Just over 2 years ago, by a narrow but decisive majority, the people of the United Kingdom voted to ‘Leave’ the European Union.
It is impossible to overstate the importance of that vote. The EU Referendum campaign had been hard fought. The Europhile establishment had pulled every trick in the book – even wheeling out the former President of the United States to assure us that if we voted to Leave, we would be “at the back of the queue” for a free trade agreement with the US.
The full weight of the Government machine was deployed in the anti-Brexit exercise. At a cost of some £9 million, a Government-sponsored leaflet was sent to every household in the country, informing them just how awful Brexit would be. Get Britain Out’s Director, Jayne Adye, raised a petition about the leaflet’s bias and appalling waste of money. The petition achieved over 270,000 signatories and was then debated in Parliament.
We were told by the Treasury the UK would enter immediate recession in the event of a Leave vote. We were warned there would have to be an emergency budget to address the inevitable and catastrophic ‘shock’ to the markets. The unsubtle scare tactics were, not unreasonably, dubbed “Project Fear”.
The people of Britain, to their enormous credit, were unmoved by the threats. They decided they simply wanted their own country back and voted to Leave. And in the event, there was no recession and no emergency budget. The sky did not fall in. Project Fear was given the thumbs-down. I have never been prouder of my countrymen and women.
Since 23 June, 2016, progress has been made, though perhaps too slowly for impatient Brexiteers. Theresa May’s Government has pressed on with the task of extricating the United Kingdom from the European Union. In March 2017, notice was served under article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, thereby starting the process of withdrawal. The service of the notice meant that, as a matter of international law, the United Kingdom will cease to be a member of the European Union on 29 March 2019.
Just a couple of weeks ago, there was more progress. After an epic 11-month parliamentary struggle, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill was enacted, meaning that on the day of our departure, the European Communities Act 1972 will be repealed, bringing our domestic legal position into line with the international one. We will, once again, be an independent country.
All this is encouraging. However, there remains the fraught question of the withdrawal negotiations. Article 50 provides that during the two-year period commencing with the date of service of the notice, the departing Member State and the continuing European Union should seek to agree not only the terms of departure, but also the framework of the future relationship. The EU Commission, however, has refused to talk sensibly about the future relationship until three issues are resolved: the question of citizens’ rights, the so-called “Divorce Bill” and the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
The last of those issues has proved most problematic. In order to avoid a so-called “hard border” between Northern and Southern Ireland, various proposals have been put forward so far. They have been the subject of considerable debate with the Conservative party. Pro-Brexit MPs favour the technology-based “Maximum Facilitation” solution, or “Max Fac”. This, however, has met with some resistance from certain quarters of the party, and also from the civil service, which has been pushing the “New Customs Partnership” arrangement, under which the UK would collect duties for the EU and remit them to Brussels.
The EU, for its part, has rejected all the British proposals so far, and favours a “backstop”, under which, to all intents and purposes, Northern Ireland would be a fiscal and regulatory exclave of the EU. Naturally, this is unacceptable to anyone on the British side.
Time is ticking on. The final British position has to be put forward, and on Friday this week the Cabinet will meet at Chequers to thrash out the long-awaited Brexit White Paper. It is strongly rumoured that this document will contain a new proposal to solve the Irish border question, which has been dubbed the “Third Way”.
If leaks are believed, however, it is hard to see any substantial difference between the Third Way and the New Customs Partnership. Under it, the United Kingdom would remain aligned to the European Union’s external tariffs and regulatory standards for manufactured goods and agricultural produce. The UK would still collect duties on behalf of the EU.
In effect, the UK would remain in an analogue of the Single Market and the Customs Union, which we voted to leave two years ago. We would become a rule-taking serfdom, subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and the fiat of the European Commission.
None of this, of course, may come to pass. The speculation has been based upon media leaks, which are notoriously unreliable. I prefer to take the word of Prime Minister, who has repeatedly assured us, in speech after speech, and again in the last Conservative manifesto, that we will leave the Single Market and Customs Union and will cease to be subject to the direct jurisdiction of the ECJ.
Furthermore, there are much better options available. Why in heaven’s name would we wish to be in a single market for goods, in which we have an almost £100 billion trade deficit with the EU, but not for services, where we have a handsome surplus?
Why would we wish to tie ourselves to EU regulations and EU tariffs, which would render virtually impossible the forging of free trade agreements with the rest of the world, including the dynamic Far East, where much of the world’s future growth will occur?
No, there are much better options for this country. One is the Canada-style free trade agreement that the EU has already offered. That would give us more than 90% of the benefits that we have currently, without depriving us our national sovereignty or keeping us shackled to a European Union which is looking increasingly ungovernable and is in a state of economic decline.
As for the Irish border issue. This could be resolved by Max Fac. The UK Government, Jean-Claude Juncker and Leo Varadkar have all declared that there will be no customs infrastructure at the border. Therefore, all that is needed to settle the issue is common sense and goodwill.
Now it is time for the UK to call the EU’s bluff.
We must put forward a workmanlike proposal for a post-Brexit arrangement which maintains our national independence, our judicial autonomy, our border controls and our freedom to trade with the rest of the world. That will be in our mutual interest.
But if, for whatever reason, the EU declines our offer, then we must simply tell them that on 29 March next year, we will leave without a deal, hoping to remain on good terms, but keeping the £40 billion plus that we would otherwise have paid.
I believe the EU will quickly recognise the strength of the British position and come to terms with us.
And all it requires is sufficient will on the part of Her Majesty’s Government.