This evening, I will be discussing Brexit at a conference in Hamburg. It is an ideal place to make the case, as – from the days of the Hanseatic League to its zenith as the second-largest port in Europe after London in the 19th century – Hamburg has always been an outward-looking, independent-minded city, built upon free trade. This outlook, and the emphasis on reciprocal free trade, are precisely what Brexit is about.
My principal message is simple: Brexit is going to happen. Those still in denial must take note and understand the reality of the situation.
More people voted to leave the EU than have ever voted for any issue or political party. Article 50 was triggered on 29th March, after 494 MPs voted for it in the House of Commons. The automatic legal effect of this is that at midnight on 29th March 2019, the EU treaties in their entirety will cease to apply to the UK, with no post-exit obligations on the UK.
Since then, we have had a General Election in which 85% of the votes cast were for parties advocating leaving the Single Market, the Customs Union and the remit of the European Court of Justice.
This is the Government’s position, and it has not changed. Not a single Conservative MP voted against the Queen’s Speech. Two weeks ago, the UK triggered our withdrawal from the 1964 London Fisheries Convention, signalling our determination to take back control of our waters and, as if that were not confirmation enough, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill was published last Thursday, which will repeal the European Communities Act 1972 and convert into UK law the entire Acquis Communautaire.
Nevertheless, there are still those who seek to use open-ended “transitional arrangements” to delay and frustrate our exit, but they should take note of the European Council’s guidelines on such arrangements. They must be “bridges towards the foreseeable framework”, “clearly defined”, and “limited in time”. These requirements explicitly rule out open-ended stalling tactics.
The sentiments behind Brexit – taking back control of our laws, our money and our borders – are not negative ones. They are not anti-Europe. They are positive statements of the age-old notion that a sovereign country will be more successful when it governs its own affairs.
Leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union are prerequisites for expanding our trade around the world and there is no doubt that such expansion is necessary. In 1999, 61% of UK trade was with the EU, now it is 43%. By 2025, it has been projected that our exports to the EU will account for under 35%.
There is, nonetheless, a clear incentive to continue our trade with the rest of Europe and it would be foolish for the EU to think that “punishing” the UK would be in its best interests. Allister Heath has written in this newspaper about the appalling damage which a “tariff war” could do to the German car industry, with production predicted to fall by almost 1 million units, close to its nadir during the financial crisis in 2009.
Last year, 950,000 newly-registered cars in the UK were German. In the first year after the UK leaves, it has been predicted that the imposition of tariffs would see German car exports to the UK collapse by a third, with 18,000 jobs in the German car industry put at direct risk.
Spiteful protectionism by the Commission is in no one’s interest, and German politicians are realising this. The Bavarian Minister for Economic Affairs, Ilse Aigner, has said “Great Britain is one of the most important trading partners in Bavaria. We must do everything we can to eliminate the uncertainties that have arisen." She subsequently called for extensive new trade agreements between the EU and Great Britain: "There must be ways to re-establish economic relations with Great Britain without breaks."
Aigner is correct. We must remember that we currently have zero tariffs, and enjoy conformity of regulations and standards. A comprehensive free trade agreement is vital, and should be easy to achieve. Our goal is, and always has been, reciprocal free trade.
Above all, however, our goal must be to obey the command which the British people gave last June. The constitutional position we face is unprecedented. We have held a number of referendums over the last 50 years, but this is the first in which the people have contradicted the view of the political, judicial, financial, media and academic Establishment. Failure now to deliver what 17.4 million people voted for would do catastrophic damage to the integrity of the whole Establishment.
We look forward, in a whole range of fields – security, academia, scientific research, cultural exchanges – to continuing with the closest possible co-operation. But we must and we will leave the political and legal arrangements of the EU, offering instead a vision of amicable, reciprocal free trade between sovereign nations, close neighbours and good friends.