The most important thing that will be happening in Parliament for the next two years is the negotiation of Britain’s departure from the European Union.
If we make a success of it, we have every reason to be confident of our country’s future and can turn our full attention back to some of the problems we face here at home. If we make a hash of it, our prosperity and our status in the world will be permanently downgraded, and we will have much less money to spend on priorities like the NHS. The stakes could not be higher.
I am not an expert in the fine detail of customs arrangements and regulatory equivalence (and would rather chew my own arm off than become one.) But I believe very strongly that there is a right way and a wrong way of handling the Brexit negotiations. The right way involves being very clear about our long-term objective. This is to agree a new partnership with the European Union based on free trade and close cooperation but outside the Single Market and the Customs Union, so we can control our borders and strike our own free trade agreements with other countries around the world. Being clear about our destination, we should be willing to be pragmatic, flexible and patient about the road we take to get there.
Business leaders have recently asked for a long transition in which we stay in the Single Market while we work out the details of a new set of arrangements outside the EU. The open-ended transition that they propose would be a mistake as it would lead people to wonder if we were ever actually going to leave the EU. But I think we should be doing everything we can to provide maximum reassurance to investors, and maximum time for businesses to adjust to life outside the EU. So I favour a three-year transition, starting in March 2019, in which we join the European Free Trade Association and become temporary members of the European Economic Area like Norway. For those three years we would be outside the EU but in the Single Market, paying a contribution to the EU and accepting some version of freedom of movement. These would all be temporary concessions buying us enough time to negotiate the detail of the new free trade agreement and other aspects of our long term partnership. In March 2022, before the next election, we would leave the European Economic Area and start our new life as a fully independent nation, in control of our money, our borders and our laws.
Leaving the EU is an enormous undertaking, the biggest since World War Two. It’s worth taking time to get it right so we can deliver the prosperous future that the British people want to see.