Moving together towards the Brexit door?

What  a difference a week can make! This time last week, many of us were frantically pushing our final leaflets through doors, gritting our teeth and hoping that the soundings from grassroots campaigners across the country were going to prove more accurate than the official opinion polls. Now all that is behind us, although the shockwaves of the Brexit vote are still reverberating around the country, the EU and indeed, the whole world.

Some things, however, have not changed. I’m not just referring to the miserable summer weather, which kindly went on hold for a few hours last Friday morning to allow a beautiful sunrise to greet the fantastic result before reverting to type again, but also the dreadful standard of coverage of EU-related events in the mainstream media.

So what is exactly going on in Westminster, Brussels and Whitehall as far as Brexit is concerned?

Firstly, we can be reassured that, in spite of the petition for a second referendum reaching three million signatures and some Labour MPs also coming out in support of this, the Government has accepted the result. There will be no second referendum. A new Brexit unit has been set up, headed by Oliver Letwin and both Tory remainers and leavers have come together to look at the best way out. Former Remain MP Sajid Javid spoke for  many of his collegues when he said “We’re all Brexiteers now”. While distrust of our politicians was a big factor in the “leave” vote, it does seem that the pro-remain Tories are bowing to the inevitable and throwing their weight behind securing a smooth divorce from the EU.

There is no legal requirement for the UK to trigger Article 50 and begin the formal exit process.  After all, in law the referendum is actually a consultation only. Obviously, with so much resting on the result, it was never going to be brushed aside or ignored. Already  its shockwaves have caused the Prime Minister to resign and the UK’s Commissioner Lord Hill, has made his departure. It is a case of when rather than if. Although no formal talks are taking place with EU officials, both sides appear to be preparing for the process to begin at some point in the not-too-distant future.

The lack of any coherent exit strategy by the leaders of Vote.leave has not helped calm jittery nerves in this immediate post-referendum period. We were concerned before the referendum that the failure by the offical campaign to spell out their vision for a post-Brexit UK could lose us the vote.  Thankfully, this didn’t happen, but with the Government not expecting to lose and therefore having made little preparation either, it has led to something of a vacuum.

It is perhaps ironic that more pragmatic former Tory Remainers  are starting to line up alongside the Leave Alliance (of which CIB is a member) in recognising that withdrawal is a process rather than an event and in the interim, we must retain access to the Single Market. Support for the “Norway Option” or EEA/EFTA as it is better known, is therefore growing among our former opponents. Hopefully they will get up to speed quickly and realise that it is not a suitable long-term relationship with the EU for an independent UK. We can do better, but first, we need to get out smoothly.

For some 38% of leave voters, immigration was the big issue and there is a feeling among some leave supporters that any deal which allowed unrestricted freedom of movement to continue would mean that their vote was wasted. This, of course, was one reason why most of the big names on the leave side kept their distance from the EEA/EFTA route.

The best way of keeping everyone happy would appear to be what Richard North calls  the Liechtenstein solution.  This tiny country has used the provisions of the EEA agreement to restrict migration from the EU for over 20 years. As Dr North puts it, “The EU has been quite willing to negotiate with one of the three EFTA/EEA states on freedom of movement. Furthermore, they have come to an amicable solution, which has allowed it to secure an amendment to the treaty giving it a permanent opt-out to freedom of movement.  Of course, this won’t go far enough for some people, but it seems the best basis for an outline deal. The EU’s “four freedoms” remain intact for the 27 member states but we can still access the Single Market while giving ourselves a great deal of wiggle room as far as the emotive issue of migration from the EU is concerned. It is not twisting the rules, as some may fear, but rather, working within the rules.

The 400-plus page document Flexcit has been recently been updated to include more information about Liechtenstein’s use of the relevant articles in the EEA agreement.

The leader of another EFTA member, Iceland’s President  Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, welcomed the Brexit vote – giving the lie to those claiming that leaders of extremist parties were the only overseas politicians to speak positively of Brexit. In one Brexit debate last month, your author found himself confronted by a claim that we would not be allowed to re-join EFTA.  Mr  Grímsson’s statement proves the point, which I made at the time, that such claims are pure hogwash.

Two other issues are worth mentioning briefly. Firstly, Scotland will have to leave the EU along with the rest of the UK. Spain’s Mariano Rajoy, concerned about the possible secession of Catalonia, was quite adamant about this. This does not rule out Scotland applying to re-join the EU if it votes to secede from the UK in a future referendum, but that is another issue.  Secondly, the damage being done by the Brexit vote to both the EU’s economy and indeed its general credibility has removed one possible obstacle. While the other member states regret the result of last week’s vote, this piece in EU Observer suggests they are resigned to it, want us to get cracking and seem most unlikely to derail the Brexit process.

Of somewhat less signifiance is the statement by Australia and New Zealand that they wished to make the most of the trade opportunities provided by Brexit.  It sounds good and may well be an option to pursue in the longer term, but there is one fundamental problem:- the serious lack of experienced trade negotiators in the UK after 40 years of delegating this job to the EU.

