsewhere in Europe watched the UK decline a residency offer that would have shored up their future circumstances and then take a pass on addressing their concerns before concluding the “Phase One” talks. As the Guardian put it, British citizens living in other EU countries have been “sacrificed on the altar of trade.” It’s now quite apparent that protecting British corporate interests by pursuing trade talks takes precedence over citizens’ rights.
How far post-Article 50 Britain can go in advocating those business interests from inside the EU (and not just in the Brexit negotiations) is not entirely clear. Against the backdrop of Brexit, flagship British companies in the tobacco industry – British American Tobacco (BAT) and Imperial – remain locked in a heated lobbying battle with the EU over proposed “track and trace” reforms to cut down on illicit tobacco trafficking. Campaigners argue that Big Tobacco is complicit in the illegal tobacco trade as a means of evading taxes and boosting sales Europe-wide. The existing EU track and trace system relies on arrangements made with the individual tobacco companies, which falls short of the World Health Organisation’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC).
Will Britain’s withdrawal make it easier for the EU to expand tracking mechanisms in a way that insulates them from the tobacco industry’s influence? At a minimum, it will not act as a hindrance. The British Foreign Office has an established track record of lobbying on behalf of BAT. In September, it emerged that the UK high commissioner to Bangladesh, Alison Blake, gave assistance to BAT as it sought to evade paying taxes owed in one of the poorest countries in the world amid a £170 million dispute over unpaid VAT. Before this, the Foreign Office had to answer for similar incidents that took place in Pakistan in 2015 and Panama in 2012.
Tobacco is not the only industry towards which Britain’s EU representatives act more as friends than objective regulators. Just a few weeks ago, agricultural giant Monsanto benefited from UK support to obtain re-approval for its highly controversial pesticide for another five years. The glyphosate debate has hotly divided European policy makers, with reports the weedkiller is so pervasive its residues can be found in 45% of European topsoil. In urine samples from Germany, it was found at a whopping five times the legal limit for drinking water and has been labelled by a WHO agency as “probably carcinogenic”.
Naturally, the UK was one of 14 states backing the ultimately proposal to renew the chemical’s license.
The irony of the UK expending its diplomatic and regulatory capital on behalf of big business is that these multinational corporations have plenty of resources on hand to ensure their own interests. Individual British citizens, on the other hand, do not. At the same time, advocating for corporate interests that are questionable at best (see the case of glyphosate) risks creating more bad blood at the precise moment Britain needs all the European goodwill it can muster.