Britain must unite to build a new relationship with the EU
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This op-ed is part of the FT’s Future of Britain Project. We are inviting readers, commentators and thought leaders to brainstorm ideas for the future of Britain after Brexit. This piece is in response to the first topic: What would be the best relationship for Britain with the EU? For an alternative view, Gideon Rachman, chief foreign affairs commentator, outlines his vision for the UK. Submit your own idea here.
Gina Miller, the investment manager who is leading the High Court challenge to the government’s right to take Britain out of the EU, remarked this week “we are all Leavers now”. If we are all now Leavers, we also remain European.
The British Isles sit locked on the edge of the European continental shelf. History may have given Britain wider horizons but its geography makes Europe home. It is the ability to find a balance between these two facts — home in Europe and the decision to step outside the EU — that will determine the success of the journey we have begun.
The government has difficult negotiations ahead. Because Europe is Britain's home, we must secure the best possible access to EU markets. We want to buy goods and services from the EU and we want to sell to them with the minimum of barriers to obstruct the exchange. Our new immigration system should allow companies and public services to get the skills they need and universities should be able to attract the best students. We should preserve the investment in research partnerships and promote cultural and educational exchange as before.
EU nationals who already have the right to live and work in Britain should be welcome to stay — and UK nationals living in EU countries should be embraced in the same way. The new relationship with EU nations should support stability, security and growth. We bring unique diplomatic, defence and intelligence resources to the table. The continent’s challenges are wide-ranging, but Europe is as much Britain’s as anyone’s. We should, therefore, play a leading part in keeping it safe and help it prosper.
But, as Leavers, there are some truths we must all accept. The vote on June 23 exposed a chasm between a large section of the British people and the political establishment. Change Britain, the organisation I chair, has begun a series of listening exercises and focus groups across the country. We are only at the start of this process but already a few things are clear.
Politicians have to learn to listen again. Listen, and you find there is no “buyer’s remorse”; people would vote the same way again. Ask why, and they will tell you this was about control of the UK’s laws, borders and money. This idea tapped into people’s deep discontent that laws were being passed for them by officials and politicians they did not elect, could not vote out and who did not identify with their concerns.
The vast majority of those who voted Leave are not anti-immigration and certainly not anti-immigrant. This is not primarily about numbers — people want the UK to control its borders in order to manage the demand on public services and ensure the impact on communities is reasonable. They want the system to be fair and for the same process to apply to everyone regardless of whether they come from inside or outside the EU.
There are obvious implications for the UK’s future relationship with Europe. People knew what they were voting for. Single market membership means accepting the free movement of people and the jurisdiction of EU courts. The British people flatly rejected both and therefore rejected membership of the single market.
Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband have launched a bid to reopen the referendum, delay Article 50 and keep the UK in the single market. At a time when we need to put Remain and Leave arguments behind us, we are being dragged back to the politics of division. It is not good for Britain and it is not good for democracy.
There is no mandate to remain. No mandate for stopping the people of this country regaining control over borders, laws and money. No mandate for remaining a member of the single market. It’s called democracy folks. It’s over. It’s done. We need to come together and move forward.
And we can help other countries of Europe do the same. The UK can and should support those nations who seek deeper integration and help those who do not to find different way.
Britain is a great country. It is industrious and resourceful. Generations of enterprising Britons have created a powerful economy that attracts people from around the world to make their home here and play their part in our success. There is a great future for a country that has simply decided it wants to make a go of life outside the EU. We both can and need to come together to change Britain and find that future.
The writer is the Labour MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and chair of Change Britain
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