We All Know What Brexit Means

27/09/2016 08:43
David Jones/PA Archive

As the shock of losing the referendum, which engulfed many of those who advocated remaining in the weeks after the vote, lessens with time, some have now taken to demanding to know what Brexit 'means'. This question comes in a few forms, but is usually accompanied by a knowing smile and an almost visible inner monologue screaming "aha! I've got you now!". Many of those who ask this question were the same that demanded to know what the 'plan' was during the Referendum, and scolded those who could not come forward immediately with a coherent five year plan for a new Brexit Government.

But all of this is founded on a widespread misunderstanding about what the Referendum was about, and what its consequences would be. In amongst all the argument about £350million a week, rebates and VAT, the one overriding and clear message was this: 'Take Control'.

The idea of 'Vote Leave, Take Control' was the central pillar of the Leave campaign's message. It encapsulates the key sovereignty question of the referendum and explains the Government's statement that Brexit means leaving the European Union, because that is as far as anything will ever be permanently settled. After taking control, everything else is up to British politicians accountable to British voters to decide.

When we leave the EU, every single question that is currently up for debate will be answered and then re-answered again and again through our democratic process. Questions abound in the argument over migration for example. How many migrants should we allow? Which ones? Should it be zero, or should we have free movement from the continent? Should we have free movement deals with our friends in the Commonwealth? None of these issues will be settled forever by leaving the EU, all we have done is take control of the power to provide answers, when previously it was off-limits.

Political parties will now have to set out in their manifestos clear and achievable immigration policies. If the Lib Dems want to stand on a manifesto that says we should continue allowing citizens from the EU to come to the UK without any visas, they can make a case for it to the British people and the issue will be decided by the ballot box, rather than immutable European rules. If Ukip want to stand on a platform of bringing net migration to zero, they will have to set out to the electorate why they believe that it will not damage our economy.

I would imagine that a centrist Conservative government would go to the country with a sensible plan to control immigration, treat EU citizens no differently to those from India, Nigeria or Jamaica, and ensure that our economy could access the specialist skills it requires. But ultimately it would be up to the electorate to decide, and then hold us to account.

There is a legitimate interest to find out the Government's negotiating position, and to see what deal is delivered; but even that will not be what Brexit 'means'. No policy is ever permanent or set in stone. No matter what is agreed by the new Government with the European Union, and what policies are put in place, if a future government believes it has been a failure and wants change, it can promise to deliver it. If free movement is ended and proves disastrous then a new party could promise to reintroduce it. There are those who may agree, and those who disagree, but these issues can and must be dealt with through the ballot box.

If you believe that the EU will be unwilling to ever change these rules or even negotiate in the future, just look at Switzerland, whose relationship with the EU is governed through a number of bilateral deals. The news last week was that Jean Claude Juncker may be willing to allow the Swiss full access to the single market without free movement after their 2014 referendum demanding quotas on immigrants; a huge change to their existing relationship. There will always be scope for new deals and different arrangements, depending on what the people want, and what is in the best interests of the EU and the UK.

As David Miliband wrote in the New Statesman last week, Brexit makes "discretionary various social, political, economic and environmental rights that have become mandatory over the past two generations". He is right, but he should not fear it. Instead of worrying, he should celebrate that British voters have control over what was previously 'mandatory', even if some may disagree with him as to how best to use these powers.

It is clear what Brexit 'means'. It means that our Government, and our voters will decide on the policies that affect our everyday lives. There will be no immovable 'Brexit Britain', but a democracy with politicians accountable to the voters, for both success and failure. Whether you wish to see more or less environmental regulation, more or less immigration, higher or lower VAT, freer trade or greater protectionism these decisions will no longer be out of your control. Leaving the European Union will not settle these questions or set answers that we must follow. Each issue will be dealt with from year to year as all other issues that our country continued to control were.

Ultimately Brexit means trusting our democracy and trusting ourselves to find the right path to a brighter future, and to know when to change course too. It is now up to all of us, whether we voted leave or remain, to take part, scrutinise and put forward alternatives to a process that will not end when a deal is signed. Democracy can never end with a final agreement, with 'mandatory' policies, on Europe or any other issue. This is what Brexit means. We have taken back control; it is now up to us how we use it.

Nadhim Zahawi is the Conservative MP for Stratford-upon-Avon

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