Britain seeking the closest possible relationship with the European Union is “not a betrayal of Brexit”, according to a former Conservative chancellor.
Brexit-backer Lord Lamont of Lerwick says it is in “everybody’s interests” to have a “co-operative” relationship with Europe although he notes there is a need to be “realistic” about the limits of collaboration.
He suggested Britain shouldn’t go as far as allowing EU law to be imposed but instead should accept its status as a “third party”.
He went on to lambast Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer’s confidence that he can agree a better deal from Brussels on trade without rejoining the customs union or single market.
Sir Keir has said he will be seeking a closer trading relationship with the EU if Labour wins the next election. Labour has long been critical of the deal negotiated by the Conservatives under Boris Johnson, with the Trade and Co-operation Agreement up for review in 2025.
But Lord Lamont believes there is no way to secure a different sort of trade agreement while remaining outside the customs union and single market.
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He told peers: “Brexit has happened, it was a seismic event but having happened it is in everybody’s interests that we should have as close and cooperative a relationship as possible.
“It’s not a betrayal of Brexit. It was Boris Johnson who actually said after Brexit that what we must concentrate on was developing a close and cooperative relationship with Europe.
“On what basis should that cooperation and collaboration happen? Again, I think (Tory former Brexit negotiator) Lord Frost put it well to the committee when he said that Europe was a port of call, not always the first port of call but it was an important port of call.
“We don’t want close alignment or rule-taking or the imposition of EU law, we’re a third party, we accept we’re a third party but we can still have a close relationship as a third party.
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“I think it’s important while talking about the need for collaboration to be realistic about its limits and about the relationship.
“We shouldn’t delude ourselves that we can sweet talk our way into a different sort of Trade and Co-operation Agreement while remaining outside the customs union and the single market.
“It seems to me – I make this point not as a political point but to illustrate my point – that the Leader of the Opposition (Sir Keir Starmer) is in some danger of falling into this error, peddling the idea that he can change the relationship profoundly while remaining, as he claims he will be, outside the single market and the customs union.”
Lord Lamont also said the UK must have the “sovereign right” to diverge from the EU, adding: “But we should not diverge in regulations for the point of diverging, we should diverge when it is necessary to diverge and where there is an interest to this country in doing so.”
His remarks came as the Lords debated the European Affairs Committee report entitled “The future UK-EU Relationship”.
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Shadow Cabinet Office spokesman Lord Collins of Highbury said there is “space” for greater collaboration between the two sides on security, defence and industry matters.
He added there is a need to rebuild and strengthen the relationship while ensuring the UK can “make the most of leaving the European Union but staying firmly within Europe”.
Cabinet Office minister Baroness Neville-Rolfe said UK-EU relations “continue to improve” and close collaboration is already taking place.
She labelled Sir Keir’s recent remarks as “puzzling” and “naive”, adding: “It also risks returning us to the divisions of the past seven years after the referendum instead of focusing, as we should, on our national priorities.”
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