Just a few weeks in, and the practical effects of re-erecting the trade barriers which the UK spent 40 years helping to dismount are becoming more obvious by the day. Remarkably, it seems to have come as a complete surprise to the government that the EU rules which it had itself been enforcing up until Dec 31st in respect of imports from ‘third countries’ now apply to us. Every day, new stories emerge of businesses cruelly throttled by the extra red tape and costs we signed up to – especially small, entrepreneurial businesses. Our exports are being badly hit. Importing costs have rocketed. We are now reduced to begging the EU to change its rules, or at least defer their application, in order to mitigate the chaos we have created in moving goods from one part of the UK to another.
Clearly, the current government, which made the deliberate choice to create this mess and is in denial, is not going to fix it. Neither do the opposition parties offer much in terms of practical proposals to improve the situation. Keir Starmer is so afraid of his own shadow that he offers no policies at all, retreating instead to his comfort zone of forensic whingeing. The LibDems appear to be squabbling over strategy, but no-one is listening anyway. The SNP relish the chaos, in the probably justified hope that it will help them in their long-term aim of imposing similar but even greater chaos and economic damage on Scotland. The DUP are blaming everyone but themselves for the part they have played in the sorry tale.
Let’s go back to what should be the fundamental question. Given where we are now, what could a UK government not totally blinded by anti-EU ideology do to improve things over the next few years? I propose seven principles which any government-in-waiting – whether Labour or formed from what’s left of the sane wing of the Conservatives – should apply in formulating policy:
- No fantasy. This means forgetting about rejoining the EU – it’s not going to happen any time soon. There is little enthusiasm in the UK for it, and in any case it’s very unlikely that the EU would want us back, and even less chance that we’d get the excellent terms rejected at the referendum. Nor is EEA/EFTA membership a viable alternative, for much the same reasons. We have simply been too disruptive, so persuading 27 (or 31 for EEA/EFTA) countries to agree unanimously to readmit us is not realistic, and seeking to do so would just stir up the Brexit divides. Instead, we need to think about areas where we can make practical progress to improve things, which means a Swiss-style continual negotiation with the EU on specific issues (the EU won’t like this, but there is no alternative).
- Urgently restore friendly relations with the EU. This is a no-brainer. We absolutely have to cooperate with our EU friends, we depend on them for our food, they are crucial partners in our security, they are central to our economy in whatever arrangement we reach.
- Understand the EU’s position. There is no point seeking concessions which the EU can’t or won’t give. So there is no chance, for example, of the EU recognising our Sanitary and PhytoSanitary (SPS) regime without what they see as adequate, enforceable protections.
- Prioritise mitigating the most damaging of the new barriers which the government’s thin trade deal has erected, such as the SPS regime which is causing so much damage to Northern Ireland and to our fishing, agriculture and food-processing sectors.
- Go for the easy wins in domestic political terms. For example, no one voted Leave because they didn’t want musicians to be able to tour here and on the continent, so there won’t be opposition to fixing this. But don’t seek to reintroduce full freedom of movement, which would be much more controversial and divisive.
- Move on from the obsolete framing of ‘Remainers’ and ‘Leavers’. We’ve left now, the focus should be on what to do next to improve our position outside the EU, seeking measures which will get broad support.
- Be grown-up about trade-offs. Of course, any progress that is made will be opposed by the hardliners as ceding ‘sovereignty’. This doesn’t matter, because few voters care about the abstract, and those that do won’t be voting for a pragmatic government anyway. In any case, it is precisely those hardliners who have got us into the absurd position where the UK government has ceded so much sovereignty that it cannot authorise the sale of a bag of seed potatoes from one part of the UK to another, without the permission of a foreign organisation of which we are not even a member.
In Part 2 of this article, I will make some suggestions about converting these principles into specific policies.
Richard Nabavi is a longstanding contributor to PB and was a member of the Conservative Party until the 23rd July 2019.