What will happen after this week's European Parliament vote on Brexit?
Jonathan Arnott
The UK flags are seen during a protest outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, March 29, 2019. /Xinhua Photo

The UK flags are seen during a protest outside the Houses of Parliament in London, Britain, March 29, 2019. /Xinhua Photo

Editor's note: Jonathan Arnott is a former member of the European Parliament. The article reflects the author's opinions, and not necessarily the views of CGTN.

As the European Parliament prepares to formally vote on Brexit and close the final chapter in the UK's membership of the European Union (EU), there's a sense of the end of one era – and the beginning of another. In the West, we're just a month into a new year; the Chinese New Year started just a couple of days ago.

In the United Kingdom, New Year celebrations involve fireworks and a countdown to the changeover from year to year. Many Brexiteers will celebrate Brexit at 11 p.m. on January 31 in a similar way. One of my friends is hosting a fireworks party in celebration; those who voted Remain might have a sadder tone. I'm reminded of the traditional song Auld Lang Syne, with lyrics such as "Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and never brought to mind? Should auld acquaintance be forgot, and days o'lang syne!”

The 18th century Scottish words speak of not forgetting old friends, and of remembering the good times spent together. While Britain's membership of the political European Union has been turbulent, we have no quarrel with our neighbors. The United Kingdom sits in an unusual space in world events, torn between its historic relationships with Europe, the Commonwealth, and the United States.

The 1970s decision to fully commit to one, at the expense of the other two, presented a great loss to the UK. Meanwhile, the European Union countries are far more Eurocentric: They do the vast majority of their international trade with each other, and international boundaries between them have changed within the memory of citizens still living today. To some, the "divorce" from the political union was essential; to others, it was inevitable. So far, the signs are encouraging that it will be an amicable split.

In the coming months, the EU will demand trade-offs between regulatory alignment and the level of the Single Market access, as stated clearly by the European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen. The United Kingdom will demand sufficient separation to ensure that pursuing its own distinct trade policy is possible in practice, not just in theory.

Anti-Brexit protesters in front of Downing Street in London, UK, January 8, 2020. /Reuters Photo

Anti-Brexit protesters in front of Downing Street in London, UK, January 8, 2020. /Reuters Photo

In my opinion, there exists a niche whereby the UK might commit to non-regression, not undermining or unravelling the existing level playing field. Non-regression is a key component of many trade deals, but it means far more coming from the UK when both sides start from a situation where they are already perfectly aligned.

That niche will be uncomfortable to both sides: Brexiteers will fear that the UK does not gain sufficient freedom, and that competitiveness will be undermined. Remainers will recognize the real divergence between the UK and the EU, which will come over time. As often happens, though, practical politics requires compromise.

The UK does a substantial portion of its overseas trade with the EU: A tariff-based regime would be harmful to British businesses. But it's easy to forget how much the EU would be harmed too: it has a 94-billion-pound annual trade surplus with the UK, which would be severely impacted by tariffs.

Wednesday's vote in the European Parliament should be a formality – what else could they do but ratify what has been agreed among all 27 EU nations and the UK? Members of the European Parliament (although almost exclusively pro-EU ones on the British side; it's not clear to what extent they would welcome Brexiteers) have set up a "friendship group" for future relations between the European Parliament and the UK. I disagree with aspects of their political stance, but I'm fully in agreement with the principle that friendship matters.

What, though, does friendship look like in practical terms for the future? It should mean co-operation on education, research, security, intelligence, and counter-terrorism. Both the UK and the EU should respect the rights of UK citizens living in EU countries, and EU citizens living in the UK. 

There will be many times where the UK's and EU's foreign policies are aligned; in those circumstances, we should co-operate at the international level. On the other hand, friendship does not mean that we should always do precisely the same things in precisely the same ways.

A new year is a time for optimism and hope, for resolutions for the future and a time of new beginnings. As fireworks mark Britain's departure from the EU on Friday, some will sense adventure while others will sense danger in our new approach. Now is not the time to revisit that decision, or to re-open old wounds. Now is the time for us to come together in friendship: British and European, Brexiteer and Remainer, and shape our respective futures.

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