This one issue highlights the sheer complexity of the negotiations which lie ahead of us. There is the possibility that it could go wrong, leaving us worse off financially. We could be bogged down in negotiations for years if things become difficult. The forthcoming Conservative Party leadership campaign therefore assumes a particular importance in this respect. We need a cool-headed Prime Minister who will seek the best deal for our country and lead us safely thought the Brexit door.

 

If South Korea can do it, why can’t we?

THE PRESS OFFICE OF                                                           

The Lord Stoddart of Swindon (Independent Labour)  

News Release

3rd November 2015

Peer hammers Government for pro-EU bias and stay-in campaigners for belittling our country’s ability to stand on its own

During a debate on the European Union Referendum Bill in the House of Lords (02.11.15), the independent Labour Peer, Lord Stoddart of Swindon has pointed out the bias being exhibited by the Government in the debate about Britain’s future in the EU and strongly criticised fellow peers who regularly talk down Britain’s ability to cope as an independent sovereign nation.

Lord Stoddart said that it is impossible to obtain unbiased information from “…the Government because they are in fact biased. I say that because the Prime Minister has just been to Iceland where he made his position perfectly clear, which is that he wishes to remain in the EU. He believes that it is the best thing for Britain to do, so he has made his position absolutely clear. How can the Government be unbiased?

In a hard hitting speech, Lord Stoddart bluntly stated that “the British national interest cannot be served in the European Union. That is because the European Union is exactly what it says it is and what it wants to become. It has been made perfectly clear by unelected officials and indeed by elected people that they want further integration. However the Prime Minister tries, he will never be able to join a full Union unless he is prepared to agree to more integration.”

Lord Stoddart also expressed serious concerns about the habit those who support staying in the EU have of belittling our country and its ability to thrive as an independent nation. “The other thing that has worried me about this debate is the lack of confidence that so many people have in this country’s ability to negotiate with other countries and to stand on its own and build up its own businesses and exports. Why is it that other countries in the world can do it? Why can South Korea do it with a population of 25 million? Why cannot Britain, with a population of 65 million, negotiate successfully with other countries when smaller countries including Saudi Arabia and Iceland can? The Prime Minister of Iceland made it perfectly clear that it was doing very well outside the EU with a population of 350,000 and did not want to go into the EU any longer. Why have we lost confidence in ourselves?”

The full text of some of Lord Stoddart’s remarks during the debate are as follows. Click on this link for the full debate.

Referendum Bill – second reading

House of Lords – 2nd November 2015

Lord Stoddart of Swindon (Ind Lab): My Lords, I have been listening to this debate all afternoon and I find it very interesting indeed. I also realise that all the amendments are well meant, but I think that the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, has hit the nail on the head. What she wants is unbiased information, and she believes that you cannot get it from the Government because they are in fact biased. I say that because the Prime Minister has just been to Iceland where he made his position perfectly clear, which is that he wishes to remain in the EU. He believes that it is the best thing for Britain to do, so he has made his position absolutely clear. How can the Government be unbiased? The noble Baroness said that we have civil servants and they will be unbiased. Civil servants are never unbiased; they take their lead from the boss, as in fact they should. Knowing that the Prime Minister has gone abroad and said that he believes that the United Kingdom should remain in the EU come what may will condition whatever is put into these reports. We should make no mistake about that.

2 Nov 2015 : Column 1450

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: Would the noble Lord allow for the possibility that the Prime Minister might have reached the position he now holds because of his concept of the British national interest and his position as Prime Minister in trying to define that national interest?

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: Yes, I believe that the Prime Minister believes that, but the British national interest cannot be served in the European Union. That is because the European Union is exactly what it says it is and what it wants to become. It has been made perfectly clear by unelected officials and indeed by elected people that they want further integration. However the Prime Minister tries, he will never be able to join a full Union unless he is prepared to agree to more integration, and that of course will also mean joining the euro. Further integration must include the euro and anyone who wishes to be part of further integration will have to join it or else leave or become some sort of associate member. Those are the facts and we should not try to deny them.

6 pm

The other thing that has worried me about this debate is the lack of confidence that so many people have in this country’s ability to negotiate with other countries and to stand on its own and build up its own businesses and exports. Why is it that other countries in the world can do it? Why can South Korea do it with a population of 25 million? Why cannot Britain, with a population of 65 million, negotiate successfully with other countries when smaller countries including Saudi Arabia and Iceland can? The Prime Minister of Iceland made it perfectly clear that it was doing very well outside the EU with a population of 350,000 and did not want to go into the EU any longer. Why have we lost confidence in ourselves? Why is it that so many people say we have to be members of this great organisation to succeed?

Common sense prevails in Iceland

Last week, Iceland formally withdrew its EU membership application. Given the importance of fishing to Iceland’s economy it is hardly surprising that the EU’s Common Fisheries Policy has proved a major stumbling block. As with Norway, it has long been a principal factor in Icelandic lukewarmness to the EU, and when the country did start formal accession talks following the collapse of its banking sector, an agreement on the CFP was always going to be a challenge. Discussions never got beyond an EU demand for Iceland to reduce its mackerel catch and to abide by EU quotas. As one report put it, the EU gave Iceland an ultimatum: It’s us or the fish. Iceland chose the fish.

