Time to get unilateral: what London needs from the Brexit negotiations

Well, this is awkward. Image: Getty.

Article 50 marks the moment when the UK’s departure from the European Union turned from distant prospect to dogged process. However you voted in the referendum last year, Brexit just got real.

And with that reality, there is the promise of clarity. All of these terms – customs union, free trade area, the four freedoms, the acquis communautaire – that have become part of public debate in recent months will start to become the raw material of negotiation. Ironically, we have begun to understand the intricacies of the European Union just as we start disentangling ourselves from its treaties, its regulations and its institutions. 

At long last, we will know where we stand. But clarity will take time, despite Prime Minister Theresa May’s emphasis, in her letter to European Council president Donald Tusk, on the importance of providing certainty. Fewer and fewer politicians and pundits seem optimistic that we can both achieve a separation agreement and a comprehensive negotiation of a new relationship in the space of 18 months, allowing for six months for agreements at the end of the process, and with French and German elections adding complexity.

What happens in airless Brussels committee rooms over the next 18 months will be important to the future of everyone in London and the UK. But we mustn’t overlook what will be happening in our towns and cities before then, where the decisions of hundreds of firms and thousands of individuals may be just as important to our future as the machinations of mandarins.

In London, hardly a day goes by without media reports of companies gently testing out the possibility of setting up in other European capitals, maybe sending a few staff over to Frankfurt, Dublin or Paris, maybe taking out an option on offices.  Aside from a few pre-planned moves that were opportunistically badged as the “consequences of Brexit”, most London employers have so far been taking a cautious “wait and see” approach to future plans.

But as they consider the possibility of leaving the EU without a trade deal – and contemplate the small but vocal posse of politicians who regard that as a wholly desirable outcome – the calculus of risk begins to shift.  As a recent House of Lords report set out, World Trade Organisation rules are very unattractive for many of the service sectors in which London excels.  The problem for these sectors is not so much the tariffs that will hit manufacturing and agricultural exports, but regulations that seek to ensure that services provided across European boundaries meet common standards.

UK broadcasters could be barred from distributing content aboard; banks could find themselves locked out of EU markets; tech firms could be unable to share data across borders. UK airlines could be prevented from running passenger services within the EU, and lawyers, accountants and other professionals could find their qualifications were no longer recognised overseas.

Many of these restrictions would be almost as damaging to other EU countries as to the UK, and with time and goodwill new trading arrangements can be put in place.  But time is in short supply, and goodwill may be tested in coming months. In these circumstances, a lose-lose outcome is a real possibility. In the meantime, uncertainty may force the issue.


European workers in the UK will also be thinking about their options.  The more that the status of EU citizens living in the UK is left uncertain (and the more stories of people being refused leave to remain by an overwhelmed Home Office), the more likely they are to consider relocation. This is a particularly important issue for London, where more than 12 per cent of workers are from elsewhere in Europe, but it also matters for employers in the agricultural heartlands of the East Midlands. 

And it is mirrored by anecdotes of lawyers and scientists turning down jobs in London because of the uncertainty about their future status and their families’, and by statistics showing a slowdown in migration of higher skilled workers from the continent. If uncertainty means that employers can’t attract the high-skilled European workers they need, the balance will tip further against London.

The Centre for London’s forthcoming report on the implications of Brexit for the capital argues that London – and other UK nations and regions – urgently need short-term clarity, to prevent the trickle of relocations from turning into a flood, making Brexit look like a failure before it has even happened.

There needs to be a clear statement, unilateral if necessary, that current EU residents can stay, and a clear interim position on trade. Membership of the European Free Trade Area might be sought as an interim measure, enabling continued access to the single market in current terms while new ones were negotiated.

This would mean the UK was still bound by EU regulations, but this will only mirror the provisions of the proposed Great Repeal Bill that will adopt current EU regulations wholesale.  It would probably be greeted by jeers of “Betrayal!” by Ukippers and their fellow-travellers in the Conservative Party – but the Prime Minister will need to face down these fringe elements sooner or later, unless she wants to lead us to the harshest of hard Brexits.

London leads the world in services from banking to restaurants to pop music to advertising.  These clusters of expertise have proved remarkably resilient, and it will take more than a few departures to weaken them. But it would be catastrophic if uncertainty led to London losing its edge while the details of Brexit were still being hammered out.

Richard Brown is Research Director at Centre for London. He tweets as @MinorPlaces.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

The Thessaloniki dig problem: How can Greece build anything when it’s swarming with archaeologists?

Archaeological finds on display in an Athens metro station. Image: Gary Hartley.

It’s fair to say that the ancient isn’t much of a novelty in Greece. Almost every building site quickly becomes an archaeological site – it’s hard to spin a tight 360 in Athens without a reminder of ancient civilisation, even where the city is at its ugliest.

The country’s modern cities, recent interlopers above the topsoil, serve as fascinating grounds for debates that are not just about protecting the ancient, but what exactly to do with it once it’s been protected.

