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Brexit: An Australian perspective

Lowy Institute Board Director James Spigelman AC delivered this Sir Thomas More Lecture at the Honourable Society of Lincoln’s Inn in London on 6 December 2017 (Photo: Mario Gutiérrez/Getty Images)

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Thomas More lived in an era when Europe was called Christendom. The Catholic Church, under the monarchical, albeit not hereditary, authority of the papacy exercised legislative, executive and judicial power over most of the territory over which the European Union exercises such authority today.

The matters that are now regarded as appropriate for such supra-national jurisdiction are primarily economic. In the 16th century, the centralised institutions were little concerned with trade or competition policy and the like. They focused on religious observance, health, education, tourism – then called pilgrimage – and the regulation of much of social life.

A central fault line of political life in Western Christendom in that era was the conflicting institutional imperatives of the European-wide, centralised Church and the territory-based, secular rulers. In that tension, issues of status, power and economics played as much of a role as religion. The European Union has similar conflicting imperatives, which proved too much for many in the UK.

More’s century gave rise to the most dramatic challenge to the authority of the Church in the entire history of Christendom. Many territories rejected that authority, including England – an event we can, appropriately, call the first Exit.

The topic on which I have been asked to address tonight is a particularly appropriate subject for this lecture series. More, a great member of this Inn – as a knight, not a saint – was a Remainer, not an Exiter. At least today’s Remainers are unlikely to pay with their lives.

I thought of calling this address after the title of More’s last work, written in the Tower just before his execution. That title is: “Dialogue of Comfort Against Tribulation”. Set in the Kingdom of Hungary, the “tribulation” of the day was the Muslim invasion of Europe, by the Turks. Not without some contemporary resonance. I decided against this. Brexit is causing much tribulation, at the moment. However, I doubt I can provide much comfort.

Australians and the United Kingdom

From an Australian perspective, the principal issue arising from Brexit is what kind of trade agreement will Australia negotiate with the United Kingdom.

There is no doubt that any such negotiations will be approached against the background of considerable goodwill. Notwithstanding the changes in Australia’s position in the world, over the decades that the United Kingdom has been part of the European Union and its predecessors, economic, strategic, cultural and historical ties are still of significance. Although there are probably no Australians who now call England “Home”, as so many still did in 1973.

Nevertheless, our current Constitutional crisis arises from the fact that so many of our Parliamentarians have long been secret British citizens.

Our economic integration with the Asian economies over that period, and a significant increase in the proportion of the population that have no family heritage from the United Kingdom or Ireland has, of course, loosened many of the ties that once existed. Nevertheless, Australian attitudes are such that the political environment for any trade negotiations remains very supportive.

The Lowy Institute is Australia’s premier international relations think tank – our version of Chatham House. It conducts an annual poll of Australian attitudes on a range of international relations issues.

The 2017 poll repeated the findings of earlier years that Australian attitudes towards the UK are characterised by warmth and trust, which the poll measures in terms of a thermometer on a scale of 0-100°. This year the United Kingdom rated 81°, second only to New Zealand.

Indeed, there has been a warming trend over the last decade of 7°. 2006 was a low point. That was the year that England won the Ashes for the first time in almost two decades. With Kevin Pietersen as the major run-maker and Andrew Flintoff not far behind, also being the major wicket-taker. You can understand why warmth was at a low point that year.

The 81° rating in 2017 compares with ratings of 71° for France, Germany and Japan, 69 ° for the United States, and 62 ° for the European Union.

The poll also shows that more than half of Australians regard New Zealand as Australia’s best friend in the world. The United Kingdom and the United States are equal second.

Of particular interest are the results of the questions about the nations Australians trust to act responsibly in the world. The United Kingdom topped the list, with 90% expressing such trust. Interestingly, Germany and Japan were not far behind. The United States, however, scored only 61%.

