We are negotiating with neighbours not enemies

24 September 2019

Will that be the date we look back on?

The date of the Supreme Court Judgement that the UK prime Minster acted unlawfully (and misled the Queen?) by proroguing of Parliament. The day after the Labour Party voted to campaign for a People’s Vote.

Now that the judges have allowed us to put our parliamentary system back into action, let us all aim for a more rational and empathetic debate than we have had so far.

I think it was JS Mill who said ‘He who does not understand the others position, does not understand his own’. Whoever said it, I agree with them.

I am instinctively a Remainer. Here’s why:


First, the origins of the EU were in a desire to create economic and political links that protected Europe from another world war. That political and peace-living rationale remains important to me. I read only last week in the Guardian that Hungary’s interior minister was being grilled by her fellow ministers from other countries about erosion of press freedoms and the weakening of judicial independence. Good for the EU in saying that countries which do not play by open society rules may be denied the benefits of EU membership., The Economist of 31 August carried a chilling description of the many ways in which Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party has manipulated the constitution, controlled the appointment of judges, and silenced opposition in the media.


In the same way, my visit to Lithuania in April reminded me how powerful the EU was as a lever, alongside NATO, by which aspirant democracies and smaller independent countries could find their feet and be protected from economic and political bullying by neighbours.


Closer to home, Northern Ireland has been making all too fragile progress away from strife. The proponents of Brexit never seemed to care about the risks to the Good Friday agreement. We need to wake up to the benefits of the peace dividend before we throw it away.


Secondly, I listen to the next generation. They have grown up assuming that they can move freely, build networks, collaborate, study and research across European borders. Why put an obstacle in their way?


Thirdly there is the car industry and the care industry. Today the EU’s carmakers have joined forces to warn about the impact of no deal on car manufacturing, at a potential cost in stoppages of £50,000 a minute in the UK alone. I note that the care industry in many parts of the UK is on its knees because of staff shortages, and the NHS has a huge number of vacancies, even if these do not quite amount to the 100,000 sometimes claimed. Granted, we need to improve our defective vocational training. Granted, there are communities where the free flow of people has been felt as a torrent that sweeps away the traditional character of their communities. Yet I note that last year soft fruit production fell by 15% because of labour shortages. Admittedly there are fewer stories this year but I doubt if we have recovered the pre 2018 position.


I find it amazing that some politicians talk about Brexit as the biggest political challenge that faces us. I found this especially ironic on 20 September, the day of climate strikes, and just ahead of UN discussions on climate. Climate change, reinforced by the underestimated risks of bio-diversity loss, is the biggest political challenge facing us all, and my fourth reason for being a Remainer is that environmental risks do not observe national boundaries and we need strong supranational organisations to find solutions.


I am even more strongly against a No Deal outcome. From my life in business, one of the most important lessons has always been that in a good negotiation, all parties come out feeling that they have gained something. This is especially true in the context of No-Deal. I find it pathetic that politicians tell us that the only way to win your negotiation is by threats of walking away. As Liberal Democrat leader Jo Swinson put it, it is like threatening to burn your house down to spite your neighbours All the unresolved issues will still be there, putting an obstacle in the way of the Trade Deals that are the cornerstone of the Brexiteer’ global Britain. And when one looks at the scale of the trade agreements the EU is concluding with Canada, Japan and elsewhere, it is hard to imagine any UK government doing as well outside the EU


That said, there some qualifications to the attractiveness of remaining. The first is that the EU is approaching a major crisis. Its different members are pulling in different directions. Germany exercises a mighty influence which can stop other countries enjoying necessary budget freedom.


Secondly it was very interesting to read in The Economist of 14 September that ‘the importance of the single market is fading’ largely because the single market works for goods but doesn’t work for services, and economies every where are becoming less good-based and more services-based. Services in the EU make up ¾ of GDP, up from 2/3 before the single market. Financial integration is on hold. Europe is strong on the area that is diminishing – goods – but weak on the area that is increasing – services. 21 of the 25 top companies in Europe provide goods. In the USA 17 of the top 25 supply services such as software, data plans and bank accounts. Mind you I am impressed with the way the EU’s competition authorities have kept some of the internet companies honest.


So, I will certainly vote for and support a party that says it will revoke Article 50 in the event of having a majority. And if we have to leave the EU, I would want us to maintain membership of the customs union and single market, as a stable foundation for wealth creation. We know so much more now than we knew when the referendum happened.

But if we cannot persuade the British people to rethink their decision, let us at least put before them the vital importance of leaving on good terms and laying the foundations for future investment in the UK by companies like Airbus and Nissan. For the sake of the climate, the next generation, our exporting entrepreneurs and our car industry, and people whose wellbeing depends on health and social care let us start building bridges, with each other and with our EU neighbours.