With the a centre-right anti-EU government in power since elections in 2013, these devfelopments have come as no surprise. Accession talks ceased two years ago, although there has been some opposition recently to the process being terminated without a referendum. However, those supporters of membership who took to the streets of Reykjavik  must surely recognise that they represent a shrinking minority. Opinion polls indicate that the sceptical Icelanders are becoming even more opposed to their country joining the EU.

Many of Iceland’s senior politicians strongly support their country’s independence. Gunnar Bragi Sveinsson, Iceland’s Foreign Minister, said that “Iceland’s interests are better served outside the European Union.” Iceland has an advantage over Switzerland and Norway in this area. In these countries, well-organised anti-EU movements have more or less ensured that any referendum on joining the EU would be defeated, but it would be over and against the wishes of quite a few senior politicians who would like their country to join. David Cameron is fond of quoting Norwegian politicians who moan about their country’s relationship with the EU, even though Richard North and Peter Troy were easily able to find Norwegian MPs who were far happier to be outside the EU when they produced their DVD The Norway Option.

There is a lesson for the UK here. If tiny Iceland, with its population of barely one third of a million people (less than the population of Gloucestershire, in other words), has the confidence that it can survive outside the EU, those politicians in the UK who paint such a bleak picture of our country’s prospects outside the EU must be challenged. Such negativity flies in the face of the reality of our northern neighbour’s self-confidence. If Iceland can prosper as a sovereign independent country, so can we.

Photo by JasonParis

National Self-confidence

As predicted, David Cameron’s much-vaunted speech about immigration was a damp squib – anything but a “game changer”. Given that the Prime Minister is believed to have cleared the speech with Auntie Angela in Berlin beforehand, anyone hoping for a seriously tougher line was inevitably going to be disappointed. Furthermore, No. 10 is widely believed to be close to Open Europe and their research suggested that Cameron might get away with restrictions on access to benefits by immigrants from the EU but even a temporary cap on migration levels would run into opposition, let alone talk of an end to the principle of free movement of people. This is exactly what we got (or didn’t get) from Mr Cameron

Whether this speech will satisfy UKIP supporters or wavering Conservative voters is another matter. However, it has resulted in a number of supporters of EU membership coming out of their holes. Take Pat Macfadden, for instance. Writing in The Guardian, he says that “leadership is about standing up for Britain as a confident outward-looking country open to people, ideas and investment and keen to be a leading player in the EU and globally.” In other words, he equates national self-confidence and a worldwide outlook with EU membership. Supporters of withdrawal are, to quote Mr. Macfadden, “looking for a rewind button to a world that no longer exists.”

This is pure codswallop. It was precisely because we lost our self-confidence that we joined the EU. Dean Acheson, the US foreign Secretary, famously said in 1962 that “Great Britain has lost an Empire and has not yet found a role.” By the end of the decade, we were fast becoming “the sick man of Europe”, Union militancy and a lack of innovation caused our economy to lag behind those on the continent. Joining up with these dynamic countries on our doorstep was seen as a way of restoring our confidence. However, it was the Thatcher reforms, not the EEC (as it then was), that put us onto a path back to growth and restored our image at home and abroad, while at the same time, the dynamism of much of Continental Europe began to peter out. We were self-confident enough to see the pitfalls of joining a single currency and kept out. We are now self-confident enough to know that we can prosper outside the EU. After all, a number of successful European nations are not EU members and they have no intention of joining. These countries cannot remotely be accused of narrow introversion. Norway gives the highest percentage of Gross National Income in development aid of any country in Europe while Switzerland hosts a number of international organisations including the World Health Organisation and the International Labour Organisation.

Only one has wobbled recently – Iceland. Significantly, it was when their banks collapsed, along with their national self-confidence that this small country briefly gave serious consideration to join the EU. It was a painful time, but now they have pulled through, their self-confidence has returned and accession talks with the EU have been kicked into touch.

It is worth reminding Mr Macfadden that it was the lack of confidence in the concept of the nation state following the Second World War which gave birth to the idea of the EU – a defeatism that never caught on in this country and hasn’t done so in the rest of the world. Look beyond Europe and you will see that the EU with its “pooled” sovereignty is a weird abnormality

As Mark Reckless said in his acceptance speech in Rochester a week ago, “the world is bigger than Europe.” Indeed. Free form the EU, the UK will prosper. We can take our place again on international bodies such as the World Trade Organisation. We can strike free trade agreements with the growing economies of the world like China and India without having to wait for the EU to do so on our behalf.

And as for the “rewind button to a world that no longer exists,” it is the Europhiles who are locked into the past. The EU came to birth in an age when unwieldy bureaucratic international organisations were seen as the solution to the world’s problems. As the eurozone’s recent dismal economic performance proves only too well, they have instead become part of the problem. Lord Lawson was quite right when he stated that the EU was “past its sell-by date.” Things have moved on since the Treaty of Rome was signed in 1957. Unfortunately, Macfadden and his ilk don’t seem to have noticed.