Until we finally achieve a settlement to the current political crisis regarding our exit from the European Union, it is impossible for politics to fully move on and address the many other issues which are in need of attention. So, however much everyone is weary from the argument, it must continue until a conclusion is reached and the reconciliation of our divided country can be secured.
My view has long been that we must deliver the referendum result, but that the type of partnership we put in place after we have left should also address the concerns and anxieties of those who fear change and voted to remain. The 2016 referendum result was clear but, at 48 to 52 percent it was also close. People collectively voted for a clear but slightly cautious and apprehensive step away from the EU. We should recognise that Greenland voted to leave the EU in the early eighties by exactly the same margin and they managed to do it, so why are we finding it so hard? We should also recognise that in the 2016 referendum, millions of people voted for the first time in their lives.
Since resigning from the government two months ago, I have been arguing strongly that we must be willing to walk away from the EU without an agreement in the first instance if necessary. You cannot negotiate a successful Brexit unless you have the courage to walk through the door. There is a strong case for taking our freedom first and talking afterwards. If the EU knew that we were serious about leaving, then it would change the nature of the discussion.
There were two legitimate courses of action that the Government could have taken after the 2016 referendum. The first was to decide to plan from the very beginning on the basis that we would likely leave the EU without an agreement as a “third country” and then allow a new partnership to evolve after that point. However, if the Government was unwilling to leave without an agreement because it feared for the implications for Northern Ireland or the possible risks to the economy, then they needed to recognise from the beginning that we would have to make significant compromise with the EU and that in turn would have required the government to seek a cross party consensus. The problems we have at the moment are largely because the current Prime Minister has failed to choose either course with clarity.
In the next two weeks we must redouble our efforts to identify where that consensus lies and get a cross party settlement within parliament about the type of approach we want and then we will have the mandate needed to nail down a final agreement with the EU. If it turns out that the PM cannot command a consensus for her own Withdrawal Agreement or a variant of it, then I have been pushing an alternative plan b, namely that we simply rejoin the European Free Trade Associating which we founded in 1960 as an alternative to political integration in the EU. It could be delivered in a matter of months, would give us control of agriculture and fisheries and an independent trade policy but we would agree to align some of our technical standards to reduce problems at border crossings. I have been making the case for this alternative in recent weeks, and it’s time may yet come.