Brexit? Nein danke

Leaving the EU would be bad for British business and bad for the UK legal profession 

Europe: cheaper flights and phone calls; equal opportunities; IP protection; peace. But what does it mean for us lawyers?

The UK legal services market is by far the largest in the EU, at around £27bn. We are the biggest exporter of legal services and the forum of choice for international disputes. The UK’s major trading partner is the EU, and the UK is in a better international negotiating -position inside the EU.

We must have a seat at the legislative table – EU laws can have extra-territorial effects. The UK has become more adept at negotiating with the Franco-German axis, our efforts having neutralised several potentially dangerous initiatives. Even something as harmful to British interests as the financial transaction tax is morphing into something workable after sustained efforts and a well-timed UK legal challenge to the Luxembourg court.

The Lisbon Treaty gave the EU its own legal personality which, if used sensibly, can help promote and protect UK interests. This is brought into sharp relief as EU and US officials -negotiate what has been called the biggest trade deal since the World Trade Organisation. 

Meanwhile, the lone-ranging Swiss are struggling to hold their ground against the US and EU over banking secrecy. The UK joining Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland (as European Economic Area, but not EU countries) would give us access to the single market but no say in the laws that govern us. We would be a hostage to fortune, with sovereignty out the window.

But we must focus on getting more UK citizens into key roles in Brussels, particularly in the European Commission, the seedbed for many EU rules. We could help stop bizarre laws such as those regulating olive oil dispensers or the length of bananas from being drafted and shift the focus to areas of real concern. Brussels is seeking Brits but the main barrier is the second language requirement. Given that the working language of the EC is de facto English, the EU Concours rules should reflect this.

In the meantime it is important to remember that the single market has greatly benefited the English -legal profession. Morethan 10 percent of Law Society members practice abroad. Despite the differing regulatory regimes, fundamentally the EU legal services market is well-liberalised. Lawyers are able to practise permanently (98/5/EC) or temporarily (77/249/EEC) across the EU, as well as being able to re-qualify into the profession of another member state. More than 75 per cent of UK top 50 law firms have at least one office in another member state. With Croatia joining there will no doubt be renewed interest in Dubrovnik and Split among some colleagues and competitors.

While a Brexit (a UK exit from the EU) would not result in us being flung out of our Continental offices, our access to local courts and legal practices – and our access to local requalification – would likely disappear and, along with them, opportunities and business.