Voices: How to rebuild our relationship with Europe after Brexit

It’s been three years since we left the European Union – and three years since barriers to commerce with our largest trading partner were put in place. With Brexit, Britain entered into the first trade deal in history that increased friction, rather than reduced it.

Small businesses are now entangled in red tape, making it harder for the NHS and care homes to get the staff they need, and preventing UK scientists from accessing vital funding for their research. Threats to break international law over the Northern Ireland Protocol have not been withdrawn – a remarkable decision given the need to work closely with our allies and partners in response to the invasion of Ukraine. The Retained EU Law Bill is being brought forward, which – despite its rather dry title – threatens to rip up many of the high-quality standards and regulations which we currently enjoy, in vitally important areas like environmental standards and protecting workers’ rights.

Rather than simply complain about the problems, we need to start addressing the reality of the situation we find ourselves in – and find solutions. We’ve had almost seven years in which our relationship with our European partners has been defined not by close cooperation, but by squabbling and distrust. If we are to deepen and strengthen our trading relationship, we must be realistic about our starting point; and mindful that those who advocate for stronger trading ties (without addressing the need to build up confidence) might be seen as trying to have their cake and eat it.

Tinkering around the edges of the Brexit deal is insufficient. Jeremy Hunt’s speech on the economy last week mentioned 4 Es, but there was one glaring omission: Europe. When strengthening the economy is the name of the game, we can’t afford not to play the best card on the table: cutting down on reams of red tape.

There are four vital steps we could try:

  • Taking immediate action to improve links with our European neighbours, including building closer ties in education by reforming the government’s Turing scheme.

  • Further steps to build confidence and establish stronger relationships with Europe, including seeking cooperation agreements with EU agencies, returning to Erasmus Plus and seeking to reach a UK-EU agreement on asylum seekers.

  • Deepening trade with Europe, including by negotiating greater access for our world-leading UK food and animal products to the single market, securing deals on sector-specific work visas and establishing mutual recognition of professional qualifications.

  • Once the trading relationship between the UK and the EU is deepened, and the ties of trust and friendship are renewed, aim to place the UK-EU relationship on a more formal and stable footing by seeking to join the single market.

The ultimate aim here would be to reach a point where the trading relationship has been deepened, and the ties of trust and friendship renewed. That’s when the question of long-term stability would arise – something which is undoubtedly good for the economy.

In the middle of a cost of living crisis, these are steps which would help our economy grow, and ease the burden on families up and down the country. Moreover, they would improve people’s lives – as well as our economy and our standing on the world stage.

Europe is our closest neighbour and largest trading partner. Seeking closer ties is a pragmatic possibility; one we urgently need to embrace.

Layla Moran is the foreign affairs spokesperson for the Liberal Democrats