Teresa May has asked her ministers to bring to Cabinet ideas of how their Departments can respond to Brexit.
Over twenty years ago a similar Cabinet meeting was held to plan negotiations on the Maastricht Treaty. John Major asked each of us to rate the proposals affecting their department as either: “desirable”, “undesirable but tolerable”, or “unacceptable”. Not one Minister – even the most Europhile – identified any item affecting their department as Desirable.
Maastricht and successive EU Treaties tied our hands: by contrast Brexit should create new “desirable” opportunities for many departments.
The new Trade department has exciting scope for new free trade agreements. For 43 years the EU trade has had ‘exclusive competence’ for trade. During the referendum we were told that no-one would want to do deals with us. But already countries are queuing up. Trade deals with developed countries (like the EU itself) are of limited importance because tariffs already average low single figures. The most worthwhile trade agreements are with fast growing emerging economies which still have high tariffs. As long as we remain in the EU there is no chance of deals with the two biggest countries in the world – India ended talks with the EU in frustration at 28 member states demanding exclusions and neither country will accept the EU’s political conditions. But China has, and India is negotiating, trade agreements with Switzerland and would be keener still for one with us. Whereas deals involving 28 countries take forever, bilateral trade deals typically take less than two years. And we can ensure they cover crucial UK interests like services which a third of EU deals exclude.
International Development can also look to trade as powerful tool for development. The EU’s highest tariffs are for agricultural and labour intensive products which developing countries typically export. The EU does offers tariff free access to 40 Least Developed Countries but its onerous rules of origin means that boosts trade far less than America’s more generous rules. We should lead the world by combining the best EU, US and Canadian policies to help countries trade out of poverty.
Every week’s delay in Brexit costs the British taxpayer nearly £200m net. So both the Treasury and the NHS, which will have first call on extra spending, should push for a speedy exit. Although we will still be able to recruit EU nurses if we wish, Leaving should be a stimulus to expand nurse training. At present Universities turn away up to three quarters of British applicants for nursing courses – yet our hospitals prefer British trained nurses.
The new Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy will want to incorporate all EU law and regulations into UK law to give business continuity while enabling it to prune or replace unnecessarily burdensome rules. Assuming the UK retains the Climate Change Act commitment to reduce emissions by 80% it will be able to reduce the cost of doing so by scrapping EU renewables targets. Economists (unusually) agree that setting subordinate targets increases the cost of achieving the central target, to the disadvantage of UK manufacturing.
The Home Office need to reassure EU residents already here that they will be allowed to remain before extending to EU citizens arriving henceforth the same limits as apply to other friendly countries’ nationals, to prevent a ‘closing down sale’ influx of EU citizens. (Should the EU rule out such action we could, under the Vienna Convention, resile from the EU Treaties without going through the Article 50 process.)
The Housing Minister should welcome fewer immigrants since our housing shortage lies behind most of our social problems. This should not be an excuse to build fewer homes but give us the chance to catch up with rising domestic demand.
Universities are major British exporters but are hampered by the arbitrary application of immigration controls on non-EU students. Post Brexit that pressure may ease. Also we currently provide the equivalent of 9 universities for EU students, financed by UK loans which are rarely repaid. We should seek a deal whereby European governments underwrite and collect those loans and we pay for UK students in the EU.
We can make Environment policies both less costly and more pro-environment by scrapping bio-fuel targets and defending endangered species without facing EU legal action as when we voted to protect Blue Fin Tuna.
These are but a few of the opportunities that Brexit will create.
Project Fear happily did not become a self-fulfilling prophecy but Project Delay could prolong damaging uncertainty and postpone the fruits of independence. So let’s hope Ministers speed up Brexit. Joining the EEC was far more complex than leaving: and that barely took 2 years.