Withdrawal Agreement & Political Declaration
Last week, the Prime Minister announced that a deal had been struck with the European Union to negotiate our withdrawal from the organisation. Given the gravity of this matter, I wanted the chance to read the Withdrawal Agreement, attend a briefing by the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff, and speak to colleagues who can either challenge or support my reading of the situation. I also wanted to see if any substantive changes were revealed to the Withdrawal Agreement itself during the Prime Minister’s Statement yesterday.
It should first be noted that the Withdrawal Agreement does not set out binding terms to our future relationship with the EU. Instead, it advises that both parties will use their ‘best endeavours’ to conclude a future trade agreement before the end of the transition period in December 2020. It is accompanied by a separate, broad-brush Political Declaration about our future relationship outlining areas in which we should like to cooperate. This is what the Prime Minister fleshed out yesterday afternoon on the floor of the House, taking the ‘Future Relationship’ draft from seven to twenty-six pages’ worth of declarations on trade, justice, security and other cooperation that are not legally binding.
On 29 March 2019, therefore, we shall technically leave the EU but enter straight into a transition/implementation period in which we shall be negotiating the future relationship. Since we do not know to what we are transitioning, I suspect the transition period will simply give us at least another eighteen months of political discord, confusion and parliamentary antics as the various factions vie for their desired outcome. Far from giving certainty to business, it will therefore merely delay vital decisions about our economic future.
If consensus on the terms of the future relationship cannot be reached by December 2020, the transition period could be extended for an unspecified period (at additional financial cost) or a ‘backstop’ solution would come into force on the justification of preventing a so-called ‘hard border’ between Ireland and Northern Ireland. This would effectively keep the whole of the UK in a single customs territory covering all goods apart from fishery products. We would also need to keep a ‘level playing field’ with the EU to ensure ‘fair competition’ between the EU and UK. This would oblige us to mirror all EU regulations, including any new rules that we would not have had a say in. This would be a similar arrangement to that of Turkey, which originally only accepted its current trading terms as a stepping stone to full EU membership. Meanwhile, our vital financial services would be able to achieve only an equivalence deal like that of other third countries to access the EU market, which the government hopes to agree to in June 2020.
If either side wished to withdraw from the backstop arrangement, they would not be able to do so unilaterally. Instead, they would have to engage with a joint-committee to thrash out a joint agreement to end the backstop that could ultimately be referred to an independent arbitration panel. This would be a substantial diminution of our autonomy as a sovereign state.
In exchange for ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, and this non-binding Political Declaration, the UK would pay an exit fee of between £36-39 billion with the majority paid in the first two years, and a long tail of smaller amounts going into the future on items such as pensions liabilities.
Colleagues have been assured throughout this process that ‘nothing would be agreed until everything is agreed’. I have always taken that to mean that no money would be handed over, nothing ultimately settled, until we had nailed down a binding legal agreement on the future relationship. The government’s explanatory document now advises that ‘The Withdrawal Agreement is conditional on the conclusion of the final political declaration – nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.’ This is a fundamentally different proposition, with the Political Declaration leaving huge areas of negotiation still to be determined, and the details of the Withdrawal Agreement itself prejudicing our ability to design the future relationship in a way that works best for the UK and which fulfils the referendum mandate.
Over the weekend, for instance, Dominic Raab revealed that he resigned as Brexit Secretary after finding that a clause had been inserted into the Withdrawal Agreement at the last minute that would see the backstop customs arrangements form the basis of our future trading relationship, effectively keeping us in the customs union. I believe this undermines many of the assurances that have been made about the UK being able to devise an independent global trading strategy (we could only conclude very narrow free trade agreements of limited value) and would likely see us cede power over large swathes of domestic regulation, akin to the proposals in the Chequers negotiating plan. As many of you know, I have opposed the notion of a ‘Common Rulebook’ since the idea first emerged after Chequers.
