A glimmer of something in a future that is dark

On Wednesday last week members of parliament were given a chance to debate the need for “Parliamentary Scrutiny of Leaving the EU”.

The House of Commons self-assembled into an intelligently expressed, cross-party consensus. It was a rare moment when tribal rivalries and conflicting beliefs were set aside. There is no doubting the power of parliamentary democracy when given a chance to express itself, as it now seems will be the case.

Within this democratic debate there will be contributions of note that Chief-Exec.com believes should be brought to the attention of our readers.

This week one intervention offers hope that a means may exist to resolve the primary Brexit conundrum: how to reconcile the conflicting demands for access to the European single market with limitations on the free movement of European citizens.

This “glimmer of something” was proposed by the Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, Member of Parliament for East Ham.


Excerpt from Hansard, October 12

I very much agree with what the hon. Member for Stroud (Neil Carmichael) has just said about the existential risks ahead for the UK economy.

A number of speakers in this very helpful, valuable debate have suggested that the negotiations should aim, on the one hand, for barrier-free access to the single market, to use the Secretary of State’s phrase, and, on the other, for us to no longer apply the current free movement rules in terms of people coming into the UK. I agree with that; that is the objective we should be setting. I hope that it will be set out and developed and that we will have the chance to vote on it before article 50 is invoked.

A number of us took part in an all-party visit to Germany last month. My hon. Friends the Members for Wrexham (Ian C. Lucas) and for Scunthorpe (Nic Dakin) were there; the hon. Member for Monmouth (David T. C. Davies) was also there from the Conservative Benches and the leave campaign. We met businesses, politicians and civil servants, and they all wanted to talk to us about Britain’s departure from the EU. They told us they were great admirers of Britain. They said Germany would be Britain’s best ally in the EU as the negotiations go forward. They were very sorry that we are leaving, but they accepted that we are.

We said to them, “If the British Government come to Brussels and ask for barrier-free access to the single market and to no longer apply free movement, would Germany argue for that settlement?” and they said, “No, Germany wouldn’t.” The reason is that to do so would be to invite many other European countries that do not like some bit or other of the four pillars of the European Union also to come forward with requests to opt out of those bits. The result would be an unwinding of the European Union, which would not be in the interests of Germany or German manufacturers. That is why the right hon. Member for Wokingham (John Redwood) is wrong to suggest that because lots of German cars are sold to the UK, we will readily get barrier-free access to the single market. I do not think we will. It will be a difficult negotiation.

For much of our discussion in Germany, it was very difficult to see any glimmer of a resolution that would allow us to continue to trade in the way we do. Finally, however, we had a meeting with Dr Markus Kerber, the director general of the BDI—the Federation of German Industries, the equivalent of the CBI—who suggested the possibility that we might be able to redefine free movement so that it applies only to people with a contract of employment in the UK or something very close to that. Arguably, that is what free movement has always meant. It is supposed to be free movement of labour, not the free movement of just anybody.

Dr Markus Kerber suggested that it might be possible to persuade the other EU member states to change the meaning of free movement in that way—that pillar among the four pillars would remain in place, but it would mean something rather different for the UK—and, if that was done, to negotiate barrier-free access to the single market. The idea would clearly need a great deal of work, but it may at least be a glimmer of something that could be delivered to avoid what otherwise seem to me to be very serious threats for the future of the UK economy.

Manufacturing across Europe is integrated—aerospace, cars—so if, as the right hon. Member for Wokingham suggested, we start to impose tariffs on sub-assemblies made in another country before they come to the UK to be turned into cars, that would be an impossible position for manufacturers, and it would pose great risks for financial services as well. I hope that that might be a way forward for Ministers to consider.

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