British High Commissioner to Malta Stuart Gill discusses Brexit

The High Commissioner was participating in a discussion at the University of Malta.

European flag

Thank you Prof Nugent, panel, ladies and gentlemen.

This is about the profound friendship between our countries and the wider relationship between Britain and the European Union. It is also about understanding perspectives and not rhetoric.

Last summer, the British people voted to leave the EU, but they did not vote to leave Europe or in any way to step back from the world. It was not a vote to become any more distant from our friends and allies in Europe but to restore, as we see it, our parliamentary democracy and to become even more global and internationalist in action and in spirit.

Britain will be forging a new partnership with the EU and new partnerships with each of the twenty seven members of the EU. For all the familiar reasons, the UK-Malta relationship has a head start.

We already have a brilliant relationship and no one wants that to stop. While plenty of people have talked to me about their sadness at our leaving, no one is suggesting that this will damage our relationship. Indeed, as we have all moved on from the drama of 23 June, the conversations now are about what we are doing to make this work – both for the UK and for Malta.

It’s a positive vision. The Prime Minister, Theresa May, set this out very clearly in her Lancaster House speech on 17 January. The British people made a democratic decision to leave the EU. They wanted Britain to be an independent, sovereign nation making its own laws and not subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

That’s what leaving the EU means. It means that we won’t be members of the club any longer; we won’t be in the Single Market and we won’t be in the Customs Union. Britain will be free to make its own trade agreements, including with the EU and to forge partnerships on any manner of policy.

Britain is a European country – and we are proud of our shared European heritage – but we are also a country that has always looked beyond Europe to the wider world.

That is why the UK is one of the most racially diverse countries in Europe, one of the most multicultural members of the European Union, and why – whether we are talking about India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, countries in Africa or those that are closer to home in Europe, including, of course, Malta – so many of us have close friends and relatives from across the world. The result of the referendum was not a decision to turn inward and retreat from the world. Because Britain’s history and culture is profoundly internationalist.

And it is important to recognise this fact. June the 23 rd was not the moment Britain chose to step back from the world. It was the moment we chose to build a truly Global Britain.

At a time when together we face a serious threat from our enemies, Britain’s unique intelligence capabilities will continue to help to keep people in Europe safe from terrorism. And at a time when there is growing concern about European security, Britain’s servicemen and women, based in European countries will continue to do their duty.

I repeat. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe.

And that is why we seek a new and equal partnership – between an independent, self-governing, Global Britain and our friends and allies in the EU.

Not partial membership of the European Union, associate membership of the European Union, or anything that leaves us half-in, half-out. We do not seek to adopt a model already enjoyed by other countries. We do not seek to hold on to bits of membership as we leave.

No, the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. And the UK government is committed to getting the right deal for Britain.

The Prime Minister has said she wants us to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year Article Fifty process has concluded. From that point onwards, we believe a phased process of implementation, in which both Britain and the EU institutions and member states prepare for the new arrangements that will exist between us will be in our mutual interest. This will give businesses enough time to plan and prepare for those new arrangements.

This might be about our immigration controls, customs systems or the way in which we cooperate on criminal justice matters. Or it might be about the future legal and regulatory framework for financial services. For each issue, the time we need to phase-in the new arrangements may differ. Some might be introduced very quickly, some might take longer.

In her Lancaster House speech, Theresa May set out 12 objectives that the UK government has established to get the right deal for Britain:

  1. Provide as much certainty about the process of Brexit as possible.

  2. Regain control of our own laws by ending the jurisdiction in Britain of the European Court of Justice.

  3. Strengthen the Union between the four nations of the United Kingdom.

  4. Maintain the Common Travel Area with Ireland.

  5. Regain control of immigration coming from the EU.

  6. Guarantee the rights for EU nationals in Britain, and the rights of British nationals in the EU.

  7. Protect workers’ rights, and that they keep pace with the changing labour market.

  8. Seek a bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement with the EU, including free flowing trade in both goods and services.

  9. Strike new trade agreements with countries from outside the EU.

  10. Maintain Britain as one of the best places in the world for science and innovation

  11. Ensure cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism.

  12. Phase in our new relationship with the EU in an orderly manner, while rejecting an unlimited transitional status.

It is a comprehensive and carefully considered plan that focuses on the ends, not just the means - with its eyes fixed firmly on the future, and on the kind of country we will be once we leave.

