Daily Telegraph: "We have long needed a new relationship with the EU. My fellow MPs must deliver it."

My piece in today’s Telegraph. I’ve copied the full text below so all constituents are able to read:

We have long needed a new relationship with the EU. My fellow MPs must deliver it. - Robert Courts MP

All politics is a curious mixture of logic and emotion: our considered thoughts combined with assumptions created by our upbringing and background. When the two collide, in the dark swirling clouds of controversy that result, the emotion usually wins. So it is with Brexit. But if we can part those storm clouds of emotion just for a moment, we will be able to see that, in Brexit, we are in fact dealing with the logical - perhaps even inevitable - consequences of decisions taken many years ago and that the way ahead is far clearer, far less controversial, than we think.

In the emotional storm in which we are wrapped, both sides feel affronted by the other. Leavers voted because they support the concept of independent nation states, want decisions that affect this country made democratically in Parliament by politicians that they can elect and dismiss - and cannot understand why anyone would disagree with those sentiments. Remainers, for their part, feel a cultural affinity with Europe that goes to the heart of their identity - and are hurt by those who, they feel, wish to deprive them of what they consider to be a part of themselves.

But we have to find a way - and as the first post-Referendum MP, I perhaps see this more clearly than most - of getting to the point where, three years on from the referendum, we stop hanging the dread weights of the placards “Leave” or “Remain” around each others’ necks, and begin to move forward. The vast majority of the population, however they voted, now respect the result as a democratic outcome and want to see it enacted, but we clearly have not yet reached the position where we can have a calm, dispassionate discussion about our nation’s future direction.

The two sides are never as far apart as they think in terms of what they actually want the relationship with the EU to be. Whenever I talk to a Remain voter in my own Witney constituency, they always say that they value trade, co-operation, a feeling of working with not against our nearest international neighbours - and see the EU as a way to achieve this. When I talk to a Leave voter, they distinguish between “Europe” and the “European Union” but also want to see - you’ve guessed it - trade, co-operation, a feeling of working with not against not only our nearest international neighbours but the rest of the wider World - and see the European Union as an impediment to this. Almost nobody wants to be a part of a federal United States of Europe or, in any event, that is an argument that no-one has ever had the courage to make.

Where all these people differ is the political mechanism - EU membership or not - within which we work to achieve essentially the same ends. So why on Earth does this put the two sides in two barricaded camps from which they wave their placards, shout slogans at each other, and never meet in the middle to discuss their common ground?

It is because the emotion has overwhelmed the logic, and the flames of the process argument - whether we leave or remain in the European Union - have thrown dark clouds over the far more important issues of what we would want to achieve by taking either course.

But if we can, for a moment, shed the protective cloaks of our righteous emotion and entrenched positions, we can see that we have arrived at a historic fork in the road that, whether we like it or not, we were going to have to confront one way or the other, at some time or other. And there is one very good reason why that is.

All sides are missing the point that Britain’s decision not to join the Euro - something that even the most ardent pro-EU campaigners in the UK do not now advocate - meant, as a matter of ineluctable logic, a major parting of the ways for Britain and the European Union. The latter, recognising the economic impossibility of creating a monetary union without full fiscal and political union, is going to have to integrate further and faster or risk the disintegration either of the Eurozone or even the Union itself. The UK, whilst accepting the economic reality that faces our European friends, has never subscribed to being a member of such a federal state. Further, in stepping outside the Euro, the UK also stepped outside the EU’s central, flagship project. So much more integration will be required to make the Euro work that being outside it was always going to have, as Eurocrats like to say, “consequences.” So we have a problem, and we were always going to have to resolve it at some point.

There are two ways in which it could have been resolved. The first is that the EU, accepting the reality that non-Euro countries would not want to be part of the regulation and political union required for the Eurozone, could have relaxed its theological approach to the things that are most objectionable to Britain: the relentless drive for closer integration, the desire to centralise powers in Brussels, and specific policies like freedom of movement. It could have accepted that a two-tier European structure was inevitable and desirable: the UK could have remained a member but as part of a looser, outer tier, stepping outside further integration, further regulation, freedom of movement, and repatriated powers that are better dealt with at a national level.

The only remaining option, if the EU were to remain inflexibly wedded to its “one size fits all” approach to the speed and scope of European integration, is to leave.

