The UK has always had an ambiguous relationship with the EU. It was not an original signatory to the Treaty of Rome in 1957 and was twice barred from entry by Charles de Gaulle. When the UK did finally join the European Economic Community in 1973, amid economic turmoil, it was widely seen as an act of expediency – a marriage of convenience rather than a love match.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this rather loveless relationship the UK has actually had a huge influence on the current shape of the EU, particularly in terms of the single market and the massive eastward expansion after the fall of Communism.
There are some within Europe who actually see the UK’s critical detachment and underlying scepticism as invaluable and healthy for the wider EU debate. In contrast to the French model of dirigisme, Britain has consistently pushed for economic liberalisation and, during his recent “renegotiation” with other EU leaders, David Cameron won a renewed commitment to complete the single market in services.
These negotiations present the opportunity to gain access to some of the biggest labour markets in the world
Thanks to a number of EU directives, architecture is one services market which is already very open. UK-registered architects are free to work or register anywhere in the EU and public projects over a certain size must be tendered openly in OJEU.
Now, according to Ian Pritchard, secretary general of the Architects’ Council of Europe, there are new opportunities opening up for architects further afield. In 2017, as part of wider EU free trade agreements, British architects can look forward to mutual recognition of qualifications with Canada and South Korea. And by the end of the decade the world’s largest free trade treaty, TTIP, could see a similar agreement in place with the US.
While many UK-registered architects already work abroad, these negotiations present the opportunity to gain access to some of the biggest labour markets in the world, on a relatively level playing field with local architects. Although significant barriers may remain in terms of visas and work permits, the logic of these liberal free trade negotiations also points towards increasingly free movement of people.
There are vital issues at stake, not least those of sovereignty and Europe’s response to globalisation. Many would question the free market principles on which the EU’s single market is built, while others see the EU itself as the best guarantor against the worst excesses of rampant globalisation.
However for decades, despite a sometimes testy relationship, the UK has helped lead the debate on the future direction of the EU, including promoting close relations with the US.
Brexit potentially puts all of this at risk and, although the UK is arguably well placed to negotiate its own bilateral trade treaties, nothing is certain for a Britain outside the EU.
The current and potential future benefits of staying together are relatively clear. What is uncertain, and would remain so for several years, is the long-term impact of divorce. If a break-up is where the UK is heading, it would be a risky step into the unknown.