UK will do perfectly well without EU, it’s them who need us - British MP

Long before the Brexit vote was decided, the ‘Remain’ camp warned of imminent economic troubles for the UK if it leaves the EU. However, months after the referendum, it looks like the British economy is still doing well. Were fears over leaving the European Union exaggerated, or is the worst yet to come? With Theresa May leading the country, how soon will Brexit become a reality? And how is Britain going to cope with going it alone? We ask Sir Edward Leigh, member of the British Parliament, on Sophie&Co.

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Sophie Shevardnadze: Conservative member of the British Parliament, Sir Edward Leigh, welcome to the show, great to have you with us, Sir. David Cameron was quick to step down from his position as Prime Minister and Conservatives swiftly appointed Theresa May as  his replacement - but she was in the Remain camp before the vote. Is she going to do her utmost to take Britain out of the EU?

Edward Leigh: Yeah, I was a Vote Leave person. I think we were right to leave the EU in order to reclaim our democracy and our borders, so I'm very happy that Theresa May is now our Prime Minister. David Cameron has now left on his own accord, and we're leaving the EU, so I'm happy.

SS: Yeah, but what about what I've asked you - do you think Theresa May, being before the vote in the Remain camp, and now being appointed as Prime Minister - is she going to do her utmost to take Britain out of the EU?

EL: Absolutely. She said: "Brexit means Brexit", she said we're definitely leaving the EU, the people have spoken, 17 million people, a majority has voted for this. It's definitely going to happen, and she's going to make it happen. And she said we're going to make it successfully, so we will be leaving the EU, definitely.

SS: May backs this so-called "soft Brexit", keeping Britain's clout in the EU even after leaving it and she isn't in a hurry either - but with the Vote Leave camp influence still strong, will the Prime Minister be pressured into going ahead with a quick and drastic split?

EL: No, I think we're quite united about this. What will happen is that there'll be some months before we go ahead with Article 50, which is a formal notice of leaving, and we will invoke that around the New Year, we're now going to get our negotiating position right, and then around January 2019 or the early part of '19 we will leave. So, I don't think we'll be pressing her to do much quicker than that, I mean don't think she's going to leave it much later than the New Year because it will then become ridiculous, you know - we've had the referendum, we're going to get on with it.

SS: So, after addressing the Parliament on Brexit, the Minister for Exiting the EU, David Davis was blasted for not having any plan for leaving the EU. MP's called it an "astonishingly empty statement". Apart from desire to disengage from the EU, does the Leave camp have any actual details planned beforehand?

EL: No, I mean, it's far too early for them to give away the negotiating hand. If you are to negotiate with somebody, you don't tell everybody your plans, so I don't think anybody is very overly concerned that he didn't go into detail. It's far too soon for that. He’s sort of determined, of course, to keep our relationship with the single market, but he himself said that it's improbable we'll stay in it, because if you want to stay in the single market, you have to accept free movement of people - that's one thing we don't want, so there'll be some sort of negotiation. At the end of the day, if we have to fall back on World Trade Organisation rules and just be part of that organisation, we’ll do it. We'll offer a free trade deal, but if they don't want it, as they have a massive surplus with it, that's their own trouble.

SS: With such an unprecedented situation, however, can you really blame Davis for not knowing what to do and at least being honest about it?

EL: No, I think he knows perfectly well what his plan is, but, as I said a moment ago, if you're in a negotiation, you don't give your negotiating hand away right at the beginning of it. I'm pretty sure by now David Davis has a clear idea of what he wants to do. He wants to reclaim control of our borders, he's prepared to be part of some sort of  free trade association, but he's not prepared to be part of a regulated single market in which we have to accept all the EU rules and regulations and have no influence in making them. So the deal will be offered to the EU, if they don't want to take a free trade area, then we'll fall back on being part of the World Trade Organisation, which, you know, 120-odd countries are perfectly happy with, including Russia, including America, including China - so, we're not worried at all.