Also relevant are the poll’s questions on globalisation and free trade. 78% of Australians believe that globalisation is mostly good for Australia and only 15% believe it is mostly bad. Over the last decade, the former is up from 64% and the latter is down from 28%. 67% of Australians believe that free trade is good for their standard of living and the Australian economy.

So-called FTAs

Overall, the social and political background for negotiating a so-called “Free Trade Agreement” between Australia and the UK is very good. I use the qualifying adjective, “so-called”, because I believe that the description for what is, in substance, a Preferential Trade Agreement, is a wholly inappropriate, indeed bordering on an Orwellian abuse of the English language.

For about a century Australia has had an independent organisation advising our Commonwealth Government in public reports on industry policy. Originally it was called the Tariff Board, later the Industry Assistance Commission and, in recent times, the Productivity Commission. For approximately its first half-century it was a protectionist body. However, in its second half-century it became the principal advocate for liberalising trade. More than any other Australian institution, it built a constituency for reform over that half century.

In its most recent incarnation, as the Productivity Commission, with a much-expanded brief on economic policy, it has assessed some of Australia’s recent so called Free Trade agreements. Accurately in my view, it refuses to call them that, preferring the language of Preferential Trade Agreements (“PTAs”).

All such agreements commence with the generally applicable industry protection, support and regulatory structures of the participant nations. They then exchange preferred treatments with each other. So-called FTAs are no different to the old Imperial Reference regimes, which gave nations of the then British Empire special treatment.

Our Productivity Commission and its predecessors, have manifested “a constant theme over the years that preferential treatment of one group typically comes at a cost to others”. The politics of such agreements is simple. The benefits are concentrated and the burdens are dispersed. The recipients of benefits heap praise on the wisdom of the politicians. Those who suffer the burdens do not generally realise that their pockets are being picked.

The proposition that any reduction of impediments to trade is always good for everybody is a fantasy. There are winners and losers. Striking the balance between the two is a political, as much as an economic, question. I suppose many votes for Brexit reflected such an understanding.

After a new PTA is signed politicians can always point to industries that improved their access to another market. However, that may have come at a cost to consumers, if imported goods or services become more expensive or of lower quality, for example, if quota allocations are increased from a higher cost source. It may also come at a cost to businesses and employees who cannot be retrained or reallocated for social reasons. There are other such effects.

There are also some indirect disadvantages arising from the increased complexity, and transaction costs, of doing business under the proliferating number of PTAs. For example, to avoid transhipment of goods from third-party nations through the partner with the lowest tariff or regulatory barrier, detailed “rules of origin” need to be negotiated, generally industry by industry. In the recent Australia/Korea “FTA” there were 5200 separate rules of origin for different products and industries. They are not the same as those under other PTAs, for example, with Japan. An Australian business wishing to export to both Korea and Japan has to jump through two different sets of hoops.

In my former role as Chair of the National Library of Australia, I experienced a particular disadvantage arising from the US-Australia PTA. In collaboration with all the major State Public Libraries, the National Library had created an extraordinary public resource. We had digitised all Australian metropolitan and regional newspapers. Every student doing an assignment, at any stage of his or her education, can access virtually every newspaper in Australian history.

However, we could not go beyond 1954, and will not be able to do so for many years.

Copyright in newspapers is a very complex matter. One cannot simply get permission from the owners of the mastheads. Anyone who has ever written anything may be entitled to copyright – even letters to the editor.

The person principally to blame for the 1954 cut-off date is Mickey Mouse. Whenever Micky is about to go out of copyright, the US Congress extends the period of exclusive use. US copyright law has long since stopped being a reward for creativity and is now a vulgar monopoly. American intellectual property interests – for many years Hollywood, but now also Silicon Valley – insist that the US regime should be adopted by any party to a trade agreement.

We did so. You will be asked to do so. In your case, however, as a major exporter of intellectual property, including to the US, you may like the idea.

