For those of us who come from what were once British colonies, we can’t help being astonished by the debate about whether the UK should remain in the EU customs union post-Brexit.
From the early days of British settlement in Australia, the settlers wanted to make their own laws, not have law made for them elsewhere. In 1931, the British Parliament passed the Statute of Westminster guaranteeing that it could no longer make laws that directly impinged upon the people of Australia. As recently as 1986, the British and Australian parliaments passed the Australia Act, which put beyond doubt any capacity under any circumstance for either country to legislate in the affairs of the other.
There was nothing radical about that. Obviously, Australians want to make their own laws and control their own destiny, not have people in Westminster doing it for them. After all, the British Parliament had learnt its lesson in the 18th century when those pesky American settlers revolted under the slogan “no taxation without representation”.
More broadly, the post-war decolonisation movement was all about locals running their own countries. No one in the modern world would accept the Colonial Office in London determining their own futures.
The world has been turned on its head. Now the UK itself – the mother of democracies – is running the risk of becoming a colony of the EU. It’s one thing to be in the EU. The UK has a vote in the Council of Ministers, it has a seat in the European Commission and staff working there, it has votes in the European Parliament and judges on the European Court of Justice. That seems fair. These institutions make laws that directly impinge on life in Britain. What’s more, they make international agreements that can affect the nature of Britain’s relations with the rest of the world. The UK is party to these decisions.
Incredibly, under the latest deal negotiated between the EU and the UK, the UK will initially leave all the voting mechanisms of the EU but remain in its customs union and single market. The advantages of that arrangement for businesses that trade between the UK and the EU are obvious: there will be one set of rules for all those businesses and no obstacles to trade. It would have been the same if we Australians had stuck to the imperial ways. Imagine how we would feel if all our trade and commercial laws were made in London without an Australian having a seat at the table so as to facilitate trade Australia-UK trade.
Any Australian with any sense of national self-respect would regard that as outrageous. We might try to harmonise regulations in so far as it would be politically possible with another country, but having another country make our laws? And just to keep business simple? That would by any measure be preposterous. It would be an abrogation of national sovereignty, it would turn us into a colony. The Australian people would never accept it. Not even businesses trading with the UK would be so shamelessly self-interested as to sacrifice national self-esteem and independence in the interests of trade facilitation.
Yet, from March 29 next year until the EU gives the UK permission to leave the customs union, that’s exactly the position the UK will be in with the EU. It’s one thing to have a transition or implementation period for 21 or so months. That seems to make sense, as those businesses trading between the UK and the EU will have to put in place new procedures. It’s quite another to give the EU a veto over when the UK can make its own commercial laws.
From the EU’s point of view, there would be no rush. After all, locking the UK into EU rules and regulations and denying the UK the opportunity to make its own beneficial trade agreements would be just fine.
Let’s be honest. There are good reasons for the UK to remain in the EU and there are good reasons why it should leave. One of the reasons the issue is so fiercely debated is that there are good arguments for both cases.
But whether you are a leaver or a remainer, there is no good argument for turning one of the greatest nations into a colony of Europe. Even shameless commercial self-interest wouldn’t convince most people that they should be subjugated to the laws of others. After all that Great Britain has been through in the past 500 years, after all it has done to promote freedom and democracy, how could this great journey have been allowed to end with Great Britain becoming a colony of Europe?
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