SS: Theresa May and Chancellor Philip Hammond have made it clear that access to the EU single market is a priority for the UK, but Davis says it's unlikely if the UK imposes migration controls on European nationals - so which option is the more favourable one for UK? The market or border control?

EL: I think you're trying to make up a sort of great dispute inside the government that doesn't exist - obviously, we will have access to single market, it would be madness not to. I mean, over a 120 nations which are not part of the EU have access to single market - that's the only point Theresa May is making...

SS: How are you going to do that if you have border controls?

EL: Well, we'll offer them a free trade deal, if they don't want to have the free trade - they have a massive trade surplus with us. Germans import 100,000 vehicles into the UK every year, if they don't want to have a free trade deal, we'll just impose tariffs on their goods and they will impose tariffs on our goods, as happens with Russia or America or China. Tariffs are quite low nowadays, they're quite a small proportion of total cost. We're quite relaxed about it - it's up to the EU.

SS: But also, I'm thinking, does the UK even need a free trade deal with the EU? I mean, it trades with the United States without one, and it's the UK's biggest investor and vice versa...

EL: Yeah, you're absolutely right. You've absolutely put your finger on it, and that's why our negotiating position is extremely strong. I mean, I have no doubt we will offer them a free trade deal, but if they don't want to have it  - that's not in their interest, because they have a massive trade surplus with the UK, with us. So, you're absolutely right, we're quite happy to be in exactly same position as the United States - it's no worries for us, that's why I don't think this negotiation is as difficult as some people suggest.

SS: Also, May has started working on a free trade deal with Australia, and revealed plans to strike deals with other partners. Which ones? Do you know? Will that be enough to replace the EU's contribution to British economy?

EL: Well, Australia has already said they're interested. Of course, Australia used to be and is part of the British Empire, it's part of British Commonwealth, it's english-speaking - we have very close cultural and trading links already with Australia, so I'm perfectly confident that in time, a free trade deal will be struck with Australia, with New Zealand, with other members of the Commonwealth. We may even strike a free trade deal with China or Russia or America! It will take a little bit of time, but if the EU doesn't want to have a deal with us - well, there's a whole world out there, we're not too worried.

SS: And you think that will be more than enough to replace EU's contribution to British economy?

EL: Absolutely, because they have a massive trading surplus with us, I mean their surplus with us is about 60 billion pounds a year. The trade deficit, our deficit in goods with the EU is 60 billion pounds a year - and of course, there's no free trade in services, which is where our economy is particularly strong. I'll be survived without being a part of a single market in services, so I think, I repeat, our negotiating position is extremely strong.

SS: Now, a key demand of the Brexit voters was to take back control of UK's immigration policy from the EU. The ruling party pledged to bring down net migration to the tens of thousands. Now, in the past year, the number was 327,000 including 180,000 EU citizens. Can you significantly clamp down on migration without causing harm to the British economy?

EL: Yes, I'm convinced we can. We should be letting in people whom we need and it's ridiculous having free movement which is only in one direction. I mean, 800,000 Polish people arrived in the UK. They're all very welcome individually, I'm sure most of them work hard and make a contribution, but very few British people want to go and work in Poland, but 800,000 are here so it's not free movement - we want to go back to the situation where we control our borders, and if you're a Polish person or a Russian person or an American person who's going to make a contribution, we'll let you in. If you're not - we won't. So I think it won't harm the economy at all, quite the opposite.

SS: Now the biggest concerns come over asylum seekers, but they represent only around 7% of total immigration to the UK. Are citizens’ worries over migration misplaced?

EL: Asylum seekers are a separate issue.

SS: But this is one of the biggest issues for British people.

EL: Yes, but it's not part of the EU migration, I mean we'll continue to deal with asylum-seekers in a way we have done, and some of us would want us to be very fair but tough on that, and that will carry on. I don't think that's part of the EU debate, but as you know, very few asylum-seekers come from the EU, if any.

