On the evening of 23rd June 2016 few retired to bed contemplating the political and financial turmoil that the dawn would bring. The polls and the financial markets confidently predicted a ˊRemainˋ vote and sterling rose accordingly.
By the morning, when the result was clear, sterling and the markets had crashed. Within hours the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom who had stated that he would remain in office whatever the result of the referendum, tendered his resignation. The previous decision to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty and to withdraw from the European Union immediately had been cancelled. For some days the UK government seemed paralysed by shock. The newly appointed Prime Minister has stated that “Brexit means Brexit”, but no date has yet been determined for the process of withdrawal to begin. The uncertainty that was the predicted result of a ˊLeaveˋ vote has certainly arrived.
The Government of Jersey naturally maintained its neutrality before the referendum, taking the view that this was a democratic decision for the UK electorate. Whatever personal hopes might have been, government are united in the view that our object now must be to preserve the substance of our current relationship with the EU, to maintain our strong and positive relations with the UK, and to ensure that we can look forward to a bright and prosperous post-Brexit future.
The United Kingdom is yet to decide what its preferred relationship with the EU should be, but it is encouraging that we have already received assurances from the UK Prime Minister, that we will be appropriately involved during the process of negotiation. It is not yet clear precisely what that means, but we will do our best to protect our interests, strengthened hopefully by the united front of the Crown Dependencies.
Four years ago, we submitted evidence to the UK Government’s Balance of Competences review (an audit of what the EU does and how it affects the UK), and since then, our officials and key Ministers have undertaken extensive contingency planning for the possible event of a Brexit. Now that the Leave vote has been confirmed, we have published these plans in a report, which can be found here.
So what is next for Jersey? We have established a Brexit planning unit at the heart of Government, which will be engaging with Islanders, local businesses and Government Departments, asking them for their views and aspirations. We will be talking directly to decision-makers in Brussels and London – in fact, we have already held initial conversations with Ministers from the UK’s Ministry of Justice and the newly-created Department for Exiting the European Union. And above all, we will be communicating our objectives, both to the public and to our partners in the dialogues.
For now, our formal relationship with the EU will not change. The starting gun on negotiations will be triggered by the giving of formal notice of withdrawal under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty by the UK. This has been ruled out by the Prime Minister, Theresa May, until next year. Even then, the UK has two years to find an agreement with the EU. So for now, the status quo reigns. For Jersey, this is no bad thing. Our relationship with the EU is one that works for us, giving us access to European markets for goods and people, and a ‘third country’ relationship for the purposes of trade in services. I am optimistic that this will continue, thanks to our highly regarded regulatory environment, as well as our friendly links with a number of EU countries, including our closest neighbour, France.
Jersey is in a strong and in some respects an enviable position. We have offices in London, Brussels and France, each of which promotes our interests to key audiences and allows us to engage with foreign governments, industry professionals and diplomatic contacts on a regular basis. Unlike many developed countries, Jersey is not weighed down by debt, our employment level is reaching record highs, and our economy is diversifying into digital sectors. Furthermore, we have a strong network of global partners. We should not ignore the substantial challenges ahead, but at the same time, I think that we can claim with a sense of optimism that Jersey is well prepared and well positioned to succeed in the post-Brexit world.