Published in the Whitehaven News, 27th June 2018.
I make no apology for returning to the continuing saga of the Brexit process of leaving the European Union. Although this may seem distant and irrelevant to us in West Cumbria, this is not the case. Brexit will have a major impact locally, as well as on the UK as a whole and indeed on the EU itself. What becomes increasingly clear is that leaving the EU is a more complex matter than most of us anticipated.
Astonishingly, two years after the referendum, little progress has been made to finalise the terms of withdrawal and to create new arrangements for working and trading with Europe for the future. We have not finally agreed a fair system for Europeans working here or an effective way to ensure an open border on the island of Ireland when single market arrangements end. The Bank of England estimates that incomes are already around £900 per household lower than forecast in May 2016. The substantial fall in the value of the pound has led to price-increases across the board.
We can now begin to appreciate what will happen when we pull out. Since the referendum, our economy has slowed almost to zero and industrial production has actually fallen in the last 3 months. Productivity has stagnated through lack of investment. We have gone from being the fastest growing economy in Western Europe to the slowest. Recently the President of the CBI, the major body representing British industry, warned that the present situation is intolerable, the level of uncertainty crippling.
The inevitable effects are becoming clear. Major companies are safeguarding their future by planning to move abroad. Airbus has just announced that it may cease production in UK. Many car companies, including BMW, are looking to relocate into the European single market to avoid complex tariff charges. Jaguar Land Rover intend to shift some production to Europe as a hedge against current uncertainty. Banks and pharmaceutical firms are planning similar moves. The massive knock-on effects on jobs and prosperity, even here in the north-west, are obvious.
The longer-term political effects of leaving the EU are just as alarming. Scotland voted to remain in the EU, and simply ignoring their wish to influence the Brexit decisions is a gift to the independence movement. Creating a hard customs border in Ireland will clearly endanger the still-fragile peace process there. The very survival of the EU, which has helped maintain peace in Europe for 70 years, will be at risk if the UK, a bastion of liberal democratic values, withdraws.
Some argue that the will of the people as expressed in 2016 cannot be questioned. However at that time, when just 37% of the electorate voted to leave, the full implications were then not clear. Constitutionally, parliament will make the final decision, but Liberal Democrats believe there should be a “peoples’ referendum” before that, making a judgement on the deal reached by government, and including the option to remain within the EU, which remains the most remarkable example of international co-operation in peacetime in our increasingly divided and dangerous world.