The following article was originally published in The Sunday Times on 18 June 2017.
Almost 12 months ago, by a small but clear majority, the British people voted to leave the European Union. Since then, there has been much agonised debate as to what precisely the vote meant. Did we vote for a hard Brexit, a soft Brexit, an open Brexit, a clean Brexit or a smooth Brexit?
That debate will have exasperated most of those who voted on June 23. The referendum question, after all, was perfectly clear: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” The Electoral Commission, in its assessment of the question, found that it was easy to understand, to the point and unambiguous. The vote was to leave, so we should leave.
If there remained any doubt as to the wish of the British people to leave the EU, it was dispelled by the outcome of this month’s general election. The manifestos of both major parties were committed to leaving.
Despite no party securing an overall majority, one thing is clear: more than 80% of the electorate voted for parties pledged to take Britain out of the EU. The referendum vote was unequivocally endorsed by the outcome of the election. The clearest possible mandate for Brexit has been given to both government and parliament.
Membership of the EU carries with it acceptance of a number of obligations, including, most notably, participation in the single market and the customs union, and submission to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ).
It is worth considering these in turn. The single market is founded on the “four freedoms”: the movement of goods, capital, services and – crucially – people. Member states are obliged to allow EU citizens the right to reside, which effectively deprives them of complete control of their own borders. No one who participated on either side of the referendum campaign could be in any doubt that control of immigration was a hugely important issue. Any Brexit deal that continued to deny the UK control of its borders would be entirely unacceptable.
Membership of the customs union has its benefits in terms of facilitating trade within the EU, but it also has significant disadvantages. Members of the union are unable to strike their own free-trade agreements with countries outside the EU, for example; all such arrangements must be concluded by the commission.
It is therefore impossible for the UK independently to strike a free-trade agreement with the US, the country to which we export most goods and with which, unlike the EU, we have a trade surplus. Negotiations for the proposed EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership have become enmired and are unlikely be concluded in the foreseeable future. Even when they are, the agreement will have to be approved by all 28 member states – a tortuous process that almost derailed the EU-Canada trade deal. Fleetness of foot is not an EU attribute.
The ECJ is the EU’s supreme legal authority. Its judgments take precedence over those of member states’ domestic courts. Its judges are increasingly activist, not hesitating even to strike down provisions of British acts of parliament. For so long as the ECJ is supreme in the UK, the notion of British parliamentary sovereignty is illusory — and, I believe, it was the issue of sovereignty that proved decisive in last year’s referendum.
The plain fact is that if we remain in the single market and customs union and continue to be subject to the jurisdiction of the ECJ, we will not have left the EU, which is not what the British people voted for last June.
In her speech at Lancaster House in January, the prime minister set out with great clarity her Brexit negotiating position. Britain, she said, could not be part of the single market, because it would mean acceptance of the four freedoms and the supremacy of the ECJ. Nor could we remain part of the customs union, because to do so would prevent us from negotiating our own comprehensive trade deals.
The government’s declared policy is to seek a bold and ambitious free-trade agreement with the EU, coupled with a customs arrangement that secures frictionless cross-border trade. An agreement on such terms will ensure continued prosperity for both the UK and the EU, and the government must pursue it with vigour.
There are siren calls from proponents of “soft Brexit” for continued UK membership of the single market and customs union. They should not be heeded. That would, in reality, be a non-Brexit. Parliament has a duty to the people of this country to respect the clear instructions they have given. Pursuing anything less than the restoration of parliamentary sovereignty, the control of our borders and the capacity to strike trade deals with countries across the globe would rightly be seen as a betrayal of trust. It would destroy confidence in our political system. All parties would reap the whirlwind of public anger.
Negotiations with the EU begin this week. The government must hold fast to the prime minister’s vision set out at Lancaster House. Parliament must support it. Brexit really must mean Brexit.