Miriam González: Now is the time for students to get into EU law

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By Katie King on

Cash in on the uncertainty

Miriam González and Katie King

The government is really not making a good job of Brexit negotiations. Miriam González would go as far as to say it’s wasted the year.

Over coffee in a South West London café, EU trade specialist and law firm partner González — unfortunately perhaps better known for being married to Nick Clegg — tells me that now she would have expected David Davis and co to be finalising the negotiations and moving on to the ratification process. Instead, she says:

We are nowhere near having a good idea not only of how we are going to negotiate Brexit, but what we actually want.

A bleak example is the protection of the rights of UK nationals living abroad and vice versa. A mutual agreement could have, and should have, “been sorted out in 48 hours”. Instead, it took a year for Prime Minister Theresa May to state that EU citizens who have spent five years in the UK will be granted ‘settled status’ — though uncertainty persists on this too.

But: “There is no wisdom in looking backwards. My prerogative is that we are where we are, so we just need to try and do it better.”

Aside from the government, EU law specialists like González and her Dechert colleagues are well positioned to ‘do it better’. The “very first ones to react” to the Brexit vote, the international firm set up a 24-hour hotline in an appreciated attempt to quell initial client panic.

But the panic has persisted. Currency exchange rates are all over the place, prices are up on our high streets and UK citizens are rushing to the Irish passport office armoured with evidence of distant Dublin relatives. This will continue, co-chair of Dechert’s international trade and government regulation practice González predicts, but this is not necessarily bad news for lawyers:

In a way, the more mess there is, the more the accountants and the lawyers and the consultants are advising.

Aspiring lawyers and law students can use the turbulence to their advantage, too.

Sceptical students have, mostly, associated Brexit with impending doom, largely over fears it will cause training contract numbers to dip and make it more difficult to qualify into City firms. Others worry the hours spent learning Van Gend en Loos have been in vain because they may be barred from practising EU law in the future.

González offers a different perspective. The former DLA Piper lawyer is content to say (multiple times in fact) that there’s “no way” we’ll be out of the EU by the end of the two-year limit set by Article 50. “In practice it’s going to take five years to define [our relationship with the EU] no matter how [the government] wants to present it,” she muses, “then you need to implement it all and then whatever that relationship is becomes essential to our relationship with other countries.”

Understanding foreign affairs more generally hinges on an understanding of the laws that will tie us to our closest trading partner, the EU. And, aside from EU law’s continuing importance, it’s much more interesting now than it was ten years ago. Very few lawyers truly understand its complexities, so those hot young things with practical experience, expertise and an interest in the field will be sought after. Is now a good time to study EU law? González, without pausing, replies: “Yes, I think so.”

But don’t mistake González’s veiled optimism for Leave allegiance.

Perhaps unsurprisingly for a Spaniard living and working in London with no British citizenship (and practising EU law of all things), González is concerned about the referendum’s impact. But the fears are not ‘what will Brexit do to me?’ in nature at all, but unease over what Brexit will do to the society her three British children are growing up in. González tells me:

There are people who take a closed view of society, who reject ‘the others’, who always blame the others for the problems in society — they exist everywhere. Every single society has that… But in a way, some of the Brexit referendum rhetoric gave permission for those views to come out to the forefront. And it is very difficult to lock it back… Once you open that box, and the government let that box be opened, it is very difficult to close it again. And we are still in the process of trying to close it.

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