There is little doubt that when we talk about the EU, one of the first things that springs to mind is the Single Market. It is probably fair to say that the creation and functioning of the Single Market is one of the, if not the, greatest achievement of the European Union.
The implementation of complete freedom of movement of goods, capital, services and labour across such a vast and diverse market is unique and unparalleled. It should be celebrated for bringing out a completely new way that citizens go about their daily lives and revolutionising the way companies conduct business.
The Single Market provides the foundations on which the EU’s economic competitiveness can and must be built. Businesses require a strong Single Market in terms of internal homogeneity of rules and external strength in relation to global competition, opportunities and challenges.
Yet, we are currently living in a period of time where the very essence of the Single Market, which is the freedom of movement, is being challenged from all fronts. The rise of euroscepticism has led to an unfortunate political climate were even pro-European parties are questioning – or giving the appearance of questioning – the added value of freedom of movement. During the negotiation of legislation at EU level, we are seeing very short-sighted protectionist positions being taken by large Member States such as France and Germany in an effort to appease voters at home, but which are of great detriment to the proper functioning of the Single Market.
It is imperative to recall that when Member States signed up to join the EU, and the Single Market, they ceded some of their sovereignty in pursuit of a market of 500 million people. The benefits of that have been apparent from the start. However, we are now starting to see Member States attempt to claw back some of that sovereignty through protectionist positions in Council while trying to ensure that the Single Market remains intact. This is simply not possible in the wider context of continuing the development in the Single Market.
Rise of euroscepticism has led to an unfortunate political climate
It is disappointing to note that in a letter to the European Council President, only 17 Member States clearly and unambiguously shared their common commitment towards the Single Market and offering greater choice to consumers and more export possibilities for businesses. The fact that Member States need to re-affirm their commitment and that the other members do not see the need to re-affirm theirs, is a clear red flag.
Brexit will unfortunately not improve the state of play in this area. While the United Kingdom has, throughout their EU membership, thwarted further EU integration time and again, they were champions in the area of the development of the Single Market and led the opposition against large protectionist Member States.
It is important to understand that in Council, a democratic institution which is based on qualified majority voting, every single Member State’s vote counts, but the size of a Member State’s vote is based upon the size of its population. On Single Market issues, there are normally two main camps: the first is those wanting the Single Market to develop in a rapid and ambitious manner, of which most small and medium sized Member States are a part of, including Malta. The UK are – or were – also a part of this camp. The second camp is made up of a few influential Member States led by France and Germany.
The United Kingdom commanded a big portion of that vote based on their large population. They provided critical balance between the interests of those wanting the Single Market to develop ambitiously, and those that would see that ambition curtailed.
With Brexit, and the United Kingdom not participating in the decision-making process, their influence, and the size of their vote, will be gone from Council, which will leave a very imbalanced scenario of smaller Member States waving the flag for more integration, while France and Germany put up a very stern and large opposition. It is indeed a very troubling prospect, and it is hard to see where the counterweight to replace the UK will be found.
As such, it is imperative that the Maltese government does its part to ensure that this core group of like-minded Member States in favour of more development of the Single Market remains solidly unified to face up to the growing wave of scepticism and protectionism in the EU’s decision-making fora. The MEPs that will be elected in May also have a part to play by keeping the Council in check through pro-European and pro-Single Market positions, as they have done in the last legislature.
Make no mistake, it must never be forgotten that Malta’s businesses and its economy rely heavily on the Single Market not only to flourish, but also to survive. Malta is not alone in this, and the majority of Member States are also wholly dependent on the Single Market.
It is of critical importance that we defend and promote the Single Market with all our energies and resources. The MBB will also do its part to uphold the integrity of the Single Market, and we remain at the disposal of the government and the current and incoming MEPs in continuing this mission.
Mark Seychell is a senior advisor for Internal Market and Legal Affairs at the Malta Business Bureau. The MBB is the EU-advisory and support office of the Malta Chamber of Commerce, Enterprise and Industry, and the Malta Hotels and Restaurants Association.