Recent days have seen the country move another step closer towards exiting the European Union.
After a long and understandably tense Cabinet meeting last Wednesday evening, the Prime Minister announced that she had secured her colleagues’ backing on the detailed terms of our departure from the EU, as well as the broader terms of our future relationship with the bloc. Yet, no sooner had the ink on the draft withdrawal agreement dried were the voices of discontent lining up to renounce Mrs May’s deal.
As you know, I myself campaigned passionately for the Remain side during the referendum but have consistently said ever since that I will support Government negotiations towards an orderly break from the EU, and, despite all that has happened in recent days, I maintain this position.
The reality is that the draft agreement represents a positive first step out of the EU. It may not be perfect, though nothing was ever likely to satisfy all sides of this impassioned debate. What it is, however, is a pragmatic and, above all, workable arrangement with the EU 27 from which to make meaningful progress on our future trading relationship. What has also become clear since the agreement’s announcement is that there is no realistic, constructive alternative vision for Brexit among those MPs who are so critical of the Prime Minister.
As I have said before on many occasions, a second referendum cannot be countenanced. Such a course would inevitably lead to greater uncertainty, deeper divisions and the very real possibility of making the country ungovernable.
However, should the UK decide to handbrake turn and stay in the EU at this late stage, I believe it would be a fantasy to suggest that we would simply be welcomed back on the same favourable terms on which we are currently members. The price we pay for the upheaval our departure has caused would surely include the loss of our substantial rebate, and could well see us made to eventually join the Schengen Area and Single Currency.
Equally implausible as a second referendum is the call from hard-line Brexiteers’ to discard the draft agreement for an illusory alternative that no one on their side of the argument has managed to articulate with any degree of credibility. The reality is that there is zero appetite in EU circles to renegotiate the withdrawal deal. Therefore, one must assume that it is the hard Brexiteers’ intention to have us leave with no deal.
Such a cliff-edge exit would be an exercise in potentially irreversible self-harm. Simply put: the continued health of our economy and the welfare of the wider public depends on the UK remaining in close partnership with EU once we leave. No alternative will do.
Of course, we will look to take advantage of the opportunities presented by Brexit by forging new trade and security partnerships with countries beyond Europe, however, this must come alongside our existing relationships with bloc. To leave in acrimony on March 29 without a deal and jeopardise our chance to maintain a fair and frictionless relationship with the EU when so much of our economy and industry is intricately interwoven would invite almost certain economic crisis and much else besides.
Indeed, the City of London recently said that a no-deal Brexit is in nobody’s interest and that a degree of certainty about our future relationship with the EU must be restored as quickly as possible, lest we face the potentially disastrous consequences of a cliff-edge exit. Accordingly, the City has welcomed the draft agreement as it provides businesses with some much-needed clarity on the nature of our future relationship with the EU and assures the sector of a transition period crucial to preparing for the manifold complexities presented by our departure.
As I say, the draft agreement is just the first step in our Brexit journey. Detailed talks on our future trading and security arrangements are still to come and will be far more challenging. At this stage we will need to work constructively with our EU partners if we are to have any hope of successfully negotiating new trade terms, so to alienate them at this early juncture by prolonging the political and economic upheaval would be unforgivable.
To disregard such realities and advocate no-deal or a second referendum as our departure date draws ever closer is wholly unsustainable. Now is not the time for grandstanding but to be completely honest with the public about the stark choices the country faces.
To extricate ourselves from an institution within which we have become so enmeshed after 45 years of integration is a monumental undertaking. It should not be underestimated just how well the Prime Minster has done to secure a draft agreement that delivers on the 2016 referendum result whilst protecting the UK from much of the inevitable economic shock of departure. To think that anyone else would have been capable of agreeing more favourable terms is unlikely in the extreme, despite what some of my colleagues may say from a safe distance.
What is most important now is for the Government to be given the backing it needs to navigate our exit from the EU as smoothly as possible.
Followers of the Brexit debate will have seen this morning that the EU Court of Justice has determined that the UK is free to unilaterally revoke Article 50 and remain in the bloc under its current terms of membership, should we decide so before March 29. Any such revocation must be decided by the UK via one of the following: a vote in Parliament, a General Election or another referendum.
This news will, of course, come as a boost to those who are keen that we reverse the decision taken in 2016 and remain in the EU. Nevertheless, it remains the Government’s clear intention to honour the referendum and leave the EU on March 29.