SS: Well, the migration crisis is the biggest crisis in EU right now - that is why I'm asking, because people will eventually be coming to the UK because there’s war going on abroad.

EL: Well, yeah, that's a very fair point, and I see the point you're making. I agree with you. I mean, one thing we're worried about is the one million people, asylum seekers, who settled in Germany. If we stay in the EU, they will, eventually, once they get their German passport, all have a right to come to the UK, so you're right. Once we're out of the EU, we're not required to take any asylum-seekers who've settled in Germany. We'll just take the ones we want, but you're right. In those terms, asylum-seekers are an important issue.

SS: And how do you differentiate the ones that you want and you don't want? What would be the criteria?

EL: As any country does it - I mean, you can't just arrive in America by right - you have to convince the Americans that you've got a job, it's a job that no American could do, it's quite hard to get in a work permit in America, America just lets in people it wants - so if America can do it, most other countries in the world have a similar system. We're already do it with non-EU countries: if you want to come and work here, even if you're part of Commonwealth, from India, you don't have a right to arrive, you have to apply for work permit. So it's very easily done, you just have to prove you got a job and it's a job that somebody else here can't do and you're needed and you'll get in.

SS: Now, to stop illegal immigrants from crossing the English Channel, Britain is actually building a concrete wall in the French city of Calais. It will be a roadside barrier to prevent migrants from targeting trucks to get across to England. But the wall will only target one route, it may not really stop the migrants, besides there's not many of them in Calais and the French government is planning to dismantle their camp anyways. Is the wall the best way to ensure security at the border? I mean, especially, when it's worth $3 mn?

EL: We have got the Channel, so you're right, we're going to have various controls over many borders, over many ports: Dunkirk, Calais, Caen, Cherbourg, and no doubt, when one port is closed-off, illegal migrants will try to get through the other port. We are an island, the Channel is quite wide, and I'm sure we can have reasonably effective controls, but obviously some people will get through. But we are, luckily, an island so we're going to make it as difficult as possible.

SS: But is it really worth $3mn to build that wall?

EL: I think it's worth it, because otherwise, they're making a mockery of our systems of control. If there's no wall, if there's no fence and they can jump on the back of lorries - why should you get into this country as an illegal when good people who've applied properly and fairly and normally are not allowed in? We think it's much better to take asylum seekers directly from Syria, from the camps, rather than encouraging migration across Europe by taking people from Calais. So, the fence is good money.

SS: A bit more about the economy now - far from being hampered by the uncertainty of the Brexit vote, the UK economy accelerated in the months after the referendum: strong consumer spending, business investment - actually, everything seems intact. Why isn't the looming break-up from UK's biggest trading partner bringing about the chaos that economists predicted altogether?

EL: Well, I didn't predict chaos. These were the Remainers, the people who warned that if we leave the EU there'll be chaos and emergency budget. In fact, the economy is going ahead very nicely and I think it's because investors and big business and countries do what's in their own interest - they're not politicians and they want to trade with us, and they realise we're going to go on with trading with the rest of the world, we're going to become  a low-tax deregulated economy, open for business around the world, so I think the prospects are very good for us.

SS: But maybe it's because Brexit hasn't actually happened yet?

EL: Yeah, but everybody knows it's going to happen, so if it was going to be such a disaster, you would expect businesses already be worried, but actually the economy is doing fine. So, all these warnings were forced.

SS: But then, of course you have Bank of England and the British Chamber of Commerce - they predict UK's economy is going to come to a halt next year amid all the Brexit uncertainty. Theresa May has said there may be some difficult times ahead - is that an understatement?

EL: I doubt the British Chamber of Commerce or a Confederation of British Industry or anybody else knows what's going to happen in the future. There will be challenges, but we've always been a trading nation, we've always traded with a whole world. You know, we were an independent nation trading for 500 years before we joined the EU 41 years ago - I mean, life will carry on.

