The 2016 Referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union...
When Theresa May said “Brexit means Brexit” she must surely have meant only that her Government would negotiate to take the UK out of EU membership. The Leave campaigners interpreted this to mean regaining control of our borders, restoring complete sovereignty to the UK Parliament, removing us from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and not paying a major share of the EU budget.
Those objectives were not included in the referendum question so they cannot be seen as unquestionable outcomes binding on our negotiators.
Recognising this has become essential because there is now almost certainly no parliamentary majority supporting them all. Increasingly the talk is of a soft Brexit which for some means continued membership of the single market and the customs union. Senior Ministers including Damian Green and Philip Hammond both favour this along with a majority of MPs and business leaders. They reason that excluding ourselves from the single market will damage the economy and lead to a loss of business confidence, investment and jobs. The problem is that remaining in the single market after leaving the EU means membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) like Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein. That would involve obeying EU laws without any voice in their making and still having to pay into the EU budget. It would also mean uncontrolled immigration from the EU.
An alternative is membership of the European Free trade Association (EFTA) like Switzerland. That would enable us to sell goods freely to the EU but not services such as banking and the UK is currently the leading banker in the EU. Switzerland also has to make a large financial contribution and accept free movement of labour. It seems that neither the EEA nor EFTA are the right models for our negotiators.
Nevertheless, Brexit will create problems those negotiators have to try to overcome. It was announced this week that there had been a 90% reduction in the number of nurses coming from the EU to work in the NHS and this is even before the negotiations begin. The construction industry, British agriculture and the NHS all want to continue recruiting labour from the EU. Our Universities want both academics as well as students from the EU. British hill farmers could go to the wall without Common Agriculture Policy payments. Our banking sector has the leading role in the EU and Brexit will probably see this lost to their French or German competitors. A good deal with the EU has to take account of each of these challenges.
More serious are the implications of Brexit for our security. The European Criminal Records Information System (ECRIS) provides member states with a secure electronic system for exchanging information about criminal convictions. Our National Police Chiefs’ Council reports that UK police access ECRIS on an average of 307 times a day. That means more than 29,000 times in the first three months of this year. We surely need to remain in this system. Politically, Russia’s expansionist policies already demonstrated in their annexation of part of the Ukraine and their involvement in Syria also threatens the security of Western Europe. NATO is the principle military organisation but the EU has an important political role in deterring Russian ambitions, especially now the USA is less dependable under President Trump’s leadership.
MPs are rightly sensitive about honouring the will of the majority in last year’s referendum but they must not ignore the concerns of the 48% who voted to remain in the EU. Nor can they ignore the problems outlined above. These were not properly explained by either side in the referendum campaigns. We do not know whether there would have been a different result if they had been but responsible Government must not ignore them now even if that means being excoriated by the right wing press. We can pray for all our MPs to take full account of all aspects and implications of Brexit, eschew blinkered partisanship and seek the best deal for both the UK and the EU.