Many of the Brexit position papers published recently by the government share one aim: to help us make sufficient progress in the negotiations on our withdrawal so we can move on to negotiate our future relationship with the EU. It appears we are still some way off that immediate goal. And so I want to assess the situation in its entirety.
Although I voted to Remain, I believe we must honour the result of the referendum. We are to leave the European Union, period – not stay in part of it. The question is how should we achieve this, without damaging our nation in the process?
First, an observation. Faced with any challenge, one must acknowledge the truth. If we are not honest with ourselves, our plans will be built on sand. Consequently, we will lose the trust of those who look to us for leadership, and those with whom we are negotiating.
So we must be honest about the task we face, and its complexity and scale. We should be honest about the need to compromise. Honest about the lack of time we, and the EU, have to come to an agreement on our withdrawal.
I very much hope that we can agree on a new relationship with the EU by the winter of next year. But even if we do so, we will need time to implement that agreement. Alternatively, if we manage to agree on a heads of terms – “the framework” as Clause 2 of Article 50 calls it – we shall have to negotiate the full details after March 2019. So either way, we will need time before any new agreement finally kicks in, or the details are negotiated.
I am delighted that the Government has grasped this. But now I would urge it to make a bolder move, and break the impasse.
My suggestion is this.First, we should clarify that, as part of the Article 50 process, we want to agree – at the very least – on an extensive heads of terms of our new relationship with the EU: and, crucially, that this new relationship would begin – I suggest – at the end of 2020.
Second, we should be clear that we want to negotiate a bridge – I am obviously keen on bridges – that takes us from March 30 2019 to when that new relationship begins.
We must not agree to a transition with no end. This would be a gangplank into thin air, increasing uncertainty and fuelling suspicion that it would be a means to stay in the EU permanently by stealth.
During this period we should keep, as far as possible, the existing arrangements we have with the EU. This would avoid governments and businesses having to change processes twice – once to reflect the terms of the transition, and again to reflect the terms of the new relationship.
Third, we should make it clear that we are willing to continue to contribute to the EU as we cross the bridge – in other words, between March 2019 and the end of 2020. This would help to address the EU’s concern that our withdrawal blows a hole in their budget; we would be honouring commitments we have made for the rest of the EU’s budgetary period; and the EU would then need to justify why we must contribute more than this.
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Such an approach would give assurance to those who fear that a transition means we never leave the EU: there would be a “double lock” – the date would be clear, and the destination would be clear.
It would comfort those, here and in the EU, who are concerned that we might face a cliff edge in 2019. And it would give us more of the thing we have so little of at the moment – time.
For the challenge of creating a new partnership touches every aspect of our lives. It is a gargantuan task.
And so let us be honest about this too.
I hear talk of the government not wishing to be defined by Brexit. But Brexit is the biggest change this nation has faced since 1945. To say we do not wish to be defined by Brexit is like Winston Churchill saying in 1940 he did not want his government to be defined by the war. Such careless talk costs time, as it allows the machinery of government to be distracted from the task at hand. The priority for every department must be to help ministers get the best possible deal, prepare us for Brexit, and ensure we prosper once we have left. Nothing is more important.
And that brings me to the government’s position paper that is still missing. Much of the debate has been focused on the process of withdrawal, and how we are – to coin a phrase – to take back control from Brussels. But what are we going to do with these powers once we have that control? What kind of nation do we want to build? This question is unanswered. This dog has not barked. As Sherlock Holmes might remark, this is a “curious incident”.
Let me conclude by saying this. Just as the Government will need to make compromises in the negotiations in Europe, so too will people in Britian, who hold passionate views, on both sides of the argument. Future generations will not forgive us if we put dogma before fact, or party before country. At this pivotal moment in our nation’s history, all of us have a part to play.
Lord Bridges was a minister in the Department for Exiting the European Union until he resigned in June 2017.