Forget talk about ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ Brexit – be upbeat about the likelihood of a mutually beneficial deal

Forget talk about ‘soft’ or ‘hard’ Brexit – be upbeat about the likelihood of a mutually beneficial deal

Imagine, for a moment, Britain never joined the European Union and is just beginning negotiations with Brussels on a comprehensive new partnership agreement.

Both sides are excited by the possibilities; no-one is framing the talks in terms of winners and losers; the FT headlines look forward to what the paper suggests could be the world’s most valuable free trade deal; and even The Guardian grudgingly acknowledges the potential of this Conservative initiative.

The UK’s negotiators arrive in Brussels for the first round of discussions in optimistic mood, and why not? They are representing one of the world’s largest economies, a country that has been at the forefront of global economic progress and technical innovation for more than 200 years. It boasts first-rate research centres and its universities are amongst the most vibrant in the world. Just one Cambridge college (Trinity) has more Nobel prize winners than the whole of France.

Britain is a member of the UN Security Council, an important military power with nuclear defence capabilities. It is a pillar of the NATO alliance and the country’s intelligence services are at the forefront of the fight against global terrorism.

It stands proud as a champion of free speech, a free press and the rule of law – and has spread these values across the globe.

The EU is equally enthusiastic about the deal and in the interests of economic prosperity, security and shared values, there is every reason to believe the agreement these imaginary negotiators conclude will be positive and far reaching.

Returning to reality, apart from the part about Britain never having been a member of the EU – and perhaps the favourable Guardian story – this is exactly where we stand today. The only difference lies in the mindsets of ourselves and the EU.

I believe that if we view the Brexit negotiations in this upbeat way, and not as difficult and complicated talks about ending an old relationship, we are far more likely to secure the “deep and special partnership” our Prime Minister seeks.

From the EU side, such an approach would sideline those who are so upset about the UK’s decision to leave that they want to impose some kind of political or economic penalties. Creating disadvantages for the sake of imposing disadvantages would be a massive mistake for all our countries and the whole of the Western world. This is not the time to be petty, to seek short term gain or to focus on the parochial. The global challenges the world faces require first rate statesmanship, leaders of the same magnitude as those who built the new global order after the Second World War.

In Britain, a positive viewpoint would banish loose talk of a ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit – terms that are bandied about as though they have some clear meaning.

Through last year’s referendum, Britons made clear they believed the level of immigration was too high, even if they welcomed their new neighbours. While the vast majority of migrants have made a positive contribution to our country, 3 million new arrivals in a short space of time caused problems for public services such as education and housing. That has to be addressed and with freedom of movement indivisible from membership, we have no choice but to leave the Single Market.

Outside the Single Market we must be free to set our own trade policy, so we also have to quit the Customs Union. But that does not stop us agreeing a deal with the EU that allows tariff-free and frictionless trade.

In these circumstances, talk of a ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexit are at best meaningless, and at worst dangerously misleading. A deal that works well for Britain and our 27 EU partners will not come about by choosing between options as if they are ready to be taken off a shelf. They are not.

I live in the real world. I know the Brexit negotiations are going to be difficult at times. But if we are positive and focus on the possibilities, on what is important, we can secure an agreement that equips us to meet the challenges ahead.