Ashley Fox is an MEP for South West England, and is the leader of Britain’s Conservative MEPs.
Twelve months ago few, if any of us could have predicted the year of seismic political change that lay ahead.
Brexit, a new Conservative leader, an opposition in turmoil, President Trump…there seemed to be no time to catch your breath before the next major event came along.
With that in mind, I will avoid any specific predictions for 2017 and am taking the views of those who do gaze into crystal balls with an even larger pinch of salt than usual.
However, I suggest that if 2016 was a year of political shocks, during the next 12 months people will expect to see some of the promises being delivered.
Certainly, as far as Brexit is concerned, speculation will soon be replaced by concrete action. Article 50 is going to be triggered in the Spring even if, as I suspect it will, the Supreme Court rejects the Government’s appeal.
It is likely that a short Act of Parliament will be required to start the process. In my view this should pass easily through the Commons, where there is a large majority in favour of respecting the referendum result. I anticipate there will be much smoke and noise in the House of Lords but doubt that the Labour Party will whip their peers to frustrate the will of the people. That way lies annihilation at an early general election.
Negotiations will then get underway and flesh be put on the bones of our future relationship with Europe. Make no mistake, the process will be tough. The issues to be tackled are many and complicated. The two parties are setting off from very different starting points.
I am confident we will succeed because both Britain and the remaining 27 EU members ultimately want the same thing – a deal which protects everyone’s economic interests and recognises the continuing need to co-operate in areas such as security and research.
Anyone who, like me, spends much of their working life in Brussels, knows that this is not simply going to be a transactional arrangement; emotion will also play a part and we need to deploy a combination of negotiation and diplomacy over the next 18 months in our dealings with Michel Barnier, the national capitals and, yes, even with Guy Verhofstadt.
There has been much talk of the possible need for a transitional deal. I doubt it is going to be possible to dot every i and cross every t within 18 months but I do think Britain will leave the EU within the two year timescale, with arrangements made for individual sectors such as financial services where more time is needed to implement change.
The same tailored approach may be adopted in our future relationship with the Customs Union. Instead of an in or out choice, support seems to be forming around a more complex solution under which deals are struck on a sector-by-sector basis.
As Conservative MEPs we will vote on the final deal when it is put to the European Parliament, but the meantime we have a job to do persuading fellow members of Britain’s case and reassuring them that we remain staunch allies and trading partners.
We are also heavily engaged in the day-to-day business of Parliament, as was illustrated in the final few weeks of 2016 when two important pieces of legislation cleared significant hurdles.
Late night talks between my Conservative colleague Vicky Ford, on behalf of the Parliament, and representatives of the European Council and Commission, led to a provisional deal being struck on revisions to the EU Firearms Directive. The changes were prompted by the 2015 Paris terrorist attacks and introduce new rules restricting the ownership of semi-automatic weapons and high capacity magazines. British law will not be materially changed as we already have amongst the most stringent rules on firearms in the world.
Similar 11th hour discussions secured agreement in committee for Energy and Climate Change spokesman Ian Duncan’s report on the Emissions Trading Scheme, the EU’s flagship climate change policy. This is another example of how Conservatives are showing leadership in the Parliament and defending Britain’s interests.
Both reports, which are due to be voted on by MEPs in the coming months, required a mixture of pragmatism, sensitive negotiation and tough talking to push them through. These qualities are going to be needed in the year ahead.
I wish you all a happy new year.