Following the meeting of European leaders in Salzburg last week, there has been a renewed focus on the Brexit negotiations, with people understandably wanting to know where we stand now. Firstly, let’s be clear that these talks are not about whether or not we leave the European Union, but what our future relationships will be like after 29th March next year, when we legally cease to be a member state. The desire to leave the EU was expressed in the referendum two years ago and has since then been enshrined in UK law when parliament passed the European Union Withdrawal Act.
So, the question is, what do we want our future relationship with the European Union to be. Firstly, we have already guaranteed the rights of all Europeans who live in the UK, regardless of the results of these negotiations. We would expect the EU to do the same for British citizens on the continent. We want free trade, which is in their interest as much as ours, given that we have a trading deficit with the EU. We want an effective partnership on security, and the right to control our own borders. We expect to be able to set our own national policies and controls for farming and fishing. For Kent first, but for the rest of the country as well, we need to make sure we have agreement on trade which means that goods can move freely across borders, as they do now. For me, this is a crucial point in agreeing a final deal setting our future relationship with the EU. As in any negotiation, we have to expect that the other side will press for what suits them best, so we have to hold our nerve and do the same.
Last Friday I was delighted to be invited to the Folkestone campus of East Kent College to a special event to mark the opening of the expanded construction centre. New investment from the college and the South East Local Enterprise Partnership (SELEP), has funded the creation of additional facilities to support training courses linked to the building and construction sectors. This further consolidates the reputation of the college as one of the major further education training centres in Kent for these industries. When we consider the economic impact of building projects like Folkestone Seafront or Otterpool Park, we are thinking not just about the direct investment into the district that they bring, but the opportunities they will create for local people. Thanks to this expansion of the construction course facilities in Folkestone, there will be more chances for local people to gain the skills they need at the college, in order to be working on these local building schemes.
I would also like to congratulate Graham Razey, and his team at the East Kent College group for their leadership and championing of further education in our area. Eight years ago, the future of colleges like Folkestone was less than certain. Working together, we were able to attract multi-million-pound support from the government to put the college’s finances in much better shape and enable it to plan for the future. We are now seeing the benefit of this, both in the construction centre, and in the other courses offered by the College. In particular, I have been very impressed by the work of The Edge, the centre on the campus that specialises in training to work in the creative industries, another important growth sector for our local economy.