Hilary Benn MP, Chairman of the Committee on Exiting the EU, writes for the Echo on the day Prime Minister Theresa May is to trigger Article 50.
Last June, Sunderland voted to leave the European Union by 61.3% to 38.7%.
Now that Parliament has authorised the Prime Minister to today trigger Article 50, the two-year countdown to leaving the EU begins.
It is time for the country to come together and try to get the best deal we can.
Negotiating our exit will be a hugely-complex task. The way the Government handles the divorce proceedings over the next two years will shape Britain’s relationship with Europe for decades to come.
Every part of the United Kingdom, every single community, family and business will be affected by the outcome.
The cross-party Brexit Select Committee I chair in Parliament brings together 21 MPs from all corners of the UK who campaigned for both leave and remain. It is our job to act as Parliament’s watchdog on Brexit and hold the Department for Exiting the EU to account.
In order that our recommendations to Government reflect evidence from all over the UK, we have been travelling the country listening to people’s views about the future. In the five months since we were formed we have been to Aberdeen, Boston, Wolverhampton, Stoke, Shoreditch, and Truro.
In December, we visited Sunderland, where we were told by North East business leaders that retaining tariff and barrier-free access to the EU market was very important.
When the Brexit Secretary David Davis appeared before our committee recently, he confirmed that ending up without a deal would mean tariffs of 10% on car exports to the EU.
He also told us that the Government had not assessed the potential impact that leaving without an agreement would have on the UK economy.
Large engineering and manufacturing companies told us they were particularly concerned about the impact of tariffs on their supply chains – ie the materials and components which cross EU borders a number of times before being made into the final product in the North East.
Given the fall in the value of the pound, it remains to be seen whether this will encourage a UK-based supply chain to develop and deliver components to the automotive sector and others.
But, with more than 50% of goods exported from the North East going to EU countries, maintaining tariff and barrier-free trade will be really important for the region.
Our first priority must therefore be to get an agreement that will ensure the continuation of this tariff and barrier-free trade.
If that still hasn’t been achieved by the time the UK leaves the EU in March 2019, it would be in the interests of both sides to agree transitional arrangements to maintain the current position on trade between the UK and the EU until a final deal is reached.
The referendum showed that a majority of people in Sunderland and the North East wanted change.
As a country we must respond and do more to address economic inequality across the UK.
The North East has been a net recipient of EU Regional Development and Social Funds, so it will be important for the Government to fill this gap when we leave.
Sunderland’s manufacturing sector is a success story. The Nissan plant is the largest UK car plant in history, with hundreds of thousands of cars rolling off the production line every year to be sold across the EU. It shows just how important it is to get our future trading relationship with Europe right.
The referendum decided that we are leaving the EU. What it did not determine were the terms of our departure or our new relationship with the remaining 27 member states.
Negotiating that new relationship will be complex and time-consuming – a more significant undertaking than any government has faced in peace time –and what we are able to achieve will depend on what the other 27 member states are prepared to agree to.
Our task now is to minimise the risks and make the best of Brexit for our businesses and communities, in the North East and the rest of the UK.