This is about the mutual interest of the UK and the EU of maintaining the freest and most frictionless trade possible in goods and services following the UK’s exit.

The trade numbers are pretty significant.

In 2015, the UK exported £230 billion worth of goods and services to the EU and we imported £290 billion worth of goods and services from the EU.

The position the UK and EU will start from, with a common regulatory framework with the European Single Market, is unprecedented.

It is not about bringing two divergent systems together, but finding the best way for the benefits of the common systems and frameworks that currently enable UK and EU businesses to trade with and operate in each others’ markets to continue when we leave the EU.

When people say that it will take many years to agree an FTA, the question I ask is: why? What barriers do you want to erect that don’t currently exist? Where is the mutual interest in that?

So….a new strategic partnership between the UK and the EU can be achieved. We are confident that EU member states and the EU itself want a positive relationship between the UK and the EU after Brexit.

Moreover, when the 27 Member States say they want to continue their journey inside the European Union, we not only respect that………..we support it.

Because we do not want to undermine the Single Market, and we do not want to undermine the European Union. We want the EU to be a success and we want its member states to prosper. And of course we want the same for Britain.

It is right that the Government should prepare for every eventuality - but to do so in the knowledge that a constructive and optimistic approach to the negotiations to come is in the best interests of Europe and the best interests of Britain.

The Prime Minister has also been clear that she wants to protect the status of EU nationals already living in the UK.

The only circumstances in which that wouldn’t be possible is if British citizens’ rights in European member states were not protected in return.

We should deal with this issue as soon as possible.

We want to guarantee the rights of Maltese and all other EU citizens who are already living in Britain, and the rights of British nationals in other member states, as early as we can.

It remains an important priority for Britain – and for other member states - to resolve this challenge as soon as possible.

Because it is the right and fair thing to do.

It is something that both the UK and Malta will understand, given the number of our citizens living in each other’s country.

As we leave the EU, the message we take to the world is this: Britain remains open for business. We are the same outward-looking, globally-minded, flexible and dynamic country we have always been.

This is a new chapter for Britain and there will be both opportunities and challenges ahead. But because of the decisions the UK Government has taken, the British economy is fundamentally strong and will continue to be strong as we negotiate our departure from the EU.

As we move into a period of negotiation with the EU, there may be some adjustment as the economy responds. But, we start from a position of strength and the economy is resilient. The UK is well placed to deal with the challenges, and take advantage of the opportunities, that lie ahead as we make a success of Brexit.

In conclusion.

Britain wants to remain a good friend and neighbour to Europe, but we know there are some voices calling for a punitive deal.

That doesn’t sound right to me.

As Theresa May said, it would be an act of calamitous self-harm for the countries of Europe. And it would not be an act of friendship.

Britain would not – indeed we could not – accept such an approach. And while we are confident that this scenario need never arise – while we are sure a positive agreement can be reached – we are equally clear that no deal for Britain is better than a bad deal for Britain.

As David Jones, MP, Minister of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union, said when he was here in Malta in January: “Friends do not punish friends”.

We will follow a better path because of the shared values and spirit of goodwill that exist on both sides; because it is the economically rational thing for both Britain and the EU; and because co-operation is needed not just when it comes to trade but for security too.

The European Union will remain a close and valuable partner on all the challenges facing Europe and the world, be they migration, terrorism, Syria, or Libya.

The UK government will continue to defend human rights and support political and economic freedom, working closely with Malta and other allies, in the interests of peace and stability for the Mediterranean and North African region.

As British High Commissioner to Malta, I will work to ensure not only that the UK-Malta relationship remains as strong as it is today, but that it becomes deeper and better still.

Sure, we will no longer be sitting (literally) next to each other in the EU meeting rooms, but in my professional capacity, I am convinced that this is a relationship which will not diminish with the passage of time – or with the UK leaving the EU.

Rather, the links between our two peoples will continue to be refreshed, updated, and strengthened. I propose to work with the Maltese Government and the Maltese community to ensure this happens.

If my first 6 months have been an affirmation of the closeness of the UK-Malta relationship, the next six months will be the beginning of a new stage in our fabulous shared history.

I can’t pretend it will be straightforward, but I am looking forward to it.

Published 14 March 2017