Brexit Article 11/18

I have long believed that Britain would eventually leave the European Union. From the time that Britain joined the European Community, we have never really been moving in the same direction. As the veteran German MEP Hans Olaf Henkel put it "Britain joined a football club but Brussels decided to play golf".

The world has changed enormously since the 1970s when Britain joined the common market. So has Britain's economy. Now the UK, the world's fifth biggest economy, stands on a much firmer footing. Our public finances are stronger, we are seeing a resurgence in our exporting performance (up over 10 per cent in 2017) and recent UN figures have shown that, in the first six months of 2018, the UK was second only to China in terms of foreign direct investment coming into the country.

Our trade patterns have also changed. Exports to the European Union which constituted 57 per cent of the total only a decade ago, now represent around 44 per cent of the goods and services we sell. Add to this the fact that the IMF predicted 90 per cent of global growth in the next five years will occur outside Europe and our policy dilemma is clear.

We have to take a balanced approach to trade - on one hand ensuring that we have sufficient access to the European market to support jobs and profits generated by our sales into this huge market while, on the other, ensuring that we are able to exercise an independent trade policy that ensures our ability to expand into the growing global markets, especially in the Far East and Africa.

It is against this backdrop, political and economic, that our negotiations, firstly on our separation from the European Union, and secondly our future relationship, are taking place. The current, political phase, was always more likely to be the most difficult one as it involved issues of money, citizens rights and the Irish border.

This week the Cabinet had a marathon session lasting nearly five hours (punctuated by several rounds of tea and biscuits) in which views were expressed respectfully, sometimes forcefully, and passionately. We were asked to give authority for the Prime Minister to take the draft Withdrawal Agreement to the November European Council as an agreement in principle.

It is the issue of the Irish border which has caused the greatest angst with the Irish government demanding protection against Britain walking away unilaterally and creating a resultant hard border. This is the so-called backstop.

In some ways, the situation between UK and EU it is slightly Kafkaesque.  Many in the UK fear that the EU wants to keep the UK in a permanent limbo, unable to leave. Simultaneously, there are those in Brussels who fear that this plan would give Britain access to the customs union without any obligations for free movement or financial contribution. This would almost certainly produce strong reactions from Norway and Switzerland.

Add to this the fear that Northern Ireland would be able to trade freely with both the rest of the UK and the EU while the Republic of Ireland would face trade barriers, with the risk of businesses transferring North, and it's easy to see why fundamentally different perceptions on the respective sides of the channel could result in a rejection of the agreement and result in a "no deal" Brexit. Both sides dislike considerable elements of the backstop.

Once we get beyond this point we will begin to negotiate our future partnership, including the trade relationship which will also be crucial to our freedom to negotiate agreements beyond the EU.

All this occurs within the complex dynamics of the current political position in the UK. The people of Britain were given a referendum by Parliament and gave an instruction to leave the European Union. The government, which has no majority in either of the Houses of Parliament, has pledged to deliver that result.

The Labour opposition has been engaged in hypocrisy of historical proportions and seeks to thwart Brexit entirely. There is a clear danger that many of them will seek to stop Brexit itself from ever happening. I believe the loss of Brexit itself would be politically earthshattering, with a loss of faith in the political system itself which could have dramatic and unpredictable consequences.

The Cabinet gave collective agreement to the Prime Minister to proceed to the next stage of negotiation. She has handled a difficult political situation with enormous patience, great dignity and enormous resilience. I have known her for many years and I know she will always act in what she believes to be the national interest. She has acknowledged that, like many of us, she shares reservations about some of the issues but it is, after all, a negotiation.

She deserves no less than our support to make her case to the EU and bring it back to Parliament for approval.

Article by Liam Fox in the Telegraph on the 18th November 2018