The former approach was preferred Eurosceptic thinking for years – indeed it’s the view I took at the time - but the issue was settled by the EU’s refusal to offer David Cameron more than token gestures in his renegotiation attempt prior to the Referendum, and the subsequent result. From that point on, the inevitable parting of the ways meant actually leaving, rather than a movement to a looser relationship within the EU - precisely the outcome George Osborne warned about in 2014 (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-25740462).

However, whilst a parting of the ways of some sort was probably inevitable, it remains unlikely, even from outside the EU, that the UK will drift very far from our European partners, to whom we are so close in geographic and cultural terms, and with whom we will always do a great deal of trade, even when we are signing free trade deals with the wider world.

So, in one way or another, the UK is, ultimately, likely to be a part of some sort of outer European circle in any event. The historic task that now faces MPs is getting to the stage where we are able to figure out what that actually is.

There are a number of options. Firstly, the UK might decide to opt for my favoured solution, what is often called a “Canada-style” bespoke deep and comprehensive free trade agreement. This would remove tariffs, recognise our unique relationship, maintain our current frictionless trade as far as is possible, whilst providing for a clear path to manage future divergence, with optional buy-ins into certain EU programs in which we wish to take part: perhaps ERASMUS, certain scientific programs, and so on - whilst leaving us free to join with others if we desired.

Or, in the alternative, the UK might decide to retain its European Economic Area (EEA) Agreement rights through membership of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) - the one-time economic, non-political competitor to the EEC that we probably should never have left - but not, emphatically not, a customs union. The obvious criticism of that plan is the one that I have made about the Prime Minister’s ill-starred Chequers proposals: that we would, to a certain degree, be a rule taker. That would only be true in so far as the regulations required for the operation of the single market were concerned (between 10-25% of EU law), and - whilst I am unlikely to take to the streets over accepting EU food labelling guidelines or washing machine specifications, which are in any case increasingly formulated at a global level - this would clearly create democratic difficulties, and the City has warned clearly about the dangers of this approach for the financial industry.

But it would have the signal difference that we would be part of a pre-existing agreement, with its own Court. And we would not be alone, but alongside other countries whose outlook we share. We would have, for the first time, the heft and the structure to start altering the economic and political balance of power in Europe. We could look for changes to the EEA treaty to give EFTA states a greater say – perhaps even a vote – on single market rules, with further powers unlocked for countries to address concerns over free movement and other issues. With some optimisation, over time, we could begin to see the creation of that second, outer, looser, non-political tier of European co-operation of which I spoke above.

Both are options, both have their merits and demerits, and both must be discussed in the event that we get beyond the emotional hump that is the UK leaving the European Union and arrive at the logical discussion of what relationship follows thereafter. What we must have, and what MPs must focus on securing, is democratic accountability, not only because the lack of that has always been the most trenchant, unanswerable criticism of the EU, but because if MPs exist to do anything, it is to defend our democracy.

But ultimately, however painful the Brexit process may be in the short-term, we must keep our eye on the long-term process that will ultimately be required to reach a lasting settlement with the EU – and which will inevitably be in a constant state of evolution. This is precisely why the repeated delays in leaving are so damaging: they put off the point at which we start to consider, coolly and calmly, what that future relationship ought to be, and how we are going to get there.

It may be too much to say that Brexit was inevitable, but there was certainly an inevitability to the fact that the UK was going to have to deal, at some point, with the consequences of joining a political union whilst trying to convince itself that it was just a trade bloc. Simply put, we could not forever have remained as we have for the last forty years, reluctant passengers in a car going in a direction we did not want to go, constantly asking for the car to slow down, or to change course, against the wishes of the rest of the occupants.

When MPs return from their abridged Easter break, they - and the European Commission - would be well-advised to return to the Brexit issue with cool heads, to leave the emotion aside as much as can ever be possible, and deal with the necessary historic reality of building a British relationship with Europe that both sides are comfortable with. It is not going to be easy, but it is a part in history that we should be honoured to play, and for the sake of future generations, we must get it right.

So let us discard the emotion and confront the historic reality that a fundamental restructuring of our relationship with the EU has long been inevitable, and particularly when we did not join the Euro. We must now come together to forge, at last, a new relationship with the EU that is sensitive to the concerns of both sides and enables us to build a more prosperous, forward-thinking, free, and democratic nation.

Robert Courts MP

This article first appeared in the Daily Telegraph on the 19th April 2019.