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Johnson Speech to Open Europe

Will Johnson

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Will Johnson, MP for East Surrey, is advocating for a "soft" Brexit in a speech to the Open Europe think tank.  Open Europe was neutral on the 2016 Referendum.




What are some qualities of Conservatism in the UK?  Conservatism has traditionally valued prudence and pragmatism rather than ideological flights of fancy.

Conservatism also recognizes that in this imperfect world, there is never a perfect solution to an issue.  We must constantly weigh the pros and cons of a proposal, and decide if the pros outweigh the cons before proceeding.   

And, of course, we are Unionists who value all the nations and regions of the United Kingdom.

How should what I consider to be “traditional Conservatism” regard Brexit as it stands now? 

In the Referendum, the UK voted for Brexit, but …

      It did so by a narrow majority of 52%;

      London, the center of economic dynamism, voted no;

      Scotland voted no overwhelmingly by 62%’

      Northern Ireland voted no by 56%.

In my estimation, these results argue for a “soft” Brexit.  A “soft” Brexit is best realized by remaining in the EU’s Customs Union, for at least as long as it takes for the UK to negotiate a free trade agreement with the EU. 

To be sure, there are disadvantages.  We would give up the ability to negotiate trade agreements with countries outside of the EU on our own.  We also would give up the ability of influencing EU negotiations with the rest of the world because we are leaving the EU’s political structure.  I suppose we could ask for consideration, but the EU would not obliged to grant us such consideration. 

I believe there are far stronger arguments for remaining in the EU Customs Union for these reasons:

Frictionless trade in goods and services to our largest trading partner is worth at least 25 billion pounds annually.  Leaving the Customs Union will reduce the UK’s long-term GDP growth by at least 1%, according to Raoul Ruparel, who worked as an advisor to then-Brexit minister David Davis.  We are also not prepared for leaving the Customs Union.  While we can promise not to institute cumbersome checks on goods coming into the UK from the EU, we cannot promise that the EU will behave similarly.  If we are outside of the Customs Union, what reason would EU countries have to treat our goods any differently than goods coming in from anywhere else in the world?  Again, the EU is by far our largest trading partner.  Giving up frictionless access to their market now in exchange for maybe, possibly, getting better deals from the rest of the world is wishful thinking.  While it was very undiplomatic for former US President Obama to say that the UK would be at the “back of the queue” when the US negotiates free trade agreements, he was speaking a hard truth:  we cannot assume that, on our own, we can negotiate advantageous agreements.  If the US has to choose between the EU, which would be much larger and wealthier than we would be on our own, who do you think the US will choose?  Or for that matter, who will other countries choose?  This is a very unpleasant reality, but it IS reality, and we need to take that into account in our decisions.

Reassuring the people of Scotland that their perspective and interests are being honored.  Scotland resents the possibility that they will suffer economically if they lose access to the Single Market.  Even before the Leave vote, there was considerable sentiment north of the border for Scotland to declare independence from the rest of the United Kingdom.  Can we guarantee that if Scotland has to choose being in the EU as opposed to being in the UK, it will choose the UK?  We cannot, of course, rescind the decision to leave, but if we value the Union, we will work as hard as we can to remain as close as possible to the EU in order to preserve our ancient Union with Scotland.

      Preserving the peace process in Northern Ireland.  Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the heartbreaking sectarian violence that marked “the Troubles” in Northern Ireland has nearly disappeared.  But Northern Ireland remains an extraordinarily sensitive matter.  For peace to prevail, Northern Ireland needs both the closest possible connection to the Republic as well as the UK.  A “hard” Brexit will result in a “hard” border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, which could easily lead to instability. 

     Again, Brexit has passed.  Some of the concerns I have raised in my speech will already be an issue for our country.  But we can act to alleviate these concerns by remaining in the EU Customs Union for the time being, however long “the time being” may last.  Is this a perfect solution?  No.  But I believe that in a world with no perfect solutions, this is the best way forward, and I hope that my party, the Conservative and Unionist Party, will support a “soft” Brexit. 

Will Johnson

Conservative and Unionist

East Surrey

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