By Benjamin Fox
(EurActiv) — Rishi Sunak sought to quash reports that the UK will soon seek to re-open talks on its relationship with the EU, insisting that life outside the EU is “already delivering enormous benefits and opportunities” for the country.
Speaking on Monday (21 November) at the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry, an influential lobbying organisation, the new prime minister, who campaigned for a Leave vote in 2016 as a backbench MP, told delegates that “I voted for Brexit, I believe in Brexit.”
The Sunday Times reported that senior ministers have been working on a new proposal for EU relations based on Switzerland’s agreement with the bloc that would scrap 80% of the checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and open up access to the single market. It also reported that this could involve annual payments by the UK to the EU budget but not the return of freedom of movement.
The reports, combined with remarks by Chancellor Jeremy Hunt last week that he would seek to “remove the vast majority of the trade barriers that exist between us and the EU”, have re-opened the debate on the UK’s economic relationship with the EU, and have prompted anger for Brexit supporters.
Although the governing Conservative party, then led by Boris Johnson, won a large 80-seat majority at the December 2019 election on the promise of completing the Brexit process, opinion polls have for several years suggested that a majority of Britons believe that leaving the EU was a mistake. A YouGov poll last week suggested that the public now thinks Britain was wrong to leave the European Union by a margin of 56% to 32%.
The opposition Labour party, which promised a second referendum on EU membership at the 2019 election, has refused to set out its position beyond opposing UK membership of the single market.
A Swiss-style deal would be based on the principle of regulatory alignment – whereby the UK would commit to sticking to swathes of EU single market legislation.
However, Sunak said that outside the EU, the UK would establish “regulatory regimes that are fit for the future that ensure that this country can be leaders in those industries that are going to create the jobs and the growth of the future”.
This week the government’s Retained EU Law Bill, which would end the special status of around 4,000 pieces of EU legislation in UK domestic law and make it easy to revoke them, continues its passage through the UK parliament.
Despite leaving the EU and ending freedom of movement, migration to the UK has actually increased since Brexit, largely on the back of a significant increase in non-EU migration. However, a number of sectors, including hospitality and agriculture, have reported major difficulties in filling the 1.2 million job vacancies across the UK.
CBI director-general, Tony Danker, told the conference that the UK’s labour shortages were “vast”, and that “we don’t have the people we need, nor do we have the productivity”.
In response, Sunak insisted the UK had “one of the world’s most attractive visa regimes for entrepreneurs and highly-skilled people”.