Charlie Elphicke is MP for Dover and Deal.
Today’s speech in Florence will be incredibly important. We may be leaving the EU, yet Europe will still be a major trading partner. We have many shared values and a long history of security and defence co-operation. The speech is an opportunity to underline the outward-looking nature of our country, while also making the case for a smooth Brexit. It’s clear that Britain is willing and positive about our future relationship with Europe and the kind of deal that can be done.
Our hand is a strong one
Many voices in big business, media outlets and parts of Government will tell you a terrible decision has been made by the British people – one they will come to regret and, in time, reverse. In the meantime, they suggest, we must do any deal we can because our hand is such a weak one.
This is nonsense. We are in a strong position:
- The Commission is desperate for us to send more money. Because Poland doesn’t want to receive less, nor Germany pay more. As a matter of law we don’t owe the EU a centime – let alone €100 billion.
- The EU would be the big loser in trade. EU nations have a £100 billion trade surplus in goods with the UK, and any tariffs would hit Europe’s exports to us twice as hard as they would hit our exports to them. The absence of a free trade deal would mean Europe’s exports to us would be hit for £13.2 billion of tariffs. Meanwhile, tariffs on our exports to Europe would be just £6.5 billion.
- The UK is a key part of the security guarantee of Europe, and we can be a bridge for wider security co-operation with the English-speaking world. Everyone wants that to continue.
The concern, however, is the behaviour of Brussels. Even yesterday there were noises off from Messrs Juncker, Barnier and Verhofstadt with a ready menu of demands. We may be outward-looking and optimistic, yet it’s clear we must also be ready on day one to leave the European Union – deal or no deal.
Prepared for any eventuality
Yet with less than 600 days to go, commentators from Chris Cook to Allister Heath worry whether we are doing enough to be ready. The case for a two-year implementation period from 2019 to 2021 is a strong one. The aim is for a single, orderly move from the status quo to a new status in 2021. Yet the Article 50 clock is ticking. That clock runs down in March 2019, unless both we and the EU agree to extend or to do an interim deal. Seeking another two years makes sense. Yet what if something goes wrong with this plan? This is why the backstop of being Ready on Day One in March 2019 matters.
How we can get ready
Leaving the EU is the biggest challenge our nation has faced since the Second World War. We need to be ready whatever happens. That means it’s important to plan for efficient ports, infrastructure for customs checks and technological improvements, not least in making sure HMRC successfully delivers its new computer system on time. Planning needs to be given to a trusted trader system and close working will be required from partner ports like Calais, Dunkirk and Zeebrugge as well as investment in the infrastructure needed to be fully ready. It’s of serious concern that the National Infrastructure Commission does not consider Brexit preparations to be among its 12 priorities.
It’s important to understand that for customs clearances the border is a tax point, not a search point. We need to look at doing checks away from the border, not at the border. This is the case for both the Channel Ports and the Northern Irish border. The system can operate as a self-assessment system like VAT. So there need not be long delays at the border as long as systems are properly organised.
Meanwhile the Home Office would need to have systems in place to handle a step change in immigration. Post-Brexit, free movement will end. This means we will need to extend our full border control systems from the current 12.5 million to a further 25.5 million visitors to the United Kingdom.
HMRC has started to make progress leading a cross-departmental borders planning group with the Home Office. Yet greater emphasis and investment are needed to ensure readiness. See also my Ready on Day One series for this site here.
It’s right to be optimistic about our future relationship with the EU. And to be optimistic about the kind of post-Brexit Britain we can build. Yet we also need to be prepared for every eventuality – deal or no deal.
It’s vital we get this right. Because, as Paul Goodman yesterday pointed out, if we don’t and the M20 is gridlocked with lorries and goods are not delivered, people will rightly ask: why were we not prepared? That’s why we need to make the case for a positive relationship with the EU after Brexit, yet also to be ready on day one whatever happens.