Writing in this newspaper, Boris Johnson said: “After nine months on the launch pad Britain has finally engaged the most famous ignition sequence in diplomatic history.”
The Foreign Secretary was referring, of course, to Theresa May’s triggering last Wednesday of Article 50. The UK now has two years to agree the terms under which it will leave the EU, while trying to determine the nature of our future relationship with the remaining 27 member states.
The Prime Minister’s letter to the European Council insisted the UK wants to maintain “a deep and special partnership” with the Continent. We are “leaving the EU, not Europe”, as she has repeatedly stressed.
There was a hint of steel, a warning the EU’s “fragile” security would be “weakened” if cooperation ended, given our intelligence services and military. But, overall, this was an emollient statement. It was certainly far friendlier than the EU’s ongoing insistence we accept a jaw-dropping £50bn exit bill before talks even start.
I’d like to offer the Government three pieces of economic advice – the first regarding this so-called “divorce payment”. We may indeed end up paying a final bill, contributing to the pensions of EU bureaucrats and any ongoing membership of various EU schemes. The actual amount, though, is integral to what will obviously be a multi-faceted negotiation.
Far from opening talks, agreeing the size of any payment should be the very last piece of the UK’s Article 50 jigsaw. The EU’s up-front insistence on a ridiculous cash sum is designed to discredit our Brexit vote by causing public outrage. It should be rejected.
It also makes sense economically. America’s EU exports exceeded $250bn (£200bn) last year, from “outside” the single market. Chinese and Japanese firms similarly enjoy “access” by meeting EU regulatory standards and, where necessary, paying low tariffs. Ours can do the same. Britain’s EU trade can continue, then, without the massive loss of sovereignty associated with single market “membership”, even if we don’t finalise a free trade agreement with the EU during the two-year Article 50 window.
Being outside the customs unions, too, means we can negotiate our own trade agreements with the 85pc of the world economy beyond the EU. The bloc has failed to achieve this with the US, China, India and other huge economies because the 28 members themselves have hopelessly conflicting demands. Outside the customs union, UK imports would also be cheaper, given that we’d be free of Brussels’s common external tariff.