George Eustice is a Minister of State at DEFRA, and is MP for Camborne, Redruth & Hayle.
Last week, while visiting friends, I drove through a quiet Hampshire village. Along the main street, one of the houses had put out a huge EU flag. His two immediate neighbours had responded by flying the Union Jack outside their homes. Along an adjacent street the same thing had happened. Is there really no end to this argument?
I think that the refusal of some MPs to respect the referendum result risks undermining our country in these important negotiations about our future partnership with the EU. The Prime Minister has a difficult task trying to unite the country behind a settled view about what our future partnership with the EU should look like – as the reaction to the Chequers proposal has shown. But if we want to deliver Brexit successfully, we all have to try to move on from the referendum arguments and drive out a consensus about the future, however frustrating that might feel at times.
The first time I stood as a candidate in politics was for UKIP in 1999. My family business had been badly damaged by the ERM fiasco, and I thought that the EU was undermining our democracy. People had voted in 1975 to remain in a common market, not a political union.
After that, I joined the Conservatives and, in common with the vast majority of our party, I became a supporter of fundamental renegotiation. I genuinely thought then that it would be possible to stay a member of the EU but negotiate the repatriation of powers and take back control of key policy areas – but it turned out that those of us who thought so were all wrong.
David Cameron tested the policy of renegotiation, but it failed. As early as October 2015, it was clear that anything that mattered was deemed to have “negotiability” problems. At that point, leaving the EU became the only viable option for our country if we really wanted to become a genuinely self-governing democracy again. I had worked as an adviser to Cameron, and I remember having a difficult conversation with my old friend, Ed Llewelyn, then Cameron’s Chief of Staff as Prime Minister, when I broke the news to him that I would end up on the opposite side of the debate to them. The seam of renegotiation that had bound our party together on this issue was inevitably pulled apart by the binary nature of referendums. We were all forced to take sides. If we want to put the country back together, we must now keep some perspective.
The context has changed, and things have moved on since the policy of renegotiation. A decision to leave has been taken and must be honoured if we value our freedom and our democracy. However, if we want to reach a settlement to this argument about the nature of our future relationship with the EU, it is important to reconcile what we hope to put in place now with some of the features of the new settlement that many of us envisaged in the years leading up to that original, fateful decision to divide the country in the 2016 referendum.
The Chequers proposal would enable us to have full control of our own fishing waters; full control of our agriculture policy; our own independent immigration policy and our own trade policy. The supremacy of EU law would end, but free trade would continue. In order to minimise border checks, we would agree to some regulatory alignment, or a common rule book with the EU on a narrow set of issues around technical product standards, but we would be outside the wider single market legislation.
The context has changed in another fundamental way. In 2016, in a renegotiation, we could only really secure what the EU was willing to grant. Now the roles have reversed. Parliament has already passed into law the EU Withdrawal Act which will repeal the 1972 European Communities Act and end the supremacy of EU law in March next year.
In the final analysis, we do not need permission from the EU to leave. The referendum result was a decision to leave, not a negotiation to leave. All that we are really negotiating at the moment are the terms of a future partnership, so the baseline for these negotiations is completely different. Insofar as there are “negotiability” problems, then all that is affected is the scope of the future partnership, rather than the fact that we are leaving.
At Defra, we have been developing detailed plans for agriculture and fisheries once we regain control of these policies. There are two Bills currently being drafted. The Agriculture Bill will be introduced this autumn and the Fisheries Bill shortly afterwards. For the first time in half a century, we will have the power to design our own agriculture policy from first principles, and remove the dead weight costs of EU membership which have done so much damage.
In fisheries, we will become an independent coastal state and have full control of access to our own Exclusive Economic Zone, as provided for under international law. The ability to think about what policy ought to be, rather than slavishly fretting about EU compliance, has been an incredibly uplifting and refreshing experience for a department like Defra, which has had to shoulder so much of the burden of EU membership over decades.
Of course, what was agreed at Chequers was a proposal rather than a deal. We will find out during the next few months whether the EU is serious about wanting a future partnership or not. They need an agreement on trade as much, or more, than we do. Access to the UK market is incredibly important for the Irish beef industry and the Danish dairy industry, to name but two.
We do not yet know whether they have failed to understand this, or whether their apparent intransigence is just a negotiating tactic. The only way to find out is to persevere and stick to our position. Once the shape of any final agreement is settled later this autumn, it will be for parliament to have the ultimate say on whether to accept it, or whether to walk away and postpone further discussion until after we have left.