These concerns appeared to have been backed up by Deputy EU Negotiator, Sabine Weyand, whose recent leaked note to EU Ambassadors advised, ‘This requires the customs union as the basis of the future relationship…They must align their rules but the EU will retain all the controls.’ It has now been further substantiated by statements within the Political Declaration. I do not see that as an acceptable position for an economy as large as ours and I do not believe it honours the outcome of the referendum or our manifesto commitments.
The backstop which creates this risk has been justified as a way of maintaining frictionless trade and avoiding any hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The former reason is undermined by the fact that backstop arrangements require physical paper forms to be inspected and stamped by customs officers for every commercial shipment between the EU and Great Britain, and every shipment across the Irish Sea, a level of old-fashioned bureaucracy that creates friction. The trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland itself would be frictionless by aligning Northern Ireland more closely to EU customs rules, which carves them off from Great Britain and thereby undermines the integrity of the United Kingdom. This is why SNP colleagues I speak to believe the Withdrawal Agreement substantially strengthens their case for Scottish independence.
The latter justification on the hard border is contradicted once again this week by evidence given to the Treasury Select Committee by HMRC’s Head of UK Customs confirming that no customs infrastructure will appear at the Irish border under any circumstances, as well as Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar’s confirmation that the Irish government will not erect a hard border even in a No Deal scenario. I know also from my work on the International Trade Committee that technological and other solutions already exist to ensure no border infrastructure is required, and colleagues have long ago outlined these proposals to government.
The Withdrawal Agreement is likely to come before the House of Commons in early to mid-December, and I shall be asked by the government to vote in favour of it. In making a decision on the Withdrawal Agreement, I hold in my heart that the British people voted to Leave the European Union in what was the biggest democratic mandate in British history; that the borough of Havering voted 69.7 per cent to Leave; and that I secured 60.2% of the vote in Hornchurch & Upminster standing on a manifesto which committed us to leaving the single market and customs union while negotiating the terms of our future partnership alongside our withdrawal, reaching an agreement on both within two years.
I appreciate and regret that a portion of Remain-voting constituents continue to be disappointed that I wish to see through the referendum result, however I believe a clear majority of constituents understood the choices before them at the ballot box both in 2016 and 2017 and rightly expect those choices to be delivered upon.
I take the decision before me extremely seriously and have worked to avoid our being put in this situation in the first place by speaking against the Chequers strategy in parliament and making clear to my whips that it did not command my support. Throughout this period, I have engaged carefully with all voices in the Brexit debate - Downing Street, Cabinet ministers, whips, the European Research Group (ERG), MPs from all parties and advocates of a second referendum, not to mention engagement with constituents. I have guarded my intellectual independence fiercely and taken membership of no faction as I want maximum space to do what I believe to be right for my constituents when a firm and clear choice is placed before me, and to make that choice with a proper understanding of the parliamentary dynamics and where they might lead. This week, for instance, we have heard everything from No Deal to No Brexit being proffered as the likely outcome if the Withdrawal Agreement is rejected, and I need to understand how realistic these prospects are and what will be the implications of each scenario.
The question now before me is whether I can endorse a Withdrawal Agreement on the promise of the shape of the future relationship where our financial leverage in getting that relationship has gone and the incentive for the EU to conclude a deal that does not tie us to their rules or keep us within a customs union is minimal. Can I agree to placing our country into a state of legal and economic limbo and impotence that could not be brought to an end unilaterally, while opening a fresh period of parliamentary warfare over the best shape of the future relationship in which no one view commands a majority and where huge areas of policy remain up-for-grabs? Can I accede to an agreement in which long-term economic decisions are put off in order to secure only short-term certainty, while substantial regulatory powers are traded away? Most importantly, will this Withdrawal Agreement be perceived as an honest attempt to fulfil the mandate of the referendum, and if not, what will be the implications of such a substantial loss of trust and faith in our democracy?
