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Wednesday, 29 March 2017

'Onion Johnny', Brexit and M Barnier

One of my strong childhood memories is of men in navy-blue berets appearing in our street pushing bicycles that were laden with strings of onions. They came every year, and my grandmother said that they also used to come 'before the war'. The Second World War had prevented them coming, but by the late 'forties they were back. My father, keen on detail, explained that these men were Basques: which meant that they came from the borders of France and Spain: they were poor farmers who brought their bikes and the onions in large lorries, from which the small group of men would fan out daily to cover the streets of the small town in a couple of days. One never heard of any restriction of them coming and trading in the UK; and this was two decades before Britain applied to join the EU.

By the time the UK was admitted to the EU, Common Market policies to support agriculture had gone far enough to make the farmers' annual expedition to the mean streets of post-war Britain unnecessary. But I have a clear memory of their presence: with no recollection of any fuss about their status.

As a schoolboy, I went several times to Europe; usually by train, and ship to Calais or Ostend. Apart from the most cursory glance at the passport on which an official placed a dated stamp, there were no formalities at a frontier; nobody mentioned visas or admission criteria until one came up against the Iron Curtain.

Free movement of people within western Europe did not come as a benefit of membership of the EEC [even less as a benefit of the fantasy-world of the EU]; it predated the Treaty of Rome by a couple of centuries. There is no reason why it needs to be a monumental problem after Britain leaves the Union. Just go back to the simplicities of my childhood.

Today is the day when Mrs May's secret letter is revealed to the British people and to the European Council and Commission and Parliament. Then M Barnier will be given his brief to lead for the European institutions in the discussions on the wish of a narrow majority of the British people to leave the Union. All the huffing, puffing and speculating that have gone before this count for nothing. Today the real discussion begins: and there is no earthly reason why it should be other than civilised and sensible.

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