Tom Tugendhat is Chair of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for Tonbridge and Malling.
None of us chose to be here. The Prime Minister’s deal isn’t great – it’s a compromise that leaves no one happy and disappoints many. It buys time but does little more. But this shouldn’t be a surprise. It’s where you end up when you start from the wrong point.
In June 2016, the world changed. We’d chosen to change the way we traded together with our closest partners but behaved as though we were still members.
When we decided to leave the EU, we moved away from a single structure, to a more open relationship. It’s like switching from Apple to Android. Apple is expensive but it all works together, but it’s not great with other brands. With Android you have greater choice, but none of it gels quite as well. And switching from between them is tricky.
We decided to switch but continued to behave as if we were still in. It didn’t work. Instead of thinking of ourselves as still in the bloc but negotiating out, we should have recognised that we were, in truth, already out and were now a third-party negotiating in. That would have avoided some of the confusion we have seen throughout these talks.
The truth is that the arrangement we enjoyed for 45 years – around the same length of time as when Elizabeth I was on the throne – is over.
Now the decision is made and, in the two years since we voted out, the EU has evolved. The latest budget wrangles, nationalist throes and regional instabilities have happened and the truth is simple: no second, third or fourth referendum could turn back the clock. Our voice in Europe was quietened on that day in June when we voted out..
We should have expected the EU to back Ireland – they are going to stay a member state after March, we won’t. And on issues such as the Galileo satellite programme and fishing, we would have had to work together to strike a deal, not waited to see what we got. It would also have changed the way we behaved.
Knowing that we had already left in spirit would have focused our mind on the reality that we need to invest now in the necessary technology to streamline our ports, upgrade our customs infrastructure, and get our systems ready so that companies can navigate the world of checks that will now be required.
Of course, this won’t come cheap. We chose to leave and this is what we must now do – as many people recognise. With interest rates at historic lows, we should be issuing a Brexit bond to ensure we can make these improvements to our national infrastructure and deliver what we need. Many in Kent, for example, are worried about the M20 and M26 becoming a lorry park if we don’t have a deal.
That’s why we must also be generous and use the money the Treasury has set aside.
We need to recognise that the changes we’re making will impose extra costs on many of our neighbours, we should share some of the costs to upgrade their facilities. New joint working groups with the Irish Sea, Baltic, North Sea and Channel ports, would show us for what we really are – neighbours, not strangers, in a new relationship.
Such and investment in partnership would result in physical and technical improvements, avoiding the need to ever use the backstop. Investing in our people to ensure we can be ready for whatever the future brings
Most importantly, we must remember that we are still friends with our European neighbours. That means using the two years before us – if the Prime Minister’s deal passes – to stop arguing about the past and do what we should have done from the beginning and work on our new partnership with the EU, and others around the world.
Britain’s place is at the heart of international networks, and few partners are more important to us than our European friends. That’s why we need to get on with the change and build our new relationship. That’s why we must use the time the Prime Minister has negotiated to smooth the transition, and prepare for the future that started two years ago.