Economists generally agree that multilateral agreements are most beneficial. However, after the collapse of the Doha Round, such agreements are unlikely. Second-best are plurilateral treaties, namely regional or multi-party agreements – of which the EU is the largest and most comprehensive. Some of the benefits of plurilateral agreements arise from the inclusion of most favoured nations clauses in bilateral agreements. These are common in investment protection clauses, frequent in services clauses, but rare in goods clauses.

Large scale plurilateral agreements – the TTP for the US and Asia and the TTIP for the US and Europe – are in danger post-Trump, the latter fatally. However, the TTP may well go ahead in an amended form, without the USA and, possibly, Canada. The failure to adopt new multilateral agreements has led to the proliferation of bilateral agreements, which are the least beneficial. That is the prospect now facing the UK.

When our Productivity Commission did a detailed analysis of the costs and benefits of recent Australian PTAs it found the analysis inconclusive. The best it could say was that the economic results are “likely to be modest”.

Nevertheless, each new agreement was announced by the politicians in a triumphalist tone. That was only possible because almost the whole of the negotiating process was conducted in secrecy. But for a few leaks, the public never knew whether what we got, bore any relationship to what we wanted.

One message that the Productivity Commission has emphasised in its reports may be of some use for the UK process now underway. Its reports call for greater transparency. In the bilateral agreement context, it recommends a published, independent, pre-negotiations analysis and a corollary published, final text analysis. The negotiators would benefit from the former. They would also know that their negotiations would be assessed by the comparison with the latter. The negotiations with the EU to date do not suggest that this course is being followed.

Negotiating PTAs

One of the key lessons from Australia’s negotiation of PTAs is that it does matter how much protection you have at the start of the negotiations, and which you are prepared to surrender. Prior to the final stage of negotiations of our agreements with Japan, South Korea and China, Australia had already diminished the extent of tariff and subsidy support for many of its industries, notably car manufacturing. There is no doubt that we could have negotiated a better deal with each of those countries if we had had more to give up, particularly for products of great interest to the other party; for example, imports of cars.

I am not sufficiently familiar with the position of either Europe or the UK on the vast range of specific negotiations that need to be undertaken. What lies ahead is a long, complex, sector-by-sector bargaining process, first with the EU and then with other nations. The history of our negotiations is that to reach a final deal, one party reluctantly surrenders access for a particular product or regulation, in exchange for an equally reluctant surrender of access by the other party of completely unrelated product or regulation. There are, as I have said, always winners and losers.

I have read fervent advocacy that the fundamental approach of the UK in any negotiations should be a commitment to maximise free trade and, therefore, to minimise all restrictions on trade, whether tariff or non-tariff barriers, such as differences in regulatory regimes. That may work in the long term. To proceed on that basis now will significantly weaken your bargaining position. Your own history shows why.

Free trade tradition

Free trade was the great cause of 19th century Great Britain. The repeal of the Corn Laws in 1846 is, perhaps, the greatest example in world history of the beneficial effect of unilateral reduction of trade barriers. However, the long-term effects of the British commitment to free trade on British prosperity was not entirely positive.

Within a few years of the Anglo-French Commercial Treaty of 1860 (known as the Cobden-Chevalier treaty) France signed numerous treaties with other European nations, and Britain signed a few. Linked by most favoured nation clauses the network of treaties, although bilateral in form, was multilateral in effect. The network created what one scholar has called the “First Common Market”.

The Cobden-Chevalier treaty reduced trade restrictions between the two nations in the kind of bilateral deal with which we have become familiar. It was criticised at home as a betrayal of free trade principles precisely because of its bilateral nature. The Cobdenites defended the treaty on the basis that Britain unilaterally offered the same tariff reductions to all, a self-imposed, unilateral MFN.

When the inevitable happened and a downturn in the economic cycle led to protectionist measures in many European nations, the national commitment to free trade meant that British industry was progressively excluded from many European markets. France, and the other nations in the network, could bargain for mutual advantage with each other. Britain, having abolished most of its tariffs, had nothing to bargain with.

