A COUPLE of weeks ago when the Article 50 Bill got Parliament’s final nod, we at last knew the Brexit starting gun was about to be fired. Today we wake up knowing this is the day.
But remember – this gun sets off a marathon, not a sprint. Things will not be decided on the the first lap – or the first exchange of letters.
This whole process is now beginning, not ending, but it is all that we have been building up to since June 23 last year. I think for both sides it will probably be a relief once the face to face talks start. The letter our Prime Minister sends out will outline our position and I expect that will be much along the principles we have already seen in her Lancaster House speech and the subsequent White Paper.
The EU’s leaders will, of course, be obliged to respond. “Try stopping them!” I am tempted to observe. That will probably happen within a couple of days. They will be itching to appear to wrest back the initiative. Indeed the response is probably 90 per cent already drafted and sitting on the desktop of Donald Tusk’s computer awaiting fine-tuning and last-minute additions.
I expect the response to be quite robust. It would, after all, be most out of character for the Brussels elite to miss an opportunity for a bout of hauteur or to tale a conciliatory position when the alternative is a dismissive flourish or a disbelieving shrug.
In return, we must not let any antagonism wrong-foot us, provoke us into rashness or distract our focus from the long game. The letter of response will be an opening gambit, not a conclusion. An initial bargaining position, not a bottom line.
Make no mistake, this will be a tough negotiation – but I am optimistic. We have a clear strategy and a determined team of ministers led by Theresa May. They will do their best and they will do what is right for Britain.
We can expect those negotiating on the EU side to probe for weak points and to test our mettle. They are time-served experts at this – but we are no pushovers.
We must also remember the key Brussels maxim that nothing is decided until everything decided.
Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, was quick last week to insist the UK would be obliged to accept the EU’s £50bn “divorce bill” before any other detailed negotiation could start. Well, to rely on some wise words spoken by a non-politician nearly 50 years ago, he would say that, wouldn’t he?
He knows a campaign is about to start – and he is one of federalism’s most seasoned warriors rattling his sabre in time-honoured fashion.
He may not be physically pre-possessing, but Mr Juncker has a black belt in posturing.
I have realised during my time in Brussels that when senior EU figures say “Take it or leave it”, what they actually mean is mean “Take it or talk about it”.
Like David Attenborough among the gorillas, we must not flinch at any of the chest beating or mock-aggression. Instead we must remain composed and speak with a calm authority.
We will, after all, be encouraging them towards a deal that benefits the EU as well as the UK. I believe the pragmatists in Brussels will realise that full well.
Importantly, I believe, we politicians, our media and the public at large should as far as possible offer the PM help and not hindrance. Excessive interference will help no-one but our opposite numbers in this negotiation.
I am pleased that MPs rejected the voices urging them to meddle with the will of the people over the Article 50 Bill. It was right not to tie the PM’s hands or to minimise her negotiating strength.
As negotiations get underway, I am going to do all I can to provide a bridge between our Government and key figures in Brussels and the European Parliament in particular.
We must all stop being distracted by internal bickering and genuinely start to focus where we need to – on our arrangements to quit the EU and our plans to build new trading arrangements right around the world.
We are not turning our back on Europe, but facing outwards to the rest of the globe too. A whole world of opportunity awaits us.
I believe the PM is made of the right stuff. She will screen out the background noise the do what is right for Britain.
But we must make sure we don’t create unnecessary distractions or obstacles by tying her hands or demanding constant justification.
That is the the way to get the best from the coming two years of hard negotiation.
Amjad Bashir is a Conservative MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber.