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Maintaining good relations with our European allies

January 18, 2017

Mark wrote the following piece for this month’s edition of Centre Write Magazine on the importance of sister party relationships:

To coin a now well-worn phrase, whilst the UK may soon be leaving the European Union, we shall not be leaving Europe. Indeed our government has made clear over the past few months that it sees an opportunity for the nation now to step up rather than step back from our international relationships. This makes it a fascinating time to be the Conservative Party’s Vice Chairman (International Affairs), a role I have held since summer 2015. My responsibilities include managing our relationships with centre-right sister parties in Europe and across the globe.

It would be foolish of us to pretend that our European friends and allies are delighted with the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Indeed many of those who feel most let down are our closest allies, particularly in Sweden and Denmark, who have always welcomed the UK’s role as the awkward large player in Europe, willing to ask the difficult questions. Nonetheless, the referendum has had two distinct, positive effects on our relationships with natural, centre-right allies on the continent.

First, it has allowed us to put to bed the EPP/ECR rivalry of recent years in the European Parliament and beyond, and rebuild relationships with some of our key partners that had diminished since we Conservatives left the EPP in 2009. Secondly, albeit rather paradoxically, the firm decision of the British public has extracted much of the poison from our day-to-day interactions in Brussels. For many Europeans, the UK has been a reluctant partner and source of frustration rather than a willing and engaged member of the team. There is now a feeling that we can talk more openly and honestly – maybe even constructively – about the future without feeling that we are pulling uncomfortably in opposite directions.

The strengthening of party-to-party relationships opens a useful additional avenue of communication during the negotiations ahead but also allows us to carry out the political groundwork for future alliances once the UK has formally left the European Union. Whatever happens once we have extricated ourselves from the Union, the UK will naturally maintain a strong ongoing relationship with the continent – in trade and security, of course, but also through the innumerable personal ties that so many of us have to our neighbours.

For my part, I am half-German and have spent many years building strong links with counterparts in Germany, particularly within Angela Merkel’s CDU party. Our friends take it as a given that our successful trading and diplomatic relationship will continue but also caution us about the tricky general election ahead for Mrs Merkel in 2017. With economic and migration issues high up the agenda for German voters, the German Chancellor will be in no mood to expend much energy next year on negotiations for Brexit. Nor will she be inclined to offer the same level of access to the single market without some commitment on our part to freedom of movement. How to make this compatible with Theresa May’s determination to restrict such movement will no doubt be a tough matter to overcome but I nonetheless believe there is scope for an accommodation that will give us ultimate control of our borders and strengthen the link between migration and work.

It may be aggravating to British business that our Prime Minister will provide no running commentary on Brexit, or seek to map out a clear plan for our negotiation. However what now must be understood is that our exit from the European Union will be – fundamentally – a political process. With 2017 heralding critical Dutch, French and German elections, the changing European political landscape will have as much influence on our Brexit deal as anything we decide on here in London. This makes it all the more important that we Conservatives keep our finger on the party political pulse and develop a much more intricate understanding of the personalities and personal relationships at play in these most fascinatingly turbulent of political times. As we have seen from the recent US elections, we live in an era when assumptions can very quickly be turned on their head. Developing critical party political relationships provides us with one way in which we can be more nimble and flexible in the fast-changing world before us.