In the 1870s, a round of commercial treaties between European nations discriminated against Britain. It did not retaliate and it was bereft of effective bargaining chips. Gradually, much of the original network of treaties spawned by the Anglo-French treaty of 1860 was taken over by the new united Germany and turned to its protectionist advantage. As the Germans say: Plus ça change.

It took a long time for the politics of “fair trade”, and the idea of retaliatory tariffs, to prevail over “free trade” in Great Britain. An absolute commitment to free trade does not work in a world of protectionist states. Lord Salisbury put it well in 1892: the commercial policy adopted by Britain since 1860, “may be noble but it is not business.”

Perhaps most relevantly to my topic, in response to protectionism in Europe and the United States, at the turn of the 20th century Britain turned to the Empire for preferential trade agreements, although it continued to promote adherence to free trade. In Australia, Sydney was the centre of free trade politics and Melbourne was the centre of protectionist politics. After Federation in 1901, the protectionists prevailed, for three quarters of a century. The idea of free trade within the Empire proved unrealistic. It still is.

Negotiating with the EU and beyond

To maximise the reduction of barriers to trade is a worthy objective. But it is not the place to start negotiations. I have no doubt that unilateral removal of restrictions can bring unilateral benefits. However, the transition matters for both social and economic reasons. In the case of Brexit, the transition involves negotiations which require an in-depth understanding of what each nation of the EU has to lose, and a preparedness to use that understanding.

At the moment, the EU has insisted that the exit fee, the Irish border and the rights of EU citizens in the UK be decided first. That is understandable, as these are the only things on which the nations of the EU can agree. When the details of the post-Brexit PTA have to be addressed, there will be few industries about which all European nations will be united. Each nation has different export/import relations with the UK. That is when the fun starts.

Basically, there are something like a hundred separate omelettes that need unscrambling, industry by industry, product by product. This is the effect of well-established, transnational supply chains and interconnected contractual networks, by which parties do not just trade goods with each other, but produce goods with each other. It is a task of monumental complexity.

The only possible outcome is, at least in the medium term, some increase in restrictions on beneficial commercial exchange between the UK and Europe. Some UK businesses will find it more difficult to sell to Europe. UK consumers will find that the costs of some goods and services are increased. However, the same is true, perhaps to a lesser extent but true nonetheless, for the people of the EU.

Contemporary bilateral or plurilateral PTAs go well beyond the old focus on tariffs on goods. They extend to services and regulatory systems, that have often been deployed as non-tariff barriers. A principal objective of contemporary PTAs is regulatory convergence at different levels – harmonisation, acceptance of equivalence or merely mutual recognition.

In terms of the terminology of Brexit negotiations, contemporary PTAs encompass “customs union” type issues and extend to “single market” type issues. They often cover services, intellectual property, competition policy, investment protection, standards – such as sizes, food additives, safety – professional accreditation, recognition of university degrees and e-commerce. They usually include a range of sector-specific deals: for example, agriculture, chemicals, medical services, pharmaceuticals, telecommunications, financial institution regulation, etc.

The wide scope of issues covered in modern PTAs reaches its most comprehensive form in the “single market” concept of the EU. These have broken down non-tariff tariff barriers to trade, but did so at a loss to national control or “sovereignty”, as it was called in the Brexit debate. The same trade off occurs with all PTAs.

I do not envy the task of UK negotiators in achieving such a wide-ranging set of deals with the hydra-headed group of nations that constitute the EU, and repeat it on a bilateral basis throughout the world. In some major cases, for example, the EU and US, I do not see how regulatory standards can be harmonised, let alone all the other non-tariff barriers.

Finding substantial markets, whether in the Commonwealth or more widely, will not be an easy task. The process of negotiation will be complex and will take time. The UK will require a portfolio of new trade agreements.

Negotiations with Australia

In the eyes of the Imperial nostalgics who look to the Commonwealth, it seems they rely on the English speaking settlements, Australia, New Zealand and Canada, even called CANZUK by some. You have to be careful how you say that. None assume that large markets like India share their nostalgia.

However, the old core of settlement colonies is simply not big enough to replace Europe as a market. Furthermore, notwithstanding the digital revolution, geography still matters for trade in goods and the provision of services. Perhaps not as dominant as it once was, but still relevant.

In two addresses at the Lowy Institute in Australia, both before and since becoming Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson – in full Imperial nostalgic mode – has waxed lyrical about the possibility of expanded trade between the UK and Australia. He may prove to be right, but it will not happen overnight.

Australians in all fields of business now look primarily to Asia. Our increased contribution to your export markets may well be positive, but the resulting balance of trade is hard to predict.

We also have a small group of Empire nostalgics who talk frequently of the Anglosphere. The main problem with that concept is that the Americans do not seem to realise they are supposed to be part of it. Two weeks ago, our government produced a Foreign Policy White Paper. Its primary, almost exclusive, focus was the Indo-Pacific. Far from validating the Anglosphere, this paper shows that Australia is in the early stages of tentatively adapting to the Sinosphere.

At the moment our nostalgics have considerable political leverage in Canberra. That is because an over-confident Prime Minister called an unnecessary election and was returned with a wafer-thin majority, as a much weakened leader. You know the problem.

Because of the high level of trust and good will between Australia and the UK, negotiations over a PTA will not be impeded by irrelevant prejudices or historical grievances. You will not find the same elsewhere. China has not forgiven you for the Opium Wars, which commenced their century of humiliation.

The focus of negotiations between Australia and the UK will be on mutual self-interest. Sentimentalism is unlikely to be influential in determining hard-headed matters of trade and investment.

I am not aware what you will want from us. We have few restrictions on your manufacturing exports. Similarly, with many services. No doubt there are regulatory and non-tariff barriers which presently impede exchange.

Perhaps there is room for improved UK access in areas such as recognition of professional standards and educational qualifications, or regulation of financial institutions and pharmaceuticals. I note that on some health subjects there are now WTO standards, that require implementation in trade treaties. Most favoured nation clauses often appear in Australian bilateral PTAs for services, but not for goods. In such cases, what we give you is made available to some of your competitors. Making it easier for our citizens to live and work in each other’s nations – particularly for young people, as our PTA with the USA has done – may prove politically acceptable.

The big issue for us will be agriculture. No doubt you will have to continue subsidies for your agricultural enterprises that have prospered under the European Common Agricultural Policy and related import restrictions.

Australians still remember the devastating impact on some of our rural industries of your entry into the Common Market, over four decades ago. For example, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of acres of apple trees in Tasmania were cut down. In that as in other respects, we have long since adapted. That land is now either meadows or used in other agricultural pursuits for other, mainly local and Asian markets.

In the Australian political landscape, our National Party will insist that access for rural produce must be an essential part of any PTA negotiations. How much flexibility you will have to accommodate Australia will depend on what you have to concede to the Europeans in your Brexit negotiations. Australian officials will carefully follow agreement between the EU and the UK on how to divide WTO approved agricultural, “tariff trade” import quotas.

The choice is clear for you. Agricultural commodities can be delivered more cheaply. At the moment, your citizens pay more for food either as taxpayers or as consumers. That may have been worthwhile, in view of the other benefits being part of Europe has brought, and that a new PTA may continue in part. If not, you can expect a 21st century version of the repeal the Corn Laws movement.

Legal issues

Australian lawyers remain influenced by English legal jurisprudence and practice. Nevertheless, over the course of the last four or so decades, we have gone our separate ways to some degree. That was to some extent due to the influence of European law and practice on English law and practice. I do not anticipate that this will change much after Brexit. This is so because the two primary influences of European law on you, which are inapplicable to our legal system, will not change.

