As the House of Commons debates the EU Withdrawal Bill today – the legislation needed to stop us ending up in a legal no man’s land when Brexit finally happens – public opinion on the fundamental question has not significantly moved since the referendum.
One thing that has changed already, though, is that whereas at the time of the referendum, the public did not see Europe as the most important issue facing the nation, Brexit most certainly is now.
This decision is going to affect every part of our national life. Our economy and growth rate, our living standards, what we can spend on our public services, our security and ability to influence what happens
elsewhere in the world.
I believe that Britain will become a smaller country, economically and politically, than it might otherwise have been and this will affect our neighbours.
I am sorry about that – though I suspect many are not sorry about the financial services that are moving here from London.
Impact on Ireland, north and south
It is going to have a very direct impact on Northern Ireland where Britain and the Republic have a shared role, under the Good Friday Agreement, for securing the peace, prosperity and stability of all those who live there. We must now live up to and safeguard what was achieved twenty
We are talking about hundreds of thousands of people, directly and indirectly, who depend in their businesses, their jobs and their education on the borderless link between south and north.
That is a measure of the risk if we get things wrong.
People in Britain will be dismayed if the Good Friday Agreement and the peace it has brought is damaged.
North and South, people are hugely better off in the single economy that has emerged across the island of Ireland. We should not see the border back. We do not want to see a new smuggling industry taking off replacing the legitimate trade that takes place now. We do not want to see peoples’ daily lives disrupted.
All this would be avoided if the British government took the sensible decision, on leaving the EU, to remain in the single market or at least the customs union. Or preferably both.
That is the only sure way of averting the return of the border and ensuring continued stability.
It would also secure Britain’s trade in its biggest export market, secure the cross-border manufacturing production that is so important to the UK economy and make possible the continued unimpeded delivery and passporting of UK services into the EU, including aviation, financial, broadcasting and many more.
But the UK government is determined to leave not just the EU and its political apparatus but every other single bit of it. It’s a reckless interpretation of the referendum’s result.
Brexit was only the first choice made by the public, and it was a binary one. Every choice since has been made by the government from a range of options. And each of their choices has put politics before
economics, insularity before the national interest.
In the case of the Northern Ireland border we need something different even if the solutions don’t fit the way we conventionally do things.
Relying on cumbersome, unworkable or untested border controls are not a substitute for keeping north and south in a single customs union and the British government will bear a heavy responsibility if we lose this.
The wider negotiation
Nobody can take any comfort from the way the negotiations are proceeding.
They are being conducted by people largely talking passed each other as if on two separate planets, as different as Mars and Venus.
In the UK’s Brexit position papers, amid the more imaginative flights of fancy, are some good ideas for a dialogue on trade. I have some sympathy when they argue that there is a degree of artificiality in the
separation of ‘divorce’ and future trade questions.
But the UK tends to think that anything can be achieved as long as we are “practical” about it. That is a view that permeates the papers, to the point of being unrealistic.
Mars is speaking to Venus when ministers say it is simply a matter of practicality for the UK to have both autonomy on trade policy and regulation and a very high level of integration into the single market.
The government cannot acknowledge that these two things are a tradeoff and not a set of compatible aims.
You can make the case for either of these choices – a system of trading rights based on alignment with EU rules or the value of greater autonomy but it is simply unrealistic to think that you can avoid choosing altogether.
London is trying to square a very big circle by means of what they call “dynamic mutual recognition” by which they mean having different EU/UK rules and product standards which have equal standing but the flexibility to go their own way in other areas of regulation when it suits.
Ministers seem still not to understand that the basis of Europe’s single market is common rules uniformly enforced, not different national rules that “dynamically” co-exist.
The UK wants mutual recognition of standards to do a huge amount of work, almost to the point of recreating the status quo. As just one obvious example, it would like to use such recognitions for foodstuffs as just one way of reducing the need for any reversion to intrusive customs processing on the border with Northern Ireland.
Even then, the UK is not fully confronting the question of how deep and binding alignment may have to be to secure something even close to what the UK would like to preserve. And there is no sign at all the UK government is ready to confront the question of how such alignment might be enforced.
The UK has mooted a range of dispute settlement models, but they are all from conventional trade agreements, not deep cooperation models of the kind that the UK seems to want – at least in half its moods.
But of course, this tension exists in London’s position papers because it is there in the UK government. While the UK is – rightly in my view – keen to start mapping out a future trade relationship with the EU as soon as possible, it still has to resolve this tension if it is going to become a realistic interlocutor with the EU27.
I have no problem with blue sky ideas on EU-UK trade. But workable good ideas need a realistic view of the choices and trade-offs the UK is going to have to make in its post Brexit life, not one that imagines it can leave the EU then re-make the rules of the single market after it has gone.
The Government cannot, as they repeatedly claim, have the “exact same benefits” of the Single Market when outside it, as we enjoy today inside it.
A year ago, I was a passionate Remainer but I could live with the result if in the Cabinet in London they would respect the views of the 48% of us who do not want a complete break with Europe.
It is not just a question of jobs and living standards, important as they are.
It is a time of unparalleled danger for the West as we face divisions at home and threats from outside, China on the rise, Russia on the march, a nuclear North Korea and a president in the White House seemingly at odds with everyone around him.
We have come through a global financial crisis and not yet made a full recovery despite the huge sacrifices taken on by people like those in Ireland.
The world needs a strong Europe. I sincerely hope that the UK Government changes tack and does not continue to seek to stand apart while Europe tackles these global challenges and it must not hold back
in doing so.