Pipe down, Jacob Rees-Mogg, your noises off are making Britain look weak, writes DAMIAN GREEN
Amid the cacophony of claims and rival claims over our departure from the EU, there’s one fact we can all agree on. Brexit Day itself is now just nine months away and time is not on the UK’s side.
This period will shape the future of Britain’s relationship with Europe for decades to come.
As we approach the second anniversary in a few weeks’ time of the fateful referendum, the negotiations with Brussels – already difficult – are about to become even tougher. So last week I went to No10 with colleagues Amber Rudd and Justine Greening to assure the Prime Minister that, far from being isolated in her search for a pragmatic, workable solution, she does in fact have widespread support from her party.
That may surprise readers used to the clamour from arch-Brexiteers and die-hard Remainers alike on the Tory benches. But it is time for those two camps to face reality.
At this crucial juncture, any politician who wants a successful outcome for Britain needs to choose their words carefully.
I am afraid that even my friend, the intelligent and energetic Jacob Rees-Mogg, who runs the European Research Group inside the Conservative Party, occasionally lapses by not choosing his words carefully, writes Damian Green
Every Minister who goes to Brussels is struck by how closely domestic British arguments are followed there – and how they can be used against our vital national interests.
Many of us have had the experience of warning European leaders that just because an anonymous ‘senior figure’ is quoted in the press predicting doom and failure, or citing hopeless divisions within Government, this should not be taken as gospel truth.
This is a danger at the moment because the British negotiating team, from the Prime Minister down, has to be able to reach agreement on two separate fronts.
They have to come up with proposals which they can agree with the EU leaders. Then these proposals need to gain the approval of Parliament.
Of course, the EU side knows this only too well.
So the more the British side is restricted by domestic noises off, the tougher the stance the EU side will feel confident in taking. This cannot help Britain’s case. One very damaging and misguided line of argument is that Britain is all-powerful in these negotiations, so the mere threat of our walking away will bring the Europeans promptly to heel. This is not just a misnomer: the fact that it is so clearly unrealistic has the effect of making Britain look even weaker.
I am afraid that even my friend, the intelligent and energetic Jacob Rees-Mogg, who runs the European Research Group inside the Conservative Party, occasionally lapses in this way.
Last week he overstated our negotiating strength in an obviously misleading way by claiming that the EU was under pressure to strike a deal ‘because we buy more from them than they do from us by £100billion a year’.
All that tells us is that there are 450 million Europeans wanting to sell to us and only 65 million Brits selling to them.
Pictured l-r: Justine Greening MP leaving Downing Street with Amber Rudd MP and Damian Green MP last week
We all buy and sell to each other. While, indeed, 18 per cent of their exports come to us, a whopping 44 per cent of ours head across the Channel to other EU countries. No wonder British manufacturers are nervous. However, it is still clearly in the interests of both sides to strike a deal.
The steel tariff war with America highlights the need to retain strong pan-European ties – the better to flex our combined trading muscles. However, a deal is essential not just to keep trade flowing but to ensure our mutual security. Without the UK contribution to policing and anti-terrorism, the whole of Europe would be less safe.
If, for example, the European Commission continues to insist on removing the UK from the satellite communication system Galileo, then Europe as a whole will have a less effective and more expensive GPS tracking system. How exactly does that serve the people of the EU? So we do have some cards to play.
The Europeans should not be over-influenced by those who make the most noise at the two extremes of the argument in the UK, from some of Jacob’s followers – who would be happiest if we made no deal at all – to those who want to rerun the referendum.
From the amount of heat generated by these two viewpoints, you would be excused for assuming that everyone in Britain either wants nothing to do with the EU ever again, or wants to carry on as though the vote never happened.
I believe this is a misreading of the public mood, and I know that this is not an accurate picture of the majority view inside the Conservative Party.
The centre of gravity on the issue is that we took a decision in 2016 and the Government’s job is to make a deal that returns the powers people wanted exercised at home while minimising any damage to our economy that would come through barriers to trade.
If that means deciding to keep some of our rules the same as the EU rules for pragmatic reasons, then as long as we are taking that decision ourselves, it’s fine.
As to what this means in detail, I am afraid that at this point we are in danger of moving on to arguments about different customs arrangements – and for most people this is understandably the moment to tune out.
Certainly, if you are working in a car plant that depends on daily deliveries of parts from around Europe, or in an insurance company that wants to sell policies to other EU citizens, you mainly want to know that your job is not at risk.
Politicians making grand warnings in Churchillian-sounding phrases about becoming a ‘vassal state’ don’t help pay the bills.
The British people have always been a practical breed.
This will be a source of strength for a supremely pragmatic Prime Minister who can face the European negotiators across the table safe in the knowledge that her instincts are in tune with the people.
A country that voted 52/48 per cent to leave clearly wants Brexit but a Brexit that leaves us in a close and friendly relationship.
We were often rowdy tenants inside the European house. We can now become good neighbours.
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