Wherever I have been in the last 2 years, the most mentioned word has been Brexit. This new word for Britain’s exit from the EU has gone into the dictionary.
Everyone has their own theory about how events will unfold, but let me straight away dispel 2 myths.
Myth number 1 is that Brexit might not happen. Myth number 2 is that the UK will have a second referendum. Both of these beliefs are illogical and baseless. Let me quickly explain why.
The people voted to leave the EU and even most of those who wanted to remain, like myself, accept the verdict of the referendum. Even though there are lots of arguments to say that people voted for a broad principle, rather than a detailed agreement, the national mood is to accept the verdict of the referendum and get on with it.
More specifically, the UK has triggered Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, which means that we will legally leave the EU on 29 March next year. It is politically unthinkable to try and reverse Article 50. Voters would not accept any attempt by the Government to do so. Brexit is going to happen and we will be leaving the EU.
As for the second myth, another referendum is not going to happen either. If it did, it would be significantly more politically divisive than the first referendum, and it would create lasting political distrust. It would, I suppose be possible to ask the people in a referendum if they liked the exit deal or not, but that would mean the choice would be between the exit deal on offer or no deal at all. It would not in reality offer people the option of reversing the original decision to leave the EU.
In any event for either of these mythical options to happen, it would require the government to put forward legislation in Parliament. Partly because of its small parliamentary majority, but mainly because the government has no intention whatsoever of doing these things, it means that neither of these courses of action is going to happen. Put simply, it is not a realistic option, and it is not going to happen.
So let’s be clear: whatever people’s opinion – be they within the UK or outside it – the course of events is set firm, and the UK is definitely going to leave the EU. The choice for all of us therefore is not about whether the UK leaves, but about how about we do so, and how we work together in the future.
We fully appreciate that the referendum result two years ago created a mixture of shock, regret and disbelief. The challenge for all of us now in politics, and indeed business too, is to try and manage this historic change of gear in a constructive way.
We understand and acknowledge the governing principles of the EU, which are centred on the free movement of people, goods, services and capital. The referendum result has been interpreted in the UK as a demand for three main things: the restoration of self-government; the ability to strike trade deals around the world; to have greater control of our own borders. This means that we will be leaving the single market. It is inevitable, therefore, that our market access will not remain the same. We cannot enjoy all the rights without the corresponding obligations, but in order to protect our mutual prosperity and not cause mutual harm we need to strike a deal which the EU which reaches a compromise between these conflicting principles. And we need to find a new balance of rights and obligations.
This is exactly what the Prime Minister and her team are working tirelessly to achieve and she made a powerful case for the economic benefits of a specifically designed deal at her speech earlier this year at Mansion House in the City of London.
Behind this objective we hold some firm principles and objectives which we hope are welcomed and shared not just by the EU 27 but by the wider world. The fundamental point is that we wish to remain an outward looking global country which believes in free trade, international cooperation, and in playing our full part in defence, security and international development.
We will remain permanent members of the UN Security Council, G7 and G20 and continue to spend 2% of our GDP on defence and 0.7% on development. We will maintain high regulatory standards and, as the Prime Minister made very clear at the Munich Security Conference, the UK is resolutely committed to European security.
Of course we will not be sitting around the same EU table, but we will retain most of the same interests. Today’s threats of terrorism, organised crime, cyber-attacks and hostile states do not make a distinction between EU and non-EU states. It is in all of our interests to develop the necessary structures for us to cooperate on these common issues. Our security is still indivisible with European security. We will continue to stand side by side with our European partners against protectionism, for the Paris Agreement on Climate Change and to maintain the Iran Nuclear deal.
On foreign policy, we should have the means to consult each other regularly and develop mechanisms to coordinate where our interests align. Sanctions policy will be stronger if we co-ordinate, and we should be open to joint missions, such as EU missions in the Western Balkans, where UK participation or financial contribution suits our shared interests. But in all these areas if the UK contributes then the UK should also be able to play an appropriate role in shaping our collective action.
For domestic security, we are proposing a new comprehensive Internal Security Treaty, which will allow the UK to participate in vital areas of cooperation such as the European Criminal Records Information System, the European Arrest Warrant and the Schengen Information System. If we cannot participate Belgium, for instance, would no longer be able to secure evidence through Europol. This is in the interests of both the UK and EU Member States.
We need an overall EU/UK arrangement which is good for both sides and which can stand the test of time. When you open the atlas and look at the map, the UK will still be in the same place. We will be leaving a political apparatus; we will not be leaving the continent of Europe. We wish to remain a good friend and reliable partner for all EU countries and the EU itself.
Perhaps the best way to describe it is we are aiming to have the same friends but with different structures.