Almost exactly a year has passed since British voters told their government to withdraw from the European Union. Today, at last, formal talks get under way.
The idea is being put about that we go into the negotiations with no clear idea of what we want. This is pure hooey.
We have set out our objectives over and over again: in Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech in January, in a White Paper, in the letter that triggered the disengagement process under Article 50.
We want the closest relationship with the EU compatible with being an independent country. We want cross-Channel trade to flow to the benefit of both sides. We want to keep profound links with our European allies in intelligence, policing and the like.
And we want to ensure that, at the end of this process, we have ceased to be bad tenants and instead become good neighbours.
How realistic are these things? Many in Brussels, after all, were hurt and bewildered by the Brexit vote. Can we be sure that they will act out of sober self-interest? Will they recognise, as we recognise, that a prosperous neighbour is a good customer? Or might they instead act like an aggrieved partner in a messy divorce?
The French president Emmanuel Macron has made a point of saying that ‘the door remains open’ if Britain wants to come back. Oh dear! The idea that Britain might crawl back to Brussels, apologising for its mistake, shows an extraordinary misreading of our character, our history – and public opinion.
In fact, Brexit is more popular now than it was a year ago. Most Remainers, being democrats, have accepted the result with good grace.
Only 22 per cent of Britons still want to stay in the EU, and it’s not hard to see why. The hit to our economy – a key plank of the Remainers’ so-called Project Fear – which we were warned would follow a Leave vote has spectacularly failed to materialise.
Unemployment was supposed to rise by 250,000 in the two years after the vote. In fact, more people are working than ever before.
Our pensions were meant to be hit in a stock market collapse. In fact, British stocks are the best performing in Europe.
Britain was going to experience a ‘technical recession’ in 2016. In fact, it grew faster in the six months following the vote than it had in the previous six months, and closed the year as the world’s most successful major economy. Retail activity, consumer confidence, investment, jobs, manufacturing output and growth have all risen. Britain, in short, is not the broken and desperate country that some in Brussels expected to be dealing with.
The inconclusive election result has, it is true, hardened attitudes. Some Eurocrats seem to think that Mrs May’s government has lost so much authority that it has little option but to agree to whatever terms Brussels dictates. The EU, they say, has had a year to agree its negotiating position, while Britain has faffed about.
Heaven knows I have my criticisms of British officials in Brussels. Their Europhilia can lead them to scorn public opinion and disregard elected politicians, but their competence is not in doubt. They have also had a year to prepare for these talks, and have put it to good effect.
Several Labour politicians and Remain-voting pundits persist in their demands that Britain stay in the EU’s single market and customs union. In fact, as the Chancellor Philip Hammond made clear yesterday, we can’t leave the EU while retaining these arrangements.
It is worth taking a moment to understand what the terms mean. The single market doesn’t mean a free trade area; it means a single regulatory regime, administered by the European Commission and the European Court of Justice.
Plainly, leaving the EU means leaving the jurisdiction of those bodies. But it doesn’t mean that we can’t retain many of the contents of the single market through domestic legislation.
Lots of non-EU states, from Guernsey to Switzerland, do this successfully. The basis of the single market is the rule that forbids discrimination against the goods or products of other member states. I see no reason why the UK shouldn’t keep that rule: it helps consumers.
The customs union is an arrangement whereby all EU states surrender their trade policy to Brussels and accept a common external tariff around the whole bloc. It has damaged Britain more than the other members, because we are the only state that sells more outside the EU than to the other 27 states.
Staying in the customs union while leaving the EU would be the worst of all worlds: it would mean allowing Brussels to dictate our trade policy while having no say in what that policy should be.
Leaving the customs union does not mean abandoning free trade with the EU. Norway is outside, but sells more than twice as much per head to the EU as we do. Switzerland sells five times as much per head to the EU. The days of moustachioed frontier officers in peaked caps and epaulettes are over; customs checks these days happen online and in advance.
But what it does mean is that we can sign our own deals with the countries with which the EU has so far not agreed trade accords, including Australia, Brazil, China, India and the United States.
One might ask why should the EU seek to maximise trade with Britain after we leave the customs union? The answer is that trade is not an act of generosity, but of self-interest.
The complicating factor is migration. The EU insists that free movement of goods, services and capital is ‘indivisible’ from free movement of labour. Quite why it should be so stubborn on this point is anyone’s guess. Other free trade areas around the world separate the two things, and quite a few EU electorates would gladly take back more control of immigration policy.
Still, the EU means what it says. Switzerland is as close to the single market as any country can be without accepting EU jurisdiction, but it is required to allow EU nationals to work on its territory.
There is an immense difference between a bilateral treaty allowing for reciprocal rights of work and study, and a common citizenship which brings enforceable rights on everything from expanding benefits claims to immunity from deportation.
Leaving the EU means taking back control of our laws, money and borders. How we then exercise that control is a question where we should be prepared to be reasonable and generous. Hence, for example, the sensible idea of making a comprehensive offer to guarantee the status of EU nationals already here.
As both sides now accept, we should phase in the changes, allowing businesses on both sides to operate with certainty.
In the referendum campaign I argued that Brexit would be ‘a process, not an event’. The day after Brexit should look very like the day before. It will, however, be the day we begin to pursue a different trajectory, towards global markets and domestic deregulation. Let’s get cracking.
Daniel Hannan is a Conservative MEP and the author of What Next: How To Get The Best From Brexit.