Hardly a week goes by without some new evidence of the damage done by Brexit to the British economy. From rising food prices, to empty supermarket shelves, to shortages of HGV drivers and of staff in the healthcare, farming and hospitality sectors, to musicians being unable to perform abroad, to British firms, farmers and fishers facing such higher charges and bureaucracy that they give up exporting their products altogether, to scientists losing chances of collaborative projects, Brexit is affecting more and more parts of everyday life. The coronavirus pandemic has caused the biggest shock to the British economy since the war, but, as the independent Office for Budget Responsibility has predicted, the impact of Brexit will be twice as large – and, unlike the pandemic, it will not stop.
The damage is not only to the economy. Brexit has removed British citizens’ opportunities to work, to be together with their loved ones, to study and retire anywhere in the EU. Britain now has less clout in international negotiations, whether on climate change or biodiversity or trade. The existence of the UK itself is now under threat, as Brexit has weakened the arguments for Scotland and Northern Ireland – which both voted to Remain – to stay part of the union. The slogan ‘take back control’ was a lie; in reality Britain now exercises less control over the forces that determine its future than it did inside the EU.
Increasingly the electorate shares our view that Brexit is damaging Britain, and recognises that a new approach would bring benefits. The Liberal Democrat position, as agreed by conference in autumn 2020 and spring 2021, is to back the ultimate goal of the UK joining the EU once more. But support for a campaign to join the EU as soon as possible is by no means certain, and has no guarantee of success. In any case, there is no indication that the EU would want the UK back, in its current state; the Conservatives have gone out of their way to turn down offers of cooperation, to destroy the trust that is necessary to effective international relations and to diverge as much as possible from European standards and systems. The EU no longer sees Britain as a good neighbour, and it will take time to convince EU member states that the UK is serious about forging stronger links and rebuilding the relationship.
It is against this background that the Federal Policy Committee has approved the policy paper Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe for debate at the spring conference next month. The paper argues for a staged approach to re-establish good relations and rebuild the associations between Britain and its European neighbours, to the benefit of both:
1. Immediate UK initiatives to repair the UK–EU relationship – starting with a declaration of a fundamental change in the UK’s approach, and including extending mobility schemes, improving channels for foreign policy cooperation and granting full Settled Status to all EU citizens and their families who were living in the UK on 31 December 2020.
2. Rebuilding confidence – through seeking to agree partnerships or associations with EU agencies and programmes such as the European Aviation Safety Agency, Erasmus Plus, scientific programmes, climate and environment initiatives, and cooperation on crime and security.
3. Deepening the trading relationship – including critical steps for the British economy, such as aiming to negotiate a veterinary agreement for trade in food and livestock, mutual recognition agreements, and reciprocal deals with the EU on low-cost, fast-tracked work visas.
4. Applying to join the Single Market. Once ties of trust and friendship have been renewed, and the damage the Conservatives have caused to trade between the UK and EU has begun to be repaired, the opportunity should arise to remove remaining trade barriers and to restore Britain’s economy to health by applying to join the Single Market – though we recognise, given the current state of these relationships, that this may be some time in the future.
The paper is available on the party website; and the motion accompanying it is on pages 37–40 of the agenda; it’s due for debate on the Saturday morning of conference, 12 March. While it focuses primarily on the UK–EU trading relationship and Single Market membership, the approach we take means that the paper also touches on many other policy areas too, but generally only very briefly. We will be coming back to future conferences with further policy motions to allow party members to debate more fully other aspects of the UK–EU relationship.
We believe that the staged approach proposed in Rebuilding Trade and Cooperation with Europe offers the best chance of convincing former Remain voters sick of Brexit, and former Leave voters disillusioned by it, that the Liberal Democrats have a better way – that the hostility that marks the Conservative government’s approach to relations with the EU is not a necessary part of Brexit, that there are different approaches available that work through trust and cooperation, not antagonism and divergence.
By steadily building a healthier relationship with the EU, we can demonstrate how the UK can become more prosperous, more safe and more influential – and in this way maximise the chance of persuading the electorate to support a renewed UK membership of the EU in the longer term.