Tuesday, 6 September 2016

Exiting Europe: Of Course We're Making It Up As We Go Along

There was an odd moment in the Commons yesterday as David David made his debut at the dispatch box as the new Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union. Emily Thornberry accused him of making it up as he goes along.

Now this would be hilarious under any circumstances coming from a Labour Party whose leader last week demanded an end to people going for an after work drink. Or from a Labour Party that has shadow ministers doubling or trebling up in their roles because Chauncey can't find enough of them to work for him. Emily Thornberry is also shadowing the Foreign Office. I imagine this is because she has displayed such intellectual heft during her career.

But the accusation doesn't work on its own terms anyway. Of course we are making this up as we go along. We haven't exited a meddlesome, arrogant, cordially loathed supranational entity before. Nobody has. We are forging a new path. It's going to take time, a lot of energy and line by line deconstruction of a relationship that has for forty years been playing a large and growing role in governing us.

That the SNP are critical of this process is risible too. This is what they wanted two years ago. If they had had their way, by no matter how narrow a margin, Scotland would by now be an independent country. They would have been forced to make things up as they go along too because by their own admission the white paper for independence was garbage. They had no clear ideas how they would have handled exiting the UK. They had no idea what currency they would use. And had they left the UK they would also have been leaving the EU, something they now claim to be bitterly opposed to.

We none of us really know how this process is going to go. We are only beginning on a path that was only decided two months ago. It seems that as every month goes by the BBC is going to run a series of programmes debating it. Yet nothing has really happened yet. The Government is still assembling teams. It's still fighting over offices, civil servants and access to large country homes.

The only real progress so far is a) we have a government. We should remember that this was not going to be the case back when David Cameron resigned. The original intention was that he was going to still be in office now while his successor was decided. Fortunately this long and drawn out process was avoided.

And so b) follows on from this. Because we have a new prime minister she has been able to get on with deciding where we go from here. But we are still making it up as we go along. The prime minister is still pondering options. She is still thinking out loud about what to do about immigration. She is still thinking out loud about what kind of relationship we should have with the EU.

My own private perspective is this. We should invoke Article 50 at the beginning of 2017 after the teams are in place and some clarity about what we want is achieved.

We should at the same time bring in interim controls on EU citizens coming to work and live in the UK. Something along the lines of them needing a job offer before they come would suffice initially.

We should be prepared, if all else fails, to take the so called hard exit of leaving the single market. This definitively does not mean we would no longer have access to the single market. Other countries that are not EU members or even in Europe have access to the single market. We would simply not be members of it. We have to be prepared to walk away and to say so.

But we should aim for much better than that. In return for continued British cooperation on a range of matters from security, defence and intelligence to access to our own market - the fifth largest economy in the world and one that is growing and prospering as opposed to most of Europe - we should be able to get associate membership of that market. This of course means obeying rules pertaining to the sale of goods and services within that market. The difference is that we would only have to obey those rules when selling to the EU. We could set our own rules for ourselves and for selling to the rest of the world.

On a simple level this would mean that traders in this country can sell goods in metric or imperial measures according to what they and their customers prefer. Maybe that should be a symbolic first announcement for the Government as it writes to the EU to signal our intention to leave.

Are we making this up as we go along? Of course we are. How else are we meant to proceed? There is much that remains unsure. There is much that has to be decided. There are probably things about which we will change our minds as things proceed. Brexit means Brexit is being derided as meaningless. But it is the opposite. The people have spoken and we are going to leave the EU. How we do so is going to be a slow process. But it is happening. We are seizing back control. We are in charge of our own destiny. We are going to be a European country that governs itself whilst maintaining friendly and cooperative relations with our neighbours. That is what Brexit means.

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