Michael Heseltine, The Independent
Fifty years ago today, on Jan.1, 1973, the United Kingdom joined the European Economic Community. To understand the enormity of that event, one must stand back and reflect on a thousand years of our history. Of course, economics is never far below the surface of political self-interest, but that history is about territory, religion, power, and the wars they provoked. The 20th century saw bloodshed on an unprecedented scale and the involvement of civilian populations hitherto unimagined. By the end of the Second World War, the peoples of occupied, defeated Europe, who had experienced the horrors of conflagration three times in three-quarters of a century, responded to the imperative that it must never happen again. We should never forget that that is why modern Europe was born.
I lived through the Second World War and grew up in a Britain that recognised a huge debt for the loyalty of the Commonwealth but had to come to terms with an empire unwilling to accept imperial status. There was a growing awareness of the disparity of power between ourselves and the United States and an uncomfortable reluctance to throw in our lot with the rapidly recovering Europe. New Year’s Day 1973 gave us a new sense of hope and purpose. I became the first British minister to speak about our new relationship in the United States and confronted the issues by addressing the World Affairs Council in Los Angeles. I explained my conclusion that such were the resources of the world’s major powers that we would find it increasingly difficult to maintain an advanced industrial base. The solution was to mould together a partnership of nations that, in total, would equal the competition to which the world will increasingly expose us.
The resources of 50 million British people – however proud we may be of what we have achieved – will never match the technologies and capabilities available by one or two major powers. I concluded that it offers a new and more meaningful partnership. Rereading that speech today, I would not change those words.
As president of the European Movement UK, I deplore the deception that Brexit represents. I look back to 1973 as the post-war year when Britain accepted the loss of its empire and chose a new European destiny. A fresh generation of politicians saw a better future for our country by pooling our sovereignty with our neighbours to build something that would not replace our national identity but would be greater than the sum of the parts. Over the next 20 years, that is what we did.
The rules that constrained travel in Europe, that propped up airlines and stopped you from taking more than £50 spending money on your foreign holiday, were all junked, and airlines like easyJet brought European holidays to millions who had never been abroad. A whole new market developed in professional services – with the UK at the centre of it.
The creation of the single market in 1986 was arguably Margaret Thatcher’s most outstanding achievement. It was, particularly, the opportunity for British financial companies to serve a much larger European market which they seized with energy and skill. But something less tangible also happened. I felt it as a minister in Thatcher’s government. We had a seat at the table and had influence again. Post-Brexit, we see the growing international issues of the environment and global warming being discussed by our European neighbours in our absence.
It is easy to look back and list the unfulfilled promises. American concerns over the Northern Irish protocol have scuppered the US free trade deal, and the agricultural deal with Australia that even the minister who negotiated it has said is bad for Britain. Virtually no detail has emerged six years after we were told a bonfire of red tape would energise our economy. Instead, we are left with rumours and speculation that deter investment and provoke the concern of bodies such as the National Trust, the Wildlife Trust, and the RSPB.
Regulation is what separates the law of the jungle from civilised society. Three current issues will push the government to act; avian flu, the Grenfell Tower report and the collapse of the cryptocurrency company FTX are topical examples of why governments seek to regulate and protect us. Control of our borders was the essential Brexit issue. We were not promised the miserable, humiliating mess that our immigration policy has become.
The British people were deceived, and that becomes clearer every day. Every day the need to change direction becomes more urgent. It is harder to measure the economic impact because of the pandemic and the consequences of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. But if you look closely, the truth is emerging. The UK economy is over 5 per cent smaller, says the Centre for European Reform, than it would have been without Brexit. The consequence of erecting trade barriers with the EU means, says the Resolution Foundation, “a broad-based reduction in workers’ pay and productivity” that it estimated as a loss of £470 per worker per year. That is nearly a thousand pounds for the average couple.
The Office for Budget Responsibility says that the weak UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement means that our trade with the EU will fall by 15 per cent. And on top of all that, the sterling has plummeted by around 20 per cent from its value in 2016, adding to inflation.
A survey of its members by the British Chamber of Commerce published last week found that Britain’s Brexit trade deal fails to help more than three-quarters of companies increase sales or grow their business. Brexit is not irreversible, and public opinion is moving.
Sixty-five per cent think the government is handling Brexit poorly, 45 per cent think we should rejoin compared with 32 per cent in favour of staying out, and 58 per cent think we were wrong to leave compared with 42 per cent who think we were right. We need to start rebuilding bridges. It is time for a pragmatic, constructive policy towards Europe, one rooted in our shared history and with an appetite for restoring this country’s place at its heart.
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