As some of you may have heard on BBC Radio Derby last Thursday, I am greatly concerned by various aspects of the proposed agreement. After the Government published their Chequers proposals in the summer I set out my concerns here, sadly these concerns have only been exacerbated by this draft agreement.
The Prime Minister set out in the Conservative Party election manifesto that we would leave the EU’s internal market and the Customs Union, and that is the basis on which I was re-elected last year. She subsequently decided that in order to achieve an orderly withdrawal we would need a 2 year “implementation period” to put into place the future relationship with the EU that was agreed before our departure. The draft agreement sets out the proposed terms of our withdrawal including the £39 billion financial settlement, the deal on citizens’ rights, the transition period to at least 31 December 2020, and the so-called backstop arrangements if the transition ends before a future partnership has been brought into force.
This agreement does not represent our future relationship with the EU – all we have so far on that is a 7 page document available here. We may see some further detail on the future relationship before the EU summit on Sunday – but importantly this will not represent a negotiated deal, let alone one agreed by the other 27 member states.
They key issues for me therefore are whether the future relationship with the EU will represent a real Brexit, that leaves us a free, independent country again able to set our own rules in our own interests, while providing for a close, cooperative relationship with our nearest neighbours. The test therefore is whether the Withdrawal Agreement represents an acceptable way forward, recognising the importance of a smooth transition.
Much of the withdrawal agreement is technical and acceptable, especially the agreement on the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and UK citizens in the EU. There are however a number of significant issues:
- The agreement to pay around £39 billion for an orderly withdrawal when there are serious questions as to what, if anything, we are legally obliged to pay, and without any certainty that the future partnership will be acceptable to us or ever ratified by the rest of the EU;
- The length of the proposed transition period during which we are basically still EU members but without any MEPs or voting rights; this is currently proposed to be to 31 December 2020 but the draft agreement provides for an extension to “31 December 20XX” with significant financial implications.
- The so-called backstop provisions to ensure no hard border on the island of Ireland but which would trap us indefinitely in a customs union, following many EU rules, and with Northern Ireland also staying in significant parts of the single market, with the EU effectively having a veto on whether we can exit this arrangement. This presents a very real risk of being stuck half-in half-out, taking EU rules without any say, and unable to conclude our town trade deals. This would not be Brexit, and would effectively economically separate Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
- The ongoing role of the ECJ (which will be a foreign court with no UK representation after 29 March 2019).
For these and many other reasons it looks very unlikely that the deal will find a majority in favour in the House of Commons. If this deal is not approved – and this will require a vote on the deal, and then for primary legislation to be passed by 29 March 2019 to give effect to many of the provisions – then we will leave on 29 March 2019 with no deal unless a different deal is agreed and approved, or unless Parliament votes for a delay or a 2nd referendum.
I have always accepted the need for compromise and flexibility in order to deliver Brexit in an orderly manner. But we must actually deliver a real Brexit with the UK actually leaving the EU institutions and able to run our own affairs in our own interests. While I don’t doubt that we can manage a no-deal exit, there will be significant challenges to that outcome. We need urgently to prepare for those challenges while seeking a better way forward that delivers the transition period to either a ratified free trade deal or to a no-deal which we are properly prepared for. I therefore urge the Prime Minister to change course, listen to the concerns that have been raised, and renegotiate a deal which can command a majority in the House of Commons. In particular, the Government needs to seek to either remove the “backstop” from this draft agreement – while other aspects of the agreement are objectionable, such an amended draft would likely be acceptable as a compromise – or agree a separate 21 month transition period to enable an orderly exit. There is no guarantee that the EU will agree to either, hence the critical need for the no deal preparations to be accelerated.