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Brexit Hard Talk with Nick de Bois

Interview with Nick de Bois
Former Chief of Staff to Dominic Raab, MP for Enfield North (2010-2015), founder of Rapiergroup, and author of Confessions of a Recovering MP

Over recent years, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting Nick de Bois on a couple of occasions at industry events and in London. Nick is former Chief of Staff to Dominic Raab, MP for Enfield North 2010-2015, founder of Rapiergroup, and author of Confessions of a Recovering MP.

We’ve had many inspiring and thought-provoking talks about our great industry and the current political situation – made even more interesting by the fact that I’m a Remainer whilst Nick is a Brexiteer. I’ve found our conversations to be open, genuine and honest, whilst also giving me the opportunity to understand and respect the Brexiteer point of view. In this interview, I challenge Nick’s view on Brexit a bit further, and get his take on how we can move forwards from here.

Tesi: Nick, we’ve met a couple of times at exhibition conferences and had deep conversations about our industry. Can you please tell our readers a bit more about who you are and what your background is?

Nick: My first love was the exhibition and events industry. I stumbled into this amazing world after meeting the head of a communications group in the early 1980s, Charles Barker Ltd, which owned a small exhibition design and management company, Rapier Associates. Five years later, when Charles Barker wanted out of our sector, I took on the business. It was a fantastic journey, and still going for the management team I left behind in 2010 when I became MP for Enfield North, in Greater London. I am married, with two stepchildren, four of my own, and three fabulous grandchildren. Life has dealt me a generous hand – I’m very lucky.

Tesi: For three years now, Europe has looked on in disbelief as the UK is seemingly throwing away major achievements, such as 70 years’ peace, and a high level of wealth and education, due to a partly dishonest Brexit campaign that has made the EU out to be an undemocratic and anti-UK monster. Do you think this is a fair description or does Europe have a distorted view of the situation?

Nick: I don’t think it’s a fair description on any level – although I do concede that many in the EU and Member State political circles do look on in disbelief. That in part I think is because so often those with opposing views on matters of great significance often only tend to look at things from their own perspective. For example, many in the UK don’t appreciate the motivation behind an “ever closer union” that many member states do, particularly Germany and France, who were ravaged by two world wars and never want to experience anything like that again. There, they see an “ever closer union” as the solution to that fear. Here, many in the UK looked on in disbelief when Angela Merkel opened the doors to widespread immigration, but for me it was no surprise that an East German Chancellor who grew up in the communist era where her freedoms were curtailed, would be passionate about freedom of movement. I think EU politicians would do well to challenge their own views and look at why the UK was prepared to vote to leave rather than just bemoan the fact that they did.

When it comes to democracy, however, I am sorry to say, but not surprised, that this month’s nomination of the three EU Presidents for Counsel, Parliament and Commission illustrate just how undemocratic the EU is. These individuals have been selected as a result of backroom deals made amongst member states and officials. The fact that some of the nominated candidates come with credentials that are even being challenged by the new members of the European Parliament only highlights the inadequacy of the process that took place at this summer’s summit to appoint them. The EU appoints three presidents, and at no point will the 500 million citizens of the EU be able to endorse them or otherwise by voting.

Tesi: Please complete the sentence: “The EU is …”

Nick: The EU is an organisation that, whilst well intentioned, has become a victim of its own bureaucracy, as it has chosen to expand its role as the supranational level of government across Europe. The result is that it has been painfully slow to reform or de-centralise where it is clearly wise to do so. Most worryingly, as Europe faces huge competitive threats in innovation, cost and production from emerging economies, the EU has in my opinion failed to drive the agenda to make the EU trading block the most competitive, liberal and innovative in the world. It is, for example, quite staggering that after work began on liberalising the EU single market in services (as far back as Margaret Thatcher’s day), that today in 2019, that single market is still not complete. If it was, we could have added 2% GDP to the whole of the EU economy! I will never forget a German MP on a visit to meet with the equivalent of our Parliamentary Foreign Affairs Select Committee saying that failing to complete the single market in services did not matter “because architects and designers don’t make that much impact”. Extraordinary that he was prepared to write off services so easily when the vast majority of the economy depends on it. That’s a sure sign that politicians have got their priorities wrong for the people they serve.

Tesi: What do you think was the EU’s biggest mistake in the last 30 years?

Nick: Failure to complete the single market in services.

Tesi: There’s been a lot of talk at Westminster about how to get out of the EU but near to no discussion about what will happen afterwards. Is there a plan for the post-Brexit era? Or is the government simply so preoccupied with keeping a divided society as happy as possible that they have no time to shape a post-Brexit future?

Nick: You are right that it appears that until now there has been no thought given to what type of country we will be post-Brexit, but appearances are deceptive. In fact, there is both a plan and now a vision emerging, as a new leader and Prime Minister is selected. One benefit of the leadership election in the Conservative Party is that the candidates have been addressing what type of country we want to be, economically and socially, and our place in the world after Brexit.

Even in the event of a no-deal Brexit, the cabinet already have a series of countervailing proposals that would offset any unwelcome negative impact, and set a more liberal, global economic agenda. On the positive side, we can now look at ideas such as those presented by Boris Johnson for establishing Free Port Zones, which are proven drivers of regional growth.

In short, the UK has the potential to be a large, competitive economy close to the EU and doing business with the EU member states, while seeking important direct inward investment, as well as being a global, outward-looking trading nation.

Tesi: Is there a particular point of view or argument from Remainers that you understand and support? And if so, which one is it?

Nick: I think it is fair to say that, following the referendum, both Remainers and Leavers were too quick to dismiss some of the points made by the respective party. For example, I believe that Leavers, and by extension the government, underestimated the resolve of EU member states to hold a united position.

On a practical note, I think opponents to Brexit have invested too much capital in predicting an “end of the world” scenario, both during and after the referendum, which has resulted in listening fatigue for many members of the public. Remember, we were told by David Cameron’s government that, if we voted to leave, there would be a need for an emergency budget. His Chancellor George Osborne also said in the HM Treasury Analysis, that “a vote to leave would represent an immediate and profound shock to our economy”, with growth of up to 3.6% lower. However, none of that came true.

Tesi: Putting the last three years behind us, how do you think we can unite the UK and the EU in a post-Brexit era, as friends and as partners on a different level?

Nick: A new Prime Minister will be crucial to achieving this. With a new EU Commission, and if Boris Johnson is elected as the new leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, we will have a clear commitment for the UK to leave the EU on 31 October come what may – and hopefully a deal will be found to exit in an orderly fashion. This alone will help to re-build a constructive relationship. Even if we leave with no deal (which is not in the EU’s or Britain’s interest), there are still so many other issues that bind us in common cause that I believe the relationship between the EU and the UK will quickly become more positive. Security and the fight against terrorism and human trafficking alone should ensure that. It will not be long before talks for a Free Trade Agreement begin as well, which will, although no doubt be challenging at times, highlight how much both parties have to gain from working together in a positive manner.

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