Timing crucial to Brexit negotiations

The deal Britain secures to exit the EU will depend on how confident Continental leaders feel that the European project is not under threat, former Defence and Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind told a meeting of the Young Diplomats.

“What most impresses me about the EU is its determination to survive. I don’t believe the EU is about to disintegrate. I would be very surprised if there are any more referendums on membership unless, God forbid, Marine Le Pen wins the elections in France which I don’t think she will.”

He went on to say that as European leaders became “more relaxed” that they were not facing the exit of other member states, they were more likely to address tough issues – such as access to the single market in services and free movement of labour – based on their merits.

“There may be some room for negotiation,” he said. If the EU demanded a budgetary contribution in exchange for to access the single market in services, Sir Malcolm said he could not see a “credible argument” against that.

“It’s not a question of Europe doing Britain a favour. It’s whether it’s in Europe’s own self interest to have access to our services sector.”

The real problem, he said, would be whether Europe would flexible on the free movement of labour.

“What makes it so frustrating is that there are going to be changes to the free movement of labour within Europe in a decade or so because the EU still aspires to enlarge further… We know that any new country applying to join is going to have a much poorer economic base and the transitional requirements are going to be a lot stiffer because of all the controversy over migration.”

However, countries in Central and Eastern Europe, especially, were unlikely to budge on free movement in the short term, he said.“For Britain, the timing is against us.”