Brexit is done and future is ours to shape
The government is to be commended both for its steadfast refusal to extend the transition period and for achieving exactly that which it set out to; a free trade deal with the EU in less than a year. As leading opposition figures have correctly pointed out, it is a thin deal – but this should be celebrated, not condemned. The fewer backdoor obligations, financial contributions and pages of impenetrable legalise it contains, the better. We did not, after all, vote to dispense with our membership of the European Union only to see its features replicated in a complex new treaty.
The Government as a matter of priority must now build upon the success of this agreement by securing a trade deal that covers the services industry. It is imperative that the United Kingdom's financial services industry has full and unfettered access to markets in the European Union. The City of London, a vital part of our economy, must, however, retain its independence from EU regulators.
In short, the deal is one of divergence – and rightly so. At 23:00 on Thursday, we will leave the single market and customs union. We will begin reaping the benefits of the dozens of trade deals already successfully negotiated by the Department for International Trade while pursuing yet more with partners around the world and trading goods with the EU on a zero tariff, zero quota basis. We will be free to make our own laws; the free movement of people will end and - the Northern Ireland protocol excepted - so too will ECJ jurisdiction in the United Kingdom. It is an historic achievement and, as the ERG star chamber has concluded, "preserves the UK's sovereignty as a matter of law."
That compromises were made on fisheries in order to secure concessions from the European Commission is a tough pill to swallow for many. EU boats will continue to fish in British waters, but 25% of their fishing rights will be transferred to the UK over a transition period of 5.5 years. Once this transition period ends in 2026, quotas for EU vessels will be negotiated between Westminster and Brussels on an annual basis. While the initial shift is smaller and the transition longer than many had hoped, it is now incumbent upon the fishing industry with the support of the government to seize the opportunity afforded by the transition to increase capacity and develop onshore processing facilities in anticipation of an increased catch.
But not everyone is in a position to support the government. The Bruges Group respects the DUP's decision to vote against the deal. It is a principled stance and serves to underline the outstanding issues surrounding the unpalatable Northern Ireland protocol, which we agree can and should be resolved by the government as a matter of urgency. While the protocol ensures that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK's customs territory - and therefore that it will benefit from bilateral trade deals negotiated by Westminster – it will nonetheless impose a de-facto customs border in the Irish Sea, leaving one part of the United Kingdom aligned with EU single market rules and VAT laws while the other is free to diverge. Regrettably, the Irish Border was leveraged successfully by Brussels during negotiations over the Withdrawal Agreement and the protocol agreed by the government, while a clear improvement over Theresa May's proposed backstop, still serves the EU's negotiating priorities at the expense of the UK's internal market and territorial integrity.
Like the Northern Ireland protocol, it seems that the issue of Scottish Nationalism will be with us for some time to come. With Brexit done, the government should prioritise maintaining the territorial integrity of the United Kingdom. In the short term, as the legal default is to leave the Brexit transition period without a deal, the SNP is likely to be damaged by its decision to vote against the government's trade agreement in Parliament, slowing its momentum ahead of Scottish elections next year. Having avoided a no-deal outcome, the government's task now is to break the SNPs momentum completely by promoting not only the value of the union but articulating clearly how the deal benefits Scotland.
Of similar concern is the status of Gibraltar. Reports that 'the Rock' may join the Schengen Zone, thereby allowing EU citizens freedom of movement to and from its vibrant economy while subjecting UK Nationals arriving by air to passport controls performed by Frontex (the EU's border force) on British territory are concerning and an agreement on such terms would be plainly unacceptable. Fortunately, negotiations over the status of Gibraltar are not bound up in the wider UK/EU trade accord, raising the prospect that any bilateral agreement could be renegotiated to more favourable terms in future without impacting the former.
It is now time to look to the future, but we do so with one eye to the lessons of history. Outlining her concerns about Europe in her Speech to the College of Europe at Bruges – from which our group derives its name – Thatcher noted that her government had not "successfully rolled back the frontiers of the state in Britain, only to see them reimposed at European level, with a European super-state exercising a new dominance from Brussels". Three decades later, we need no longer fear the imposition of state dominance by the European Union but must instead stand ready to oppose the expansion of the state here at home and make anew the case for limited, responsible government.
The scale of the task before us is considerable. In seeking to ban both junk food advertising in the short term and the sale of new petrol and diesel vehicles by 2030, the government appears inclined to pursue policies which will see the state expand, not shrink. Groups like ours will be responsible for making the case against such policies, extolling the virtues of the personal and economic freedoms which Thatcher made hallmarks of her transformational tenure in Downing Street.
The government response to the COVID crisis also gives proponents of limited government cause for concern. While this is a national emergency and restrictions on everyday life in March and April may have been broadly justifiable in the face of a novel threat about which we understood very little, the subsequent prolonged and continuing curtailment of our civil liberties; accompanied by the largest single expansion of the state since the end of the Second World War, has set a disturbing precedent which must be repudiated firmly after the pandemic. Taking our inspiration from Thatcher at Bruges, we must stand ready to ensure that the frontiers of the state are rolled back as vaccines are rolled out.#
Maybe the best feature of this agreement is the termination clause on page 405. The Bruges Group believes that a 'no deal outcome' had many advantages. This agreement has several features provide for ongoing tensions with the European Union and the fact that we can terminate it at 12 months' notice is indeed to be welcomed.
But these are challenges for the New Year. On Thursday, please permit yourself a moment to celebrate as Big Ben rings in a new chapter in the story of our island home. Raise a glass (we'd recommend English sparkling wine, or something from our friends in Australia) to our historic achievement; to your victory in the face of overwhelming opposition from would-be Brexit-Blockers - and then prepare yourself for the next phase in our project of national renewal. There's no going back now. Brexit is done and the future is ours to shape as a free and independent nation state.