The first such influence arises from your Human Rights Act and the role of the European Court of Human Rights jurisprudence. Save in Victoria, this influence is not directly relevant for us. I have little doubt that many of those who voted for Brexit believed that they would be free from Strasbourg as well as Luxembourg, but that is not the case, or at least not yet.

The provisions of the European Convention, as enacted, permeate many areas of the law. As your lawyers and judges become even more familiar with the principles and requirements of your Act, your legal literature and your judgements will take them for granted, without the need to identify either their existence or their application. Australian lawyers will no longer be able to identify common-law principles that may lurk underneath the text of the Human Rights Act. The same has long been true for both of us with United States Bill of Rights jurisprudence.

The second influence of European law, which I also do not anticipate will be removed, is the scope and depth of the statutes and other regulations which presently apply on a Europe-wide basis. Although subject to similar influences and making similar provisions, by reason of the influence of globalisation on all

of us, there remain numerous differences between Australian statutory provisions and European provisions.

Whatever the extent to which Brexit negotiations may lead to adoption of single market-type principles, I think it is likely the UK will continue to seek the maximum degree of harmony between your statutory regimes and those of Europe, particularly in any matter of commerce. The inexorable process by which common law principles are being replaced by statutes will continue.

What will stop, however, is the expansion of the areas of the law which operate on a Europe-wide basis. I have in mind in particular the ambitious agenda of so many European academics who have advanced the idea of a codified European Contract Law and, even, a European Civil Code. No doubt those academics will welcome Brexit, which makes their pet projects more achievable.

There is one aspect of Australian Federal experience that is relevant to the contested, future role of the European Court of Justice post Brexit. Nothing in our mutual legal history suggests that the judiciary is immune from institution-creep. Over recent years we have witnessed it in Europe, as Strasbourg and Luxembourg indulge in institutional turf battles. This is reminiscent of the long conflict in the 15th and 16th centuries between the Court of Kings Bench and the Court of Common Pleas, or between the common law courts and Chancery. We have had the same phenomena in Australia in recent decades, arising from competition between Federal courts and State courts.

Institutional conflicts of this character impose an inbuilt bias on the law. If a court wishes to attract work to itself, at the expense of other courts, then it has to be nice to those who instigate proceedings. That creates a bias in favour of plaintiffs, which may start off as procedural, and therefore not a problem, but may also become substantive, which is. A lawyer appearing in the European Court of Justice, just like lawyers before all the courts I have mentioned, is unlikely to get a hostile reception when advancing a proposition that the maximum breadth should be given to a provision of European law, with the effect of expanding that Court’s authority.

This, of course, becomes particularly significant on constitutional or quasi-constitutional issues. Australian constitutional experience provides a warning in this respect. For our first two decades as a federation, the doctrine accepted by the High Court on the relationship between the Commonwealth and the States was that there were certain powers reserved to the States. In the wake of the expansion of the role of the Commonwealth government during World War I, this doctrine was abolished by the Court. For many decades thereafter, legal and political discourse continued to refer to a concept of “State Rights”. Over the last two decades, even that nostalgic terminology disappeared.

At present, and no doubt for some years to come, judges of the ECJ will remain sensitive to the principles of national sovereignty of the nations constituting the European Union. You can, however, confidently expect that that sensitivity will attenuate over coming decades. That has been our experience as a Federation, albeit in a context of little social and cultural divergence between the States of our Federation. Europe’s position is, of course, different and I may well be exaggerating the future development. However, I suspect that a European-first perspective is much more likely to develop amongst lawyers and judges than it is among people of the nations of the Union.

The way in which an institutional imperative creates a centripetal force, including in the jurisprudence of a final court of appeal, is shown in the history of the Supreme Court of the United States. That court, unlike the High Court of Australia, does not have jurisdiction over State law. To acquire such jurisdiction, it must find it in the Constitution or by interpreting federal statutes.

Gradually, the Supreme Court has taken over large parts of State criminal law by reading the Bill of Rights into the 14th Amendment. That post-Civil War amendment required the States to provide equal protection of the law. It now regulates, at a national level, State substantive law and enforcement practices.

