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Open Europe Chairman Lord Wolfson writes in The Sun that now the UK has made 'sufficient progress' in the Brexit negotiations we can start discussing the more important issues of trade and future relations
This article originally appeared in The Sun on 10 December 2017
Britain has cleared the first major hurdle towards striking a Brexit deal – despite all the pessimists warning of impending doom. It’s not a perfect outcome and won’t please everyone 100 per cent. But now we have made progress on the Irish border, the size of the divorce bill and EU citizens’ rights, we can start discussing the more important issues of trade and future relations. Before we do though, we really must learn to stop going into meltdown every time these talks run into the buffers.
It is certain to happen again as we move into the more difficult stages but as we learned this week, when things go wrong, you go home, sleep on it and move forward. As we go into these negotiations one idea must remain at the forefront of our minds — whatever deal we get with the EU will not be as important as the decisions we make once we have left.
Contrary to some of the shouty nonsense we heard from both sides of the referendum campaign, leaving the EU will guarantee neither failure nor success.
When a young adult sets off from his parents’ home, the act of leaving is only the first step. It is a daunting time, with many risks and much uncertainty, but it is what that person does with their new-found freedom that really counts. The same will be true of Britain’s future outside the EU.
Over the coming weeks we will learn how much Europe’s elite want to maintain their current trading relationship with us.
Three issues will dominate discussions:
FIRST, what degree of freedom will we have in the way we regulate our economy?
SECOND, to what extent will we be able to determine our own tariff regime and strike trade deals with other nations?
And THIRD, what control will we have over our borders?
We will have to make compromises in all three areas.
But before that, we need a clear understanding of what we want to achieve. No such vision has yet emerged from the UK Government. The process of national debate is beneficial and important. But there comes a moment when leadership is needed. The Government must now set out its aspirations for our future outside the EU.
Regulation and red tape is likely to be the first battleground. Some people argue we should aim to be like Norway. It almost completely aligns its regulations with the EU to get the best possible access to its markets. But Norway must take rules from Brussels without a say in how they are shaped. As a result, it is burdened with 93 of the 100 costliest EU regulations. Such arrangements impose costs on an economy and restrict its freedom to strike trade deals outside the EU.
For me, it comes down to who will make the laws that govern our country. I am sure we will choose to implement many of Europe’s regulations going forward, but that choice must be ours. All new regulation involves choices between competing interests. Our interests in remaining aligned to the EU will be one important consideration, but only one. There are other competing interests — importers, exporters, producers, consumers, the environment and the economy — and deciding between them will be hard.
But the choice must be made here, taking account of Britain’s unique circumstances. Rules in the EU are designed on a one-size-fits-all basis. They are a compromise between 28 countries, not tailored for each country’s specific situation.
Rules to protect newts might make sense in parts of Europe where they are endangered, but not in the UK, where builders find them in abundance. As a result of this and other inappropriate regulation, the EU’s Habitats Directive makes it harder and more expensive to build the houses we desperately need. To accept the idea of independent regulation we need to eliminate one pervasive and muddled myth.
Many believe that unless we are bound by European regulation, Britain will be unable to trade with Europe. I work for a company that imports products from inside and outside the EU and sells them into 70 different countries across the globe. So I know an exporter does not need to impose the EU’s rules in its own markets to export to the EU.
Individual companies can still make their products comply with overseas regulations. How else does China, India and the US manage to do so much business with Europe? Failure to agree equivalent regulation may increase the administration of crossing borders but will not prevent UK companies trading with Europe.
The Government has already sensibly said it will not rip up the EU rule book as we leave. And of course we will keep many rules that help secure a deal and a soft border with Ireland. But we should not bind ourselves, for the rest of time, to abide by unknown future rules over which we have no control. For this reason, a Norway-style arrangement will not work for the UK, nor is it the only available model.
In my mind the vision is clear — we should aim to trade fairly and freely with Europe and, if possible, we want them to have the same privileged access to our markets that they currently enjoy and we would like the same in return.
But the price of that access cannot be to surrender the freedom we have over our future regulation, tariff rates and trade deals. Canada’s trade deal with Europe provides an excellent starting point for such an agreement and a launch pad for a healthy, peaceful and prosperous relationship with the EU. It should be the starting point for our negotiations with the EU.