Sunday, March 19, 2017

Is Remainers Project Fear still bubbling?

The UK leaving the European Union will be a profoundly complex business - underestimated by Leave supporters, and over-cooked by Remain voters. I hear lots of voices (from both sides but mostly Leave) making comment like "We voted Out so just get on with it." Not so easy. I've been an instinctive 'Leaver' since progressing from a 'Not Joiner' in 1973. But even I was deeply conflicted on June 23rd, and might have thought more than twice if the burearocrats who run the EU had offered the prospect of a two-speed Europe as they seem to be doing in response to the Referendum vote. Too late. I've no doubt that if that had been offered to David Cameron, we would not be leaving the EU.

In any case, Theresa May cannot just "get on with it". Too many clever lawyers and politicians still seeking to over-turn the Referendum result are at work. And they will not stop. Yes, leaving is ferociously complex, but I do not believe it's impossible. Despite every conceivable blocking mechanism being rolled out to prevent progress, Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty will be invoked during the next few days. Fortunately, the Act allowing this passed through Parliament unscathed.

There have been two issues debated. Firstly, the rights of non British legally resident in the UK. No-one ever wanted or proposed anything else. Those making this a high profile issue have caused huge concern to those affected. One family contacted my office this week to discuss leaving for Canada because of it. Think I persuaded them to stay. The second issue about what constitutes a "meaningful vote", was to my mind much more serious (though others whose views I respect disagree). What we have now, rightly, is a sound negotiating position. But it does force us to consider facing trading under WTO rules. For some reason this prospect is considered a disaster. But should it? Is this Project Fear again? Must admit to being not entirely sure (no-one is). But I do suspect it will not be as bad as is being portrayed.

Let's consider some of what we know. EU/UK negotiations will be against a background that no further negotiations will take place if it's rejected by Parliament - so negotiations will be for real. It will be against a background of the UK trading on WTO rules if no deal is agreed, which will make both sides search for agreement with more vigour. An agreement will benefit both sides. My understanding, which is likely to increase rapidly, along with that of many others, is that any tariffs are likely to be low on exports to and from the EU. If there is a prospect of real damage to trade, both sides will have an interest is resolving problems. And negotiations will be against certainty, that the UK would be leaving the EU whatever deal is offered. No-one will want a bad deal because we know  'No deal is better than a bad deal.

I do think that as negotiations start, even before they start, the UK should revisit the issue of non British residents. We know no-one is going to be asked to leave. We also know that no legal reciprocal agreement can be finalised until end of the negotiation. But we could make a formal unilateral declaration of intent. I don't suppose we will, but I'd quite like to show up the heartless EU states that won't agree now. Always more comfortable on the high ground, I find.

Whatever, we're off. The starting pistol is about to be fired. For next two years we will be dominated by the intricacies of deliving far and away the most complex negotiations of my time in politics, which is over 40 yrs. Here's wishing all our negotiators a fair wind and good sailing.

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