Peter Wilding is Chairman of British Influence.
I read with a mixture of bemusement and amusement the article on this site, published a week ago today, by John Longworth bemoaning “remoaners” – and calling anyone who dares to question the need for a Hard Brexit “wreckers” and “anti-democrats”.
Let me first fillet a few red herrings. British Influence believed that for all the EU’s faults (which we have spent four years highlighting to anyone who would listen), the UK was more influential inside the EU than outside. Forty-eight per cent of the electorate agreed with us, so we are hardly a marginal voice.
But because 52 per cent disagreed with us, British Influence fully accepts the result, believes the Government has a clear mandate to leave the EU and, unlike many, is not seeking to de-rail, delay or discredit Brexit by demanding second referendums. If the Supreme Court decides that Parliament has a vote, we would expect the latter to honour the referendum result accordingly. So we accept the result – but simply want the “win-win” Brexit we were promised, rather than the “lose-lose” Brexit we were warned about.
And it is our view that if pushed into the situation advocated by preachers of the new Hard Brexit puritanism, the UK risks losing a “win-win” Brexit just to gain a mess of pottage – a Brexit driven by ideologues, a small cult of “true believers” who have swapped reason for religion. Thise cult of Hard Brexiters are only outdone in their drive for orthodoxy and purity by the lack of imagination of the other extreme – the old-guard Remainers who either want to unpick the referendum result, who insist the referendum has no legitimacy, or who are calling on Parliament to stop Brexit irrespective of the inconvenience that it enjoys merely majority support. They sometimes seem like the ancien regime, closeted from the travails experienced by those for whom globalism has failed, and irritated by a populace who refuse to embrace the liberal world view.
Both the cult of Hard Brexiteers and the old-guard Remain are wrong. Neither represent the majority will of the UK population. Our recent Ipsos MORI poll shows 77 per cent of the UK want to continue to work closely with the EU after Brexit, 78 per cent say our national influence must not decline because of Brexit, and 84 per cent list membership of international bodies as key to protecting our global influence.
The middle ground of sensible Remain (people disappointed by the referendum result) and sensible Leave (people who want to leave the EU, but not bankrupt the country whilst doing so) seem to have no-one to speak for them because their respective sides of the campaign have been taken-over by the extremes of the debate. So, that is what British Influence is now doing – speaking up for the sensible, majority middle-ground.
And part of this is our “mendacious” Judicial Review of the Government’s position on the EEA. It is our view the Government may be wrong on its view that we leave the EEA automatically when we leave the EU, and this is important for six clear reasons – none of them mendacious as Longworth asserts, all of which demonstrate he has either not listened, or not thought it through, or (most probably) both.
If we have the right to remain in the EEA whilst outside the EU, this prevents the EU using single market access as a “bargaining chip”, and would significantly enhance our negotiating hand because not being “booted out” of the Single Market when we leave the EU means that the “ace” passes from their hand to ours.
If we can stay in the EEA, it will actually speed-up Brexit, not slow it down. Staying-in the EEA means the main bulk of the discussions – how we trade with the EU – can take place after we leave the EU rather than before. The EEA gives us time to breathe. Membership of it also therefore provides a workable transition period which avoids the “cliff-edge” which many fear leaving the single market will cause.
Thinking long-term, and contrary to urban myth, we do not need to leave the EEA in order to live within the “red lines” that the referendum established on the four freedoms. The EEA gives significantly enhanced powers to restrict the four freedoms which the Treaty of Rome does not. Membership of the EEA but being outside the Treaty of Rome means, for example, that we can negotiate quotas on migration.
Whilst people may have a legitimate expectation that we will leave the EEA based on the statements of politicians in the referendum campaign, it is hard to say there is a mandate to leave the EEA arising from the actual vote: the ballot paper mentioned leaving the EU, but not leaving the EEA.
Finally, the Conservative 2015 manifesto promised two things – to safeguard the economy through the benefits of the single market and honour the referendum result. Hard Brexit would means that one promise gets broken, Remain would mean that the other is broken. The “smart Brexit” which British Influence advocates means that neither promise would get broken.
The reality is the Government’s position is unproven, and could be wrong. If so, the Government is unthinkingly adopting a position which advantages our EU negotiating counterparts and disadvantages the UK. If British Influence is correct, using Article 127 of the EEA Agreement could make Brexit quicker, simpler and more efficacious; restoring control over borders, fisheries and agriculture, giving back the power to negotiate our own trade deals, bringing back legal sovereignty and keeping us as an influential voice in a Europe – which is about to undergo a period of drastic change and which needs a strong British voice to be heard and to offer support to countries whom we are divorcing, but still have to share the family house with.
The cult Hard Brexit religion, with its “flat earth” approach is as out-of-tune with reality as the old-guard Remainers who think the vote can be, as the Attorney General pithily put it “relegated to a footnote” in history. The people have spoken, but we need to ask: “what did they actually say”? No-one should assume that a narrow, theological approach to Brexit is either correct or has been mandated. It is absolutely right that the narrative of hard Brexit be scrutinised and weighed-up to establish if it is either desirable or necessary. It may prove to be neither.
If we can get all we want whilst staying in the single market – Margaret Thatcher’s second-greatest contribution to the continent of Europe after helping end the cold war – then the only reasons for leaving are because a better alternative is offered under WTO regulations, or because we simply don’t like those ghastly Europeans. I’ve yet to see a compelling argument for the WTO route, but have seen plenty of thinly veiled prejudice dressed-up as second-rate economics.