SS: Liam Fox, International Trade Secretary, he lashed out at UK business culture, calling British businessmen "fat and lazy" - does he have a point? Perhaps, tough economic times is UK's own fault?

EL: I'm not sure he called all British businessmen "fat and lazy", I think he was making a point that some people have become complacent, and once you're an independent country, trying to compete with fast-growing Asian economies, you can't afford to be fat or lazy, you have to be at cutting edge - that's the point that Liam was making, but he certainly wasn't calling all businessmen "fat and lazy", I'm sure that's not the point he was making.

SS: The Danish Prime Minister has said that the EU needs to make sure the UK won't have a competitive advantage once it leaves the Union - do you expect Brussels to be hardline and hostile during the negotiations?

EL: There's no point in them being hardline and hostile because they have massive trading surplus. As I've already said they have 60 billion pound trading surplus, so the more they're hostile and hardline, the more we're going to look for trading opportunities elsewhere. So I personally think this is all rhetoric. I don't think it's going to happen,I think, as I've already said, countries and companies in the EU and everybody else acts in their economic self-interest, it's not in your economic self-interest to build barriers or walls.

SS: But also they maybe just want to discourage others from leaving the Union, so they're being hard about it now?

EL: I don't think it's very likely that another country's going to leave in the near future. Every country will act in its own self-interest. I can't believe that people in Brussels are going to try and inhibit international trade just to make a political point about a hypothetical question about some country that may or may not want to leave in the future. This is all just newspaper writing, this is not the reality of what goes on in the trade negotiations.

SS: Can we talk about Boris Johnson for a minute: Boris Johnson, who is now the Foreign Secretary, is a man with a tricky reputation. Actually, most recently the French Foreign Minister has called him a "liar". Does his appointment as the UK's top diplomat undermined London's chances at a good EU exit deal?

EL: No, Boris Johnson is a very well-known personality. He's written numerous articles in the past, he's very personable, he's an international figure, he is and will make and an excellent Foreign Secretary. Obviously politicians are making temporary remarks about each other, but negotiations carry on - so what the French Foreign Secretary said once in the past, I think it's irrelevant. He'll act in the best interest of his country, which is to get a good deal.

SS: Johnson supports normalising ties with Russia and we're already seeing a change of rhetoric, like Russian President Vladimir Putin and Prime Minister Theresa May have actually met for the first time during the G20 and vowed to resume dialogue. Will the UK have to get closer with Russia now that it is about to leave the EU?

EL: I would hope so. That's my personal view. Russia is a very important country, Britain and Russia are two parts of the either extremity of the European continent. Over the centuries we've had very good relations with Russia, we stood side by side with Russia in two world wars and the fight against Nazis and Fascism - we have close cultural and economic links, and so my personal view is that I hope that one of the advantages of leaving the EU is that we can build closer relations with our friends in Russia. But that's my personal view, that's what I express.

SS: But you know, as of now, Russia and UK have a lot of disagreements as far as the foreign policy goes - what do you think about that? Do you think that could change? Because that's not only about economy and economic ties...

EL: I hope it changes. As we're talking there's being a ceasefire agreed in Syria. The Americans are now working closely with the Russians which I think is a very good idea. Hopefully the American and Russian government will cooperate in targeting ISIL - Daesh - I hope we'll be part of that. So, I think Russian-American relations are improving all the time and I hope that English-Russian relations are on the same trajectory. I think it is very important that we work together. The enemies of Russia are the same as the enemies of America and Britain, namely, jihadism and extremism and so I hope we work very closely together in the future.

SS: Right, but the American-Russian relationship are at its lowest right now after the Cold War. Actually, many people are calling this "The New Cold War", so - is it really likely that Britain will go against America's policies and make friends with Russia?

EL: No, I don't think we'll go against American policies. I think it's overly simplistic. I mean, there have been challenges, and we all know, in American-Russian relations, particularly over Ukraine but as we've seen this agreement over Syria this week, I think they realised they have to work together. I mean, Britain is not going to suddenly change its mind over Ukraine or anything else, but gradually, I hope, we'll work closer together. But I wouldn't say that relations are at an all-time low. I think they are actually now improving again.

