Nick Boles in a former Planning Minister and Education Minister, and is MP for Grantham and Stamford.
I came into politics to pursue social reform. Fixing our broken housing market and reforming technical education matter more to me than anything ever done by the European Union (EU.) But even I recognise that the most important thing that the Government will be doing for the next two years is negotiating Britain’s departure from the EU. If we make a success of it, we have every reason to be confident of our country’s future, and can turn our full attention back to the economic and social challenges we face here at home. If we make a hash of it, our prosperity and our status in the world will be permanently downgraded, and we will have much less money to spend on any of our domestic priorities. The stakes could not be higher.
I am not an expert in the fine detail of customs arrangements and regulatory equivalence (and would rather chew my own arm off than become one.) Until now, I have been inclined to defer to others on how we should handle the Brexit negotiations. But since the election I have become increasingly concerned about the lack of agreement at the top of government about what our strategy should be. I haven’t discussed my concerns with many people – and certainly not with any MPs from other parties. But I now believe I owe it to my constituents to state clearly what I think is the best approach, when a misstep could make the difference between triumph and disaster.
I start from the conviction that there is a right way and a wrong way of handling any set of complex negotiations. The right way involves being very clear about the destination. For this, the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech is still the best guide: we want to agree a new partnership with the European Union based on free trade and close cooperation but outside the Single Market and the Customs Union, so we can control our borders and strike our own free trade agreements with other countries around the world. It also involves having the confidence to be pragmatic, flexible and patient about the road we take to get there. Brittle paranoia about staging posts and temporary compromises runs the risk of undermining our negotiating flexibility and jeopardising the achievement of our long-term goals.
Business leaders have recently asked for an open-ended transition in which we stay in the Single Market and the Customs Union while we work out the details of a new set of trading arrangements outside the EU. The open-ended nature of their proposal is unacceptable as it would lead people to wonder if we were ever going to take back control of anything. But, that key difference aside, we should be doing everything we can to listen to major investors and employers, to offer them maximum reassurance, and to give them as much time as possible to adjust their business operations to life outside the Single Market and the Customs Union. Doing this would also go a long way to placating the large numbers of young, professional voters, who, already depressed by the referendum result, recoiled at a Conservative Party which seemed to be marching headlong towards a brutal rupture of our relations with the EU, and saying “To hell with the consequences.”
I favour a three-year transition, starting in March 2019, in which we join the European Free Trade Association and become temporary members of the European Economic Area like Norway. If the other members of EFTA accept our proposal, we would, for those three years, be outside the EU but in the Single Market, paying a contribution to the EU and accepting some version of freedom of movement. We might also want to negotiate a transitional extension of our membership of the Customs Union, to give ourselves time to agree new frictionless customs arrangements for industries with integrated pan-European supply chains. These would all be temporary concessions, buying us enough time and goodwill to negotiate the detail of the new free trade agreement and other aspects of our long-term partnership. In March 2022, before the next general election, we would leave the European Economic Area and start our new life as an independent nation, in control of our money, our borders and our laws.
After 40 years, Britain’s membership of the European Union has become an immensely complicated beast. It should not surprise anyone that extricating ourselves from it while minimising the damage and disruption to our economic performance will take several years, involve detours and a certain amount of fudge. The sobering example of Euratom, which few of us had ever even heard of until last weekend, is instructive. There will be plenty of other institutional anomalies like this – and all will require the same combination of clarity about our objectives, and flexibility about how we achieve them.
What the pragmatic approach offers is this. That in 2019, three years after a majority of the British people voted to leave the European Union, our membership will end and we will no longer be part of either the Common Agricultural Policy or the Common Fisheries Policy. That three years after that, after a transition designed to bolster business confidence and underpin economic stability, we will finally slide free of the Brussels mothership and resume life as an independent and sovereign trading nation. Six years from referendum vote to full sovereignty, after 46 years of membership. That, rather than a sudden ripping away of all ties, is surely what a successful Brexit looks like. It is also a Brexit that a majority of the young professional people who rejected us the ballot box last month might be willing to live with.
Leaving the EU is an enormous undertaking, the biggest since World War Two. Let’s not rush it, and risk doing permanent damage to our economic strength. Let’s instead be deliberate, take our time and get it right so we can deliver the prosperous future outside the European Union that the British people want to see.