And so the divorce proceedings begin. This week Parliament passed the Bill allowing the Prime Minister to begin the process of wrenching us out of the European Union – and, in all likelihood, the Single Market.
To keep up with her own timeline, she now has 15 days to post the letter that will officially launch the process towards Brexit. The country now faces a greater period of uncertainty than most of us have ever experienced.
So what best guess can we make on how life outside the EU will look for Yorkshire? There’s no point asking this Government. Before the referendum, the Brexiteers who are now in charge gave no vision and no prospectus for Brexit. Instead all we got was a one-line lie on the side of a bus. No wonder they are now so unwilling to be held to account.
What we can be reasonably sure of is that our region stands to lose in trade, funding and security if Theresa May persists with pursuing a hard Brexit.
Last year exports from Yorkshire to the EU were worth £7.6bn. Boris Johnson claims that “we will trade as much as ever, if not more” with Europe. But in ruling out any British adherence to the European Court of Justice, Theresa May has struck a critical blow to continued British participation in the Single Market. How can we possibly expect to maintain this level of trade if we are unwilling to abide by the rules of a marketplace to which we demand frictionless access?
On Wednesday, the Government made an embarrassing U-turn on national insurance contributions. For the sake of the prosperity of our region I sincerely hope they will now U-turn on another forgotten election commitment – to keep us in the single market.
David Davis has told Parliament that we can expect “the exact benefits as we have now”. Between 2007 and 2013 Yorkshire received £829m in EU structural money. This has funded essential development projects and boosted growth. Yet how can we be sure that people living in Yorkshire will benefit from similar projects when the Brexiteers won’t even uphold their promise to pump £350m a week into our crisis-hit NHS?
As far as EU citizens living in the UK is concerned, the political is also very personal for me. The two most important women in my life – my Spanish wife and Dutch mother – are directly affected by this. Both have worked, raised children and paid taxes here. And both love this country dearly. I am sure that the intolerable uncertainty that they have endured is typical of the estimated 173,000 EU nationals who call Yorkshire home.
Around 16,000 of these people work in education and health. They teach our kids and they care for us when things inevitably take a turn for the worse. It simply beggars belief that people like them have had a question mark placed over their status because of the shameful position taken by this Government.
It’s time to quash the myth that migration from the EU has meant fewer jobs for local people. The reality is many people who have come here from Europe have set up their own businesses and created jobs. In Yorkshire alone, there are 5,422 small and medium-sized companies with a director from elsewhere in the EU. We should be encouraging talented, hardworking entrepreneurs to stay here.
The Conservative party picked this fight, these people did not. So it was deeply disappointing to see the Government refuse to guarantee their rights before engaging in its grubby game of poker with Brussels. The argument that this stance is necessary to secure the rights of UK nationals simply doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. There is no evidence that other EU countries are going to question the residency rights of UK citizens on the continent. It is telling that organisations representing British expats in countries including Spain, France and Germany have written a letter to the Prime Minister urging her to guarantee the rights of EU nationals in the UK as a first step in the negotiations. They know that the best way to stand up for Britons abroad is to enter these talks in good faith, not by using three million EU nationals living in the UK as bargaining chips.
Turning to the other amendment to the Brexit Bill debated this week, on the right of Parliament to have the final say on the Brexit deal, the double-standards shown by Ministers has been astounding. “We should free ourselves from Brussels and restore parliamentary sovereignty” Brexiteers like Michael Gove once cried. And yet the first thing they do is undermine the principle of democratic accountability in our Parliament, by refusing to allow a meaningful vote
The Liberal Democrats believe it should not just be Parliament that gets a say on the final deal, but the people too. This deal should not simply be signed off by an unelected Prime Minister. Nor should the final say be limited to a select group of people privileged enough to have a seat in Westminster. We must ensure that at the end of the negotiating process, the British voters get to choose whether or not to accept the terms of a deal that will have such immense implications for the people of this great county.
Nick Clegg is the former leader of the Liberal Democrats and MP for Sheffield Hallam.