A similar institutional imperative can be seen at work in the “discovery” of a right to privacy in the US Constitution. It is not in the text. As one Justice notoriously put it, it is to be found in the “emanations and penumbras” of the Constitution.

That little bit of judicial creativity led directly to a national, constitutionally protected right to an abortion. Almost by way of revenge, even originalists were able to find an individual right to bear arms in the Second Amendment. To do that, they had to leap over the stated purpose of the provision in the opening words, about a “well-regulated militia”.

Think about what the next generation of European judges could do with the Constitutional provision in the foundational Treaty of Rome, for an “ever closer union”.

In the future, I predict, no aspect of the acquis communautaire, the body of European law, will be given a narrow interpretation. Insofar as the ECJ can override inconsistent national legislation, you can expect it to do so, in pursuit of that ever closer union.

Obviously for British citizens who live in the EU, or have businesses which operate in the EU, European law will continue to apply to their activities.

However, any jurisdiction of the ECJ over activities in the UK gives rise to a real issue. The decision to draw a red line with respect to direct jurisdiction of the ECJ for activities in the UK is worth maintaining. This is not because of what the current generation of judges intends. It is because of the centripetal forces that will operate on their successors.

No less than the Brussels bureaucrats who have infuriated so many Britons, the European judiciary will manifest what Hamlet called in his “To be or not to be” soliloquy “the insolence of office”.

I am aware of Lord Neuberger’s concern that Parliament should give the courts clear guidance about how to treat European decisions on statutes which the UK has adopted and made part of the law here. I have no doubt a suitable formulation can be found.

The prospect that the same words may be given different interpretations, when applied to conduct in the UK, than they are given when applied to conduct in the EU, does not fill me with dread. It will probably occur infrequently, and when it does occur, it will occur for articulated reasons. Just as the Supreme Court of the UK will benefit from the jurisprudence of the ECJ, so the reverse may sometimes be the case. Any increase in transaction costs for business is likely to be minor.


In conclusion, let me return to the first Exit. Following, the schism between the Church of England and the Papacy, Catholics were persecuted here for a century and discriminated against for another century and a half. The schism had one consequence of the kind the trade negotiations will seek to avoid – a divergence in a standard on a matter at the centre of daily life. For two centuries Europe and England gave different answers to the question: What day is it?

In 1582 Pope Gregory XIII imposed on Christendom a new calendar. Over the centuries from 45 BC, when Julius Caesar implemented, what became known as the Julian Calendar, it lost time. It computed a year as 11 and ½ minutes longer than the solar year. Easter drifted from Spring towards Winter. Gregory was determined to bring Easter back to the Spring, closer to the Passover which was the Last Supper. He corrected the problem for the future and the past. The latter by jumping from 4 October to 15 October, so that 5-14 October 1582 simply never existed, except in England, Sweden, Russia and Greece, who refused to recognise the Pope’s authority.

When the confirming British Calendar eventually came into force in 1753 (Greece waited until 1923) it was greeted with Euro-sceptic disquiet. “Give us back our eleven days”, was the cry. As one popular ditty put it:

In seventeen hundred and fifty-three the style it was changed to popery

By then it was too late to alter the date of Guy Fawkes’ night. You kept on reciting:

Remember! Remember! The Fifth of November. Gunpowder, Treason and Plot

However, the actual date had been changed, retrospectively, to the day it had been at the time in most of Europe, the 16th of November. But you ignored that, primarily for two reasons.

First, 5 November was the 9/11 of 17th Century England, a date immediately sanctified by the Eurosceptics of the day. Secondly, the 5th of November had become doubly significant as a day of Protestant delivery. On 5 November 1688, William of Orange, with a Dutch army carried over by the Dutch navy, landed in England, to prevent a Catholic restoration. That was the last successful European invasion of England.

Leaving Europe was replete with irony. Perhaps Brexit will give us some more.