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My Lords, Brexit means Brexit. Unfortunately, Brexit has come to mean all things to all people. This is as true for our UK politicians and their electors as for our European partners. But now it is time to move beyond it. There are, after all, many things we do know about Brexit—and indeed it is our democratic duty to see it through. We know that in the referendum itself, the vote was close, which suggests an extreme version of either position—a so-called hard Brexit, where we slash all our links with Europe, or a second referendum to reverse the result—would probably not enjoy popular support. We also know that all Governments have a duty to protect the security of their citizens, including their economic security. People did not vote to get poorer.
So, yes, we need to leave the EU, but we have a duty to do so in a way that maximises our prosperity and minimises disruption. This begins with a pragmatic, not ideological approach to Brexit, and a tone that is not protectionist but which reflects our widely held liberal values and our commitment to openness, free trade and responsible capitalism. It means that, however exercised some may be about immigration, we must put jobs and the economy first, even as we put the status of EU citizens already here in the UK beyond any doubt. We have a duty to explain better the benefits that economic migrants bring to the whole of the UK, instead of conceding the point—or worse, exploiting it for political gain. It means that we must achieve maximum possible consensus and listen to business and the City when they speak out on Brexit, and that we must maximise the opportunities that Brexit will ultimately bring, in free trade agreements struck with familiar partners such as the US and the EU, but with the fastest-growing emerging markets as well. The think tank Open Europe recently published a report, Global Britain, highlighting that the UK under-trades significantly by billions of pounds a year with many key partners. It should be a national priority to close this gap.
In practice, this amounts not to a triangulation between soft and hard, open or closed, but to a choice between prosperity and stagnation—and we must choose the former. To do this, we need to focus on transition. A transition period will allow us to mitigate the uncertainty of the negotiating period by guaranteeing the avoidance of a cliff edge, where businesses will not be clear under what legal and regulatory parameters they will be operating. It will also allow us to build the capability and infrastructure required to manage our own customs and trade arrangements. As several noble Lords have pointed out today, and as my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford recently advocated in a letter to the Times, fortunately the right transition vehicle already exists—namely, the EEA.
The EEA would avoid full customs union, where we should also seek some transitional arrangements, and would therefore allow the UK to pursue trade agreements. It allows some national intervention in immigration controls. The ECJ has no locus in it, the EFTA court has no direct effect in the UK, and it gives back control of agriculture and fisheries to Parliament.
Critics will point out that from within the EEA we will continue to comply with EU regulations without being able to influence them, and indeed we will continue to contribute to the EU budget. However, the burden of proof is surely on those critics to explain how periods of uncertainty that will damage our economy, as well as our reputation, would be less costly than temporary ongoing budget contributions.
Investment curtailed or cancelled and productive economic migrants leaving this country will do permanent damage to the UK and will even harm our ability to reap the eventual benefits of Brexit. Instead, a time-limited period in the EEA, while capability is built up and certainty maintained, will set us up far better ultimately to leave the customs union and the single market—as we will and as we should—in order to gain the full benefits of Brexit by forging our own free trade deals and escaping the shackles of EU trade deals, with their protectionism and special-country interests.
This approach is, I believe, the way to navigate between the democratic wishes of the British people, the duty to provide economic security and the agenda of our EU colleagues. The Government have a duty to negotiate through this complexity and to deliver a unifying vision—and make a reality—of a prosperous, open Britain, eventually outside the European Union.