The matter-of-fact presentation that comes with the many, many discoveries illustrates the point. Athens often opts to display things more or less where they were found, making metro stations a network of museums that would probably take pride of place in most other capitals. If you’re into the casual presentation of the evocative, it doesn’t get much better than the toy dog on wheels in Acropolis station.

That’s not even close to the extent of what’s available to cast an eye over as you go about your day. There are ruins just inside the city centre’s flagship Zara store, visible through the glass floor and fringed by clothes racks; Roman baths next to a park cafe; an ancient road and cemetery in an under-used square near Omonia, the city’s down-at-heel centre point.

Ruins in Zara. Image: Gary Hartley.

There is undoubtedly something special about stumbling upon the beauty of the Ancients more or less where it’s always been, rather than over-curated and corralled into purpose-built spaces, beside postcards for sale. Not that there isn’t plenty of that approach too – but Greece offers such sheer abundance that you’ll always get at least part of the history of the people, offered up for the people, with no charge attached.

While the archaic and the modern can sit side by side with grace and charm, economic pressures are raising an altogether more gritty side to the balancing act. The hard press of international lenders for the commercialisation and privatisation of Greek assets is perhaps the combustible issue of the moment – but archaeology is proving something of a brake on the speed of the great sell-off.

The latest case in point is the development of Elliniko – a site where the city’s decrepit former airport and a good portion of the 2004 Olympic Games complex sits, along the coastal stretch dubbed the Athens Riviera. With support from China and Abu Dhabi, luxury hotels and apartments, malls and a wholesale re-landscaping of several square kilometres of coastline are planned.

By all accounts the bulldozers are ready to roll, but when a whole city’s hovering above its classical roots, getting an international, multi-faceted construction job off the ground promises to be tricky – even when it’s worth €8bn.


And so it’s proved. After much political push and shove over the last few weeks, 30 hectares of the 620-hectare plot have now been declared of historical interest by the country’s Central Archaeological Council. This probably means the development will continue, but only after considerable delays, and under the watchful eye of archaeologists.

It would be too easy to create a magical-realist fantasy of the Ancient Greeks counterpunching against the attacks of unrestrained capital. The truth is, even infrastructure projects funded with domestic public money run into the scowling spirits of history.

Thessaloniki’s Metro system, due for completion next year, has proved to be a series of profound accidental excavations – or, in the immortal words of the boss of Attiko Metro A.E., the company in charge of the project, “problems of the past”.

The most wonderful such ‘problem’ to be revealed is the Decumanus Maximus, the main avenue of the Byzantine city – complete with only the world’s second example of a square paved with marble. Add to that hundreds of thousands of artefacts, including incredibly well-preserved jewellery, and you’ve a hell of a haul.

Once again, the solution that everyone has finally agreed on is to emulate the Athens approach – making museums of the new metro stations. (Things have moved on from early suggestions that finds should be removed and stored at an ex-army camp miles from where they were unearthed.)

There are other problems. Government departments have laid off many of their experts, and the number of archaeologists employed at sites of interest has been minimised. Non-profit organisations have had their own financial struggles. All of this has aroused international as well as local concern, a case in point being the U.S. government’s renewal of Memorandums of Understanding with the Greek state in recent years over protection of “cultural property”.

But cuts in Greece are hardly a new thing: lack of government funding has become almost accepted across society. And when an obvious target for ire recedes, the public often needs to find a new one.

Roman baths in Athens. Image: Gary Hartley.

Archaeologists are increasingly finding themselves to be that target – and in the midst of high-stakes projects, it’s extremely hard to win an argument. If they rush an excavation to allow the quickest possible completion, they’re seen as reckless. If they need more time, they’re blamed for holding up progress. 

Another widely-told but possibly-apocryphal tale illustrates this current problem. During the construction of the Athens Metro, a construction worker was so frustrated by the perceived dawdling of archaeologists that he bought a cheap imitation amphora in a gift shop, smashed it up and scattered the fragments on site. The worthless pieces were painstakingly removed and analysed.

True or not, does this tale really prove any point about archaeologists? Not really. They’re generally a pragmatic bunch, simply wanting to keep relics intact and not get too embroiled in messy public debates.

It also doesn’t truly reflect mainstream attitudes to cultural capital. By and large, it’s highly valued for its own sake here. And while discoveries and delays may be ripe for satire, having history’s hoard on your doorstep offers inconveniences worth enduring. It’s also recognised that, since tourists are not just here for the blue skies, good food and beaches, it’s an important money-maker.

Nonetheless, glass malls and shiny towers with coastal views rising from public land are good for the purse, too – and the gains are more immediate. As the Greek state continues its relentless quest for inward investment, tensions are all but guaranteed in the coming years. 

This is a country that has seen so many epic battles in its time it has become a thing of cliché and oiled-up Hollywood depiction. But the latest struggle, between rapacious modernity and the buried past, could well be the most telling yet. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook