This is a momentous year in the history of the United Kingdom. The voices of 17.4 million voters who took part in the biggest act of democracy in our history will finally have been heard and in the decades to come, history books will pronounce 2019 as the year that the UK once again became a proud, independent nation.
And it won’t be forgotten that it was the Conservative Party that gave people a chance to give their verdict on the EU in the 2016 referendum, and which entrusted the people with such a momentous decision about our constitution and destiny.
Of course, as we approach the pivotal moment of 29th March when we leave the EU, we are once again being force-fed a diet of doom, gloom and despondency from those who wish the result had turned out differently.
But we must remember that these people have a democratic right to propel these arguments, just as 17.4 million voters had a right to rubbish their claims during the referendum – which they did, resoundingly.
And it turns out that they were absolutely right to do so. This really is a time for hope and optimism, not despair and fear. Since 2016, in spite of dire predictions made during the campaign, we’ve seen a tax windfall, the fastest growth in wages in almost a decade, record employment levels and steady economic growth. Our future has never looked brighter.
If we had have chosen to leave some sort of Utopia, I would understand people’s concerns. But the EU is no Utopia and if it were, voters would have had the wisdom to recognise this during the referendum.
In Italy, months of uncertainty and inconclusive elections have resulted in two populist parties – the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and right-wing League – forming a coalition.
Germany’s far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) entered the federal parliament for the first time last year. As with Italy’s League, it is an anti-euro party and it has strong anti-immigration policies. In 2017, next door in Austria, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) become a junior partner in coalition with the Conservatives and talk of banning headscarves for girls under 10 in schools and seizing migrants’ phones is now a part of mainstream Austrian politics.
In April last year, Viktor Orban secured a third term in office in Hungary with a landslide victory in an election dominated by debates about immigration. Orban once warned of the threat of “a Europe with a mixed population and no sense of identity” – comments unheard of in the UK political context.
The Slovenian Democratic Party (SDS) was the largest party in last year’s general election in Slovenia. Its party leader, Janez Jansa, formed an alliance with Mr Orban in opposing migrant quotas, Poland has also condemned the EU’s handling of the migrant crisis and in Denmark, the police are now allowed to seize migrants’ property to pay for their upkeep and has pledged to boost contraception aid to developing countries to “limit the migration pressure”.
And of course we’ve seen the distressing scenes in France. Weeks of street protests have erupted into a full-on anti-government movement leading to the worst violence in central Paris in a decade.
The EU is not the land of milk and honey many would have you believe. The tide is turning against the EU and the way it does business in scores of EU countries and our friends on the continent are being forced to make their voices heard through the prism of extreme political parties.
Turning to the economy, around 90 per cent of global economic growth will come from outside the EU over the coming years and the EU now accounts for less than half of our overall trade.
The EU’s economic clout is also falling, with its share of the global economy almost halving over the last 30 years. That’s why people voted to Leave so that we could take back control of our trade and regulatory policy and strike trade deals with the emerging powerhouses of the world economy.
And for every unemployed Brit, there are two people unemployed in the euro area. Unemployment is five times higher in Greece, almost four times higher in Spain, double in France and between 17-19 per cent in much of the south of Italy.
As much as my opponents like to whip up a fevered frenzy about Armageddon scenarios, cliff edges and crash outs, the truth is that we are doing well in the UK. We are also lucky to have had a chance to register our discontent in a referendum, and fortunate to be having such a thorough, engaging and relatively peaceful debate about what our post-Brexit future should look like.
We haven’t seen a rise of extremist parties in the UK, nor have we seen riots on our streets. We have simply concluded that the EU is not capable of change and that it doesn’t have our best interests at heart and we’ve done all this without making extreme political choices.
But we must be careful to ensure that we keep our debate within the political mainstream. Many people who voted in 2016 did so for the first time in their lives and there would be disastrous, political consequences if we decided to ignore or reverse the result.
The British people have boldly trodden where no other EU country has yet dared to tread and we are leading in Europe, as we always have done.
Let’s hold our heads up high and show how you can be a proud European nation without belonging to the institutions of the European Union. And let’s lead our friends and allies into the 2020s as we forge a strong, peaceful and prosperous path together.
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