SS: Do you think UK would go as far as lifting the sanctions against Russia?

EL: That I don't know. I'm not a member of the government, I'm not a minister. I don't think it would happen immediately, but in time I hope it would happen and I'm purely expressing a personal view because I don't think Russia is ever going to give up the Crimea, and a majority of people in the Crimea are Russian-speaking and want to be part of Russia. So nothing's going to change. So we could have sanctions for the next 5, 10, 15 or 20 years - it would make no difference for the Crimea. So in my personal view, purely in my personal view, I hope that sanctions are gradually eased.

SS: UK until now has been a long-standing opponent of tighter EU integration - now will Brexit actually facilitate a lot of EU initiatives in the areas like defence, shared border control? Now that there will be no more UK resistance?

EL: That I don't know, you'd have to ask that question our European partners. I mean they are now talking about creating a European army, which we would totally oppose to. One of the reasons why we didn't want to stay in the EU is that because we don't want further integration, we don't want European army, we don't want to be part of all these integrationist tactics, but what trajectory they will now go on, what policies they want to do, whether they want to create an ever-closer and deeper union -that's up to them but we won't be part of it.

SS: But have you ever looked at it the other way around: do you actually think that Brexit could actually benefit the EU?

EL: Possibly, yeah, I think it will. I think there's a lot of people in France who feel that it was a mistake that we ever joined, that General De Gaulle was right to veto our entry in the early 1960s and it was never really a happy marriage and I think that a lot of people in France, particularly, think that the EU will be better off without us - so you're right, it might help them actually, it might help them to create a more harmonious body based on the continent. Winston Churchill was always clear that the continent should combine, but he never wanted Britain to be part of it because we're on island and we're an international trading nation.

EL: Yeah, but the vote was so close and half of the population of the UK is still in the remain camp. With a Brexit process proving to be more complicated by the day, do you feel there's a chance the public will tire of the idea and it will be maybe just fizzle out over time?

EL: No, no.

SS: How do you bridge the population divide?

EL: There was a clear majority, a massive turnout of 70%, there was a clear 52/48% vote. A majority is a majority. If you believe in democracy a majority is good enough, the people have spoken...

SS: But it's still a very close call. How do you bridge the population divide?

EL: Well I think that once we have left the EU, in 10 or 20 years time people will wonder why we ever were in it. The fact is, the Prime Minister and the government and the Conservative party which is the ruling party, are absolutely clear about this. We're all Brexiteers now, the people have spoken, it's going to happen. There's going to be no backsliding. So anybody who suggests there'll be a second referendum or this won't happen - are deluding themselves. The Prime Minister is absolutely clear she's going to make it happen, the people have spoken and we're going to make it happen.

SS: What do you think of Scotland? Scotland has voted against Brexit, so once it actually happens do you expect Scotland to try and separate from the UK again?

EL: The Scottish National Party will try but the opinion polls show that Scottish people still want to be part of the United Kingdom. The Scottish government has made it absolutely clear that Scotland will leave the EU with the rest of the UK. I can't believe that Scottish people would want to leave both the EU and the UK and be on their own. So, I don't think that's going to happen, I think Scotland will stay part of the UK.

SS: Yeah but they may want to leave the UK and stay part or become part of the EU.

EL: I don't think they can. Under EU law they will have to reapply as an independent nation and it would take years and years. Spain would almost certainly veto it because they don't want to encourage Catalonia to break away. France would have some worries, so would Italy for the same reason. So, I don't think it's ever going to happen.

SS: Alright, sir Edward, thank you very much for this interview. We were talking to Sir Edward Leigh, member of the British Parliament, discussing Brexit and how difficult the split from the EU is going to be. That's it for this edition of Sophie&Co, I will see you next time.

EL: Thank you.