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Is now the Time to Bury the Brexit Hatchet?

Both parties can benefit from a new forward-thinking relationship.

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John Scotting 

Co-Editor of Naked Politics

Well, that’s it then, the phoney war is over! To the relief of more than two-thirds of Britons that were keen for Theresa May to “get on with Brexit”, she has finally triggered Article 50. As it becomes increasingly clear that the pre-referendum scaremongering was wildly exaggerated, the general mood is one of cautious optimism. Is now the time for us to bury the hatchet and look forward to a bright independent future?

Sadly, a small band of Europhile fundamentalists are still picking at the scab. They unscrupulously put their own vindication above the national interest, as any sign of adversity is celebrated as an opportunity to lay the blame at Brexit’s feet. While the majority are happy to take a pragmatic, wait-and-see approach, providing the government with enough latitude to deliver; Pro-EU lobbyists are keen to back ministers into corners, in the hope of forcing specific and unrealistic promises that can later be used as proof that our eventual terms of exit should be rejected.

Open Britain, an organisation that claims to be “leading the fight against hard Brexit”, could be setting out their vision for an open post-Brexit Britain and forming a constructive internationalist alliance with pro-free-trade Brexiteers. Instead, their strategy is to present a series of straw men in a bogus “contract with the British people”, demanding that the government will…

“Deliver the exact same benefits on trade as currently enjoyed by single market membership”.

Nobody has ever promised that we’d have the “exact” same benefits. When pressed by Andrew Neil, in response to this fabrication, Theresa May clarified that our relationship as a member and as a non-member will be different. The claim originally referred to a comment that David Davis made, some seven months after the vote. He suggested that a “comprehensive free-trade agreement, that retains the same benefits as we have today, would be a worthwhile aim”. An aim is not a promise!

“Have new trade deals ready to be signed on the day of departure from the EU”.

Again, this is intellectually dishonest at best. The argument put forward by Vote Leave was that leaving the customs union would enable us to start negotiating new trade deals with non-EU countries, and that such deals could come into force after we leave. David Davis more recently reiterated that point, adding that he “suspects” there will be plenty to sign the very next day. A suspicion is not a promise!

“Investing savings from Brexit in public services, including £350m a week for the NHS”.

If only someone had challenged this on a daily basis during the referendum campaign, so we could take it into account when making our decision! While Remainers insist on telling Leave voters that this was the sole motivation for their vote, Leave voters themselves disagree. Campaigners repeatedly clarified that reclaiming the opportunity to spend our own money on our own priorities was the appeal. More funding for the NHS may be a popular option; but “let’s” is a suggestion, not a pledge. It is for future manifestos to offer us a choice, and for the British people to use their votes accordingly.

“No changes to the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic”.

Theresa Villiers did suggest that the open border in Ireland pre-dated the EU and that [post-Brexit] “we can use existing laws on combating illegal immigration”. This is only about political will, and as there are no calls for a hard border coming from Brussels, Westminster, or Belfast, it’s difficult to see how Villiers was wrong.

“Full protection of rights currently guaranteed by membership of the EU, including on employment and the environment”.

This is not a straw man, but the Great Repeal bill ensures that it’s already happening. We were assured that nothing will change without voter consent and given that no party is arguing to remove any of these protections, there’s no danger of that happening any time soon. Ironically, while ever the power to remove these rights is held remotely, in Brussels, our consent is surplus to requirement!

“A security deal that maintains and enhances our cooperation with the EU”.

Fair enough. This one is actually worth insisting upon. Fortunately, comments around this being in everyone’s interests are valid, so there’s unlikely to be a problem.

“The integrity of the UK protected”.

There was no pledge to ban self-determination for any nation within the UK. If the people of Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland want to leave the UK, they are free to do so. Michael Gove, a senior member of the Conservative and “Unionist” Party, may have expected the case for Scottish Independence to be weakened; but whether that turns out to be the case or not, it’s an expectation not a promise.

“A strengthening of science and research partnerships with the EU”.

It was pointed out that non-EU countries often work with the EU on both scientific research and higher education. This doesn’t constitute an indefinite guarantee, because it may be preferable for us to choose alternative partnerships in the future. As with national security, though, there’s no reason for existing partnerships to end, and no appetite to change anything from either side of the negotiating table.

“Full exit, including ratification of a new deal, in 2019”.

The two-year timetable has been set by the EU as part of the Lisbon Treaty, not by the leave campaign. If an extension is agreed, for whatever reason, so be it. The authors of this list don’t want to leave at all, so insisting on a rigid timetable is bizarre to say the least.

“A dramatic reduction of migration”.

This is another bizarre demand from a group that self-righteously shout “RACIST” every time the subject of immigration is raised. They suddenly want a “dramatic” reduction in net migration. A term that is both hyperbolic and deliberately vague. In truth, the pre-referendum arguments were about reclaiming control over our borders, wanting to end the existing prejudice against non-EU citizens, and having an “ambition” to reduce net migration over time. David Davis has also talked about policy being set according to our economic requirements, which may mean more or less at any given time. A statement of the bleeding obvious, that somehow managed to raise eyebrows. Wanting to control numbers is a common-sense approach, not a xenophobic one.

Fortunately, the grown-ups in both the UK Government and the EU27 have demonstrated that they intend to be more constructive. They recognise that this is not a zero-sum game.  Both parties can benefit from a new forward-thinking relationship. Whatever else happens, we voted for the freedom to manage our own affairs. We asked for nothing more and should expect nothing less.

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