After so many years of involvement in Britain in the issue of the UK’s relationship with Europe, as both a diplomat and a politician, it is is an odd experience to be observing the Brexit saga from 12,000 miles away in New Zealand.
I sometimes make the attempt to explain as best I can some of the intricacies of Brexit to my New Zealand readers. I try to explain that the process of extricating Britain from the EU – however difficult or complicated it may be – tells us little about whether Brexit itself is a good idea.
The issues of the exit process are unnecessarily complicated because there is no shortage of those, on both sides of the Channel, who want to amplify and prolong the inevitable problems thrown up by the process of divorce and to conflate them with – so as to discredit – the desired end state of Brexit.
The EU, of course, has an obvious interest in demonstrating to other potential leavers that exit is not an easy process. And Remainers continue to hope that, if Brexit can be delayed or impeded for long enough, there will be growing calls for a second referendum, with the possibility that the popular will, as expressed in the first referendum result, can be negated.
Those harbouring such undemocratic ambitions seem unable to grasp that the holding of a second referendum would simply reinforce the perception (which some suggest is an explanation of why the decision to leave was taken in the first place) that the general public were not being listened to.
Those Remainers who persist in believing that they know best, and that the majority who voted for Leave need to sit the exam again so that they get it right, seem unable to accept a democratic decision. They rehearse over and over what they see as the obstacles to an acceptable Brexit deal. Their constant theme is the admonition of those who voted for Brexit and who are, as they see it, foolish enough to think that we can extricate ourselves painlessly from our entanglement with the European Union.
What is remarkable about this stance is that there is no hint of any apology from them, or acceptance of any responsibility on their part, for this dilemma. It was after all today’s Remainers who urged us on in the first place and led to our being embroiled in an arrangement which, as I and others warned at the time, was contrary to our interests and from which it is proving so difficult to free ourselves.
In the early 1970s, after I had spent some years in the Foreign Office and in our Brussels Embassy working on the UK’s relationship with what was then the Common Market, I had seen enough to convince me that the arrangement we apparently wished to join was totally inimical to our interests.
It would require us to support as taxpayers (and at considerable cost), the Common Agricultural Policy, and to pay higher food prices as consumers. We had to turn our backs on our well-established trade links with the most efficient and cost-effective producers of food and raw materials in the world, and forsake as a result our main cost advantage as a manufacturing economy – lower food costs than those of our European rivals.
In addition, we would lose the preferential treatment for our manufactured goods offered by those same trading partners and would face instead direct competition from efficient German manufacturing in our own and European markets. It was hard to imagine any other voluntary change that could have – with absolute predictability – placed us at such a disadvantage.
Those warnings were pooh-poohed at the time by Euro-enthusiasts but have been amply borne out by our actual experience. No one who reviews Britain’s history as a manufacturing economy since we joined the Common Market – the perennial trade deficit and the stalled growth rate – can doubt or dispute the damage we did to ourselves, or the plight we now find ourselves in, with our manufacturing capability now diminished and weakened almost beyond repair.
And none of this is to say anything of other penalties we have had to suffer, such as those imposed by the Common Fisheries Policy or the substantial sums we had to pay into EU coffers every year. The 2016 referendum result was the definitive verdict on the whole of that 40-year experience – hardly, then, a snap judgment.
We were constantly advised by Euro-enthusiasts that we should not concern ourselves with minor matters like paying our way in the world, but should instead focus on the great virtues of the European ideal; but when the question was asked as to whether that European ideal included the creation of a European super-state, we were solemnly assured that no such thought was in anyone’s mind.
We now know, decades later, that the European Union has pretensions to many of the powers of a sovereign state and that it is precisely the recovery of those powers, and the difficulty we have in reclaiming them, that underlies the problems arising in the Brexit process. It is a safe assumption that much of the case for Brexit, as voted for by the referendum majority, was based on the sense that the re-assertion of British sovereignty and self-government was long overdue.
But, not a word from Remainers about these matters – and no recognition that it is precisely that cession of sovereign powers to Brussels – a fateful step endorsed by Euro-enthusiasts – that makes the divorce so difficult. The fact that we cannot simply say “we’re leaving” will confirm to many voters how right they were to vote for escaping shackles that are proving so difficult to cast off.
To recall and register these undeniable truths is, sadly, not to ease in any way the solution to these long-standing problems; but it might, and should, at least relieve us of the burden of having to listen to lectures about how intractable are the problems thrown up by Brexit from those who bear such responsibility for them in the first place.
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