At best, many of the assurances given to MPs on the future relationship – including that which I was provided at PMQs last week on an independent trade policy - are based on hopes and aspirations that appear to be actively undermined by the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. In short, we are being asked to trust that we shall reach an end state anywhere between the Norway and Canada models (and I should very much prefer the latter). Unfortunately, however, nothing in the Withdrawal Agreement assists me in rebuilding the faith I lost after the release of the Chequers negotiating proposals in July, having previously accepted at face value the assurances and strategy set out before that time.
It is with regret, therefore, that I simply cannot envisage voting for the government’s Withdrawal Agreement in its existing form, and I have informed my whip.
The ‘meaningful vote’ on the Withdrawal Agreement looks set to take place on or around 10 December. If the Agreement is approved, the government must put down the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, likely in January, to convert it into domestic law. The EU Parliament and Council must themselves also confirm their approval. We would then leave the EU on 29 March and enter the ‘transition’/‘implementation’ period.
If the Agreement fails to receive the approval of MPs, the government has twenty-one days to come up with a new plan. It is my understanding that no further legislation is required for Brexit to take place on ‘No Deal’ terms, so unless a majority of the House can be persuaded to back a different course of action (such as a General Election, second referendum, or alternative Withdrawal Agreement), we shall leave the EU on 29 March.
If this looks likely, I would want the government to work as closely and cooperatively with EU authorities as possible on a managed No Deal to minimise disruption. Since the release of Chequers, I have worked with colleagues to push for the government to step up No Deal preparations to ensure we are prepared for any outcome, particularly when it comes to trade given my role as a member of the Trade Committee. When our Committee met UK negotiators in Brussels, we were advised that even in the event of No Deal there would be a range of provisions and agreements in place to govern things like aviation and data sharing. The broader introduction of checks and declarations on goods, particularly UK goods entering EU markets, is likely to introduce a level of cost and friction and urgent work needs to be done to design a package of economic support to offset costs to those businesses and organisations most directly affected in the event of No Deal.
Several constituents have written to me to request a second referendum. I am afraid I do not support a second referendum, which I believe would fail either to unite our country or lead to any kind of resolution of the Brexit debate. I also see this idea as profoundly undemocratic in trying to overturn the original referendum mandate, and in being pushed in the main by those who did not support the outcome in June 2016.
I appreciate that supporters of a second referendum disagree with me, arguing that such a vote is about ‘more democracy’ and that it is legitimate to question Brexit now we have further information. On a practical basis, in the event that this proposition ever got through parliament (and it has been rejected by both the Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition) I have seen no consensus from ‘People’s Vote’ advocates as to what the question on the ballot paper would be.
The option of Remain can only be on the ballot paper if a second referendum takes place before 29 March 2019, unless Article 50 is revoked and we fail to leave the EU at all. Post-29 March, therefore, the victory of any pro-EU option would likely see us have to reapply for EU membership at which point we would have lost any rebate and would have to sign up to aspects of the club from which we had previously carved opt-outs. It would also see Leave supporters call for a third referendum. And so the turmoil would continue.
I want to thank once again every constituent who has engaged with me on Brexit. Your input has been invaluable, and I fully appreciate the level of concern that has been generated by the government and parliament’s handling of this momentous political process.
As you will be aware, the Brexit referendum took place in 2016 before I was a Member of Parliament. I was a floating voter during that referendum, who decided in the final analysis to vote Leave. I would not deem myself a Brexiteer, rather someone who believes in democracy, wishes to see the referendum result honoured, and is now elected to fulfil the commitments made in the manifesto upon which I stood. I am not naïve about the challenges ahead, but I also believe there are exciting opportunities and am already working with colleagues from my intake on ideas to rejuvenate our democracy and economy.
I appreciate that some constituents disagree with Brexit, and others believe the Prime Minister’s deal is an acceptable compromise. The clear majority of letters and emails I have received, however, express deep concerns about the Withdrawal Agreement’s implications for our sovereignty, economy and future place in the world. Regardless of where each of us stands on the issue of Brexit, and no matter what happens over the coming weeks, I know that we can find unity again in our shared passion to build a brighter, more prosperous future for the nation we love. I shall endeavour to do all I can to represent the needs and aspirations of our constituency in that journey.