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.

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America's cities can't police their way out of this crisis

Police deployed tear gas during anti-racism demonstrations in Los Angeles over the weekend. (Mario Tama/Getty Images)

As protesters took to the streets across the United States over the weekend to express their anger at police killings of unarmed black Americans, it was hard to miss the hypocrisy coming from local authorities – including the otherwise progressive, left-leaning officials who are in power in most major American cities. 

Many US mayors and their police chiefs had issued public statements over the past week that seemed – only briefly, as it turned out – to signal a meaningful shift in the extent to which the Black Lives Matters movement is being taken seriously by those who are in a position to enact reforms. 

The sheer depravity of the most recent high-profile killing had left little room for equivocation. George Floyd, 46, died last Monday under the knee of white Minneapolis police officer Derek Chauvin, while three additional officers helped to hold Floyd down, doing nothing to aid him as he begged for them to stop and eventually lost consciousness. The officers had been attempting to arrest Floyd on suspicion of having used a counterfeit $20 bill at a deli. All four have since been fired, and Chauvin was arrested Friday on charges of third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. 

“The lack of compassion, use of excessive force, or going beyond the scope of the law, doesn’t just tarnish our badge—it tears at the very fabric of race relations in this country,” Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore told the Washington Post in response to the Floyd case. Meanwhile Moore’s boss, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, on Friday claimed that he understood why his city, which is no stranger to police brutality, was protesting. “We absolutely need as a nation, certainly as a city, to voice our outrage, it’s our patriotic duty to not only stand up for George Floyd but for everybody who has been killed unnecessarily, who’s been murdered for the structural racism that we have in our country,” Garcetti said. 

Normally, US police chiefs and mayors tend to ask citizens to withhold judgment on these types of cases until full investigations can be completed. But a 10-minute video recording of Floyd’s killing had made what happened plain. Police chiefs across the country – and even the nation’s largest police union, which is notorious for defending officer abuses – similarly condemned the actions of the Minneapolis officers, in a rare show of moral clarity that, combined with the arrest of Chauvin, offered at least a glimmer of hope that this time things might be different. 

As the events of the weekend have since shown, that glimmer was all too fleeting. 

In city after city over the past three days, US mayors and their police chiefs made a series of the same decisions – starting with the deployment of large, heavily armed riot units – that ultimately escalated violent confrontations between officers and protesters. Images widely shared on social media Saturday and Sunday nights made it clear that members of law enforcement were often initiating the worst of the violence, and appeared to treat protesters as enemy combatants, rather than citizens they were sworn to protect. 


In New York City, two police SUVs were seen plowing into a crowd of protesters, while elsewhere an officer was recorded pulling down a young protester’s coronavirus mask in order to pepper spray his face

In Louisville, the city where Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman was fatally shot by police on 13 March, state police in riot gear were captured confiscating and destroying protesters’ supplies

In Minneapolis, forces opened fire with nonlethal rounds on residential streets, much to the shock of homeowners standing on their own front porches. 

Images of police pushing or shoving peaceful protesters were almost too numerous to count, including, in Salt Lake City, an elderly man with a cane

In many places, police also targeted journalists who were covering the protests, firing at clearly identifiable media crews with rubber bullets, injuring and even arresting reporters

Some protesters did commit acts of vandalism and looting, and the leaders of cities where that happened generally responded in the same ways. 

First, they blamed “outside agitators” for the worst protester behaviour, a claim that harkens all the way back to the civil rights era and for which the evidence is murky at best

Next, they enacted sudden curfews with little to no warning, which gave law enforcement an excuse to make mass arrests, in some cases violently. 

In a pair of widely criticized moves, Garcetti of Los Angeles closed the city’s Covid-19 testing centers and suspended the entire mass transit system Saturday evening, stranding essential workers on their way home from daytime shifts. Late Sunday night in Chicago, the city’s public school system halted its free meal distribution service for low-income children, citing “the evolving nature of activity across the city”.  

Governors in at least 12 US states, in coordination with city leaders, have since called in National Guard troops to “help”. 

At this point it’s clear that the leaders of America’s cities are in desperate need of a radically different playbook to respond to these protests. A heavily armed, militarised response to long-simmering anger toward the heavily armed, militarised approach to American policing is more than ironic – it’s ineffective. Granting police officers wider latitude to make arrests via curfews also seems destined to increase the chances of precisely the tragic, racially biased outcomes to which the protesters are reacting. 

There are other options. In places such as Flint, Michigan, and Camden, New Jersey – both poor cities home to large black populations – local law enforcement officials chose to put down their weapons and march alongside protesters, rather than face off against them. In the case of Camden, that the city was able to avoid violent clashes is in no small part related to the fact that it took the drastic step of disbanding its former police department altogether several years ago, replacing it with an entirely new structure. 

America’s cities are in crisis, in more ways than one. It’s not a coincidence that the country has tipped into chaos following months of emotionally draining stay-at-home orders and job losses that now top 40 million. Low-income Americans of colour have borne a disproportionate share of the pandemic’s ravages, and public health officials are already worried about the potential for protests to become Covid-19 super-spreading events.

All of this has of course been spurred on by the US president, who in addition to calling Sunday for mayors and governors to “get tough” on protesters, has made emboldening white nationalists his signature. Notably, Trump didn’t call on officials to get tough on the heavily armed white protesters who stormed the Michigan Capitol building over coronavirus stay-at-home orders just a few weeks ago. 

US mayors and their police chiefs have publicly claimed that they do understand – agree with, even – the anger currently spilling out onto their streets. But as long as they continue to respond to that anger by deploying large numbers of armed and armored law enforcement personnel who do not actually live in the cities they serve, who appear to be more outraged by property damage and verbal insults than by the killings of black Americans at the hands of their peers, and who are enmeshed in a dangerously violent and racist policing culture that perceives itself to be the real victim, it is hard to see how this crisis will improve anytime soon. 

Sommer Mathis is the editor of CityMetric.