With the parliamentary debate on the proposed Brexit deal having recommenced, constructive dialogue and a dose of reality are now needed to take our country forward. Despite her best efforts, the Prime Minister will not be able to secure a majority for the deal – so now attention must turn to the future and getting the UK ready for Brexit on 29th March, while pressing for the deal to be revised and renegotiated.
There are many changes that need to be made to the deal to ensure that it delivers the outcome of the referendum and it is frustrating that opportunities to change the deal sooner were not taken. It has been clear since Chequers last summer that the proposals deviated too far from the sensible plan put forward by the Prime Minister in January 2017 in her Lancaster House speech. But a vote against the proposed deal next week must not be taken as a licence to delay our withdrawal by extending Article 50 or provide succour to those campaigning for a second referendum or to stop Brexit. I’m calling on politicians, all sides of the house and including the speaker, to ensure the will of 17.4 million is respected and Brexit delivered.
There has been far too much hysteria and fear-mongering stoked by some in Government which has hindered the Government’s own ability to concentrate its efforts on delivering and planning for Brexit. The hostility to alternative plans to leave – including practical solutions to support customs and frictionless trade with the EU – has led to the current problems faced by Government with their own deal. The deal comprised of two parts: a legally binding Withdrawal Agreement, which includes the requirement that the UK pays £39 billion in a financial settlement; and a Political Declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU, which amounts to being nothing more than a statement. That does not deliver Brexit and they know it.
We all know how the EU makes agreements at the last minute, so we should press them to change the worst and most damaging parts of the deal. The much-talked about Northern Ireland backstop is of course top of the list. We cannot sign a Treaty that could sever Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK indefinitely. We cannot sign a treaty that does not enable us to exit unilaterally should we need to do so. The irony is that it’s easier for us to leave the EU, providing two years’ notice as we did in March 2017, than it would be for us to leave the backstop. That is unacceptable.
The EU claims that it has no intention of falling into the backstop. So let’s put them to the test. Letters of assurance and statements are no substitute for firm, legally-binding Treaty commitments, and if the EU is true to its word it will have no issue in signing up to them.
Significant failings of the deal do not stop at the backstop. We must also secure legally-binding commitments on the future UK-EU relationship. The Political Declaration as currently drafted is too ambiguous, with the EU and UK already in dispute over what it means for fisheries and there is little certainty. Without certainty and clear guarantees, the deal would only be pushing the key decisions further down the line, creating more years of uncertainty – something politicians, business and the public simply to do want; indeed, they’re led to believe this is not the case.
This is why the Government must not under any circumstance agree to hand over the £39 billion financial settlement unless we get some firm, clear and legally-binding commitments in return. No taxpayers’ money should be handed over unless it is dependent on a comprehensive free trade deal and cooperation in a range of areas which are in our national interests being agreed, with payments phased accordingly. At a time when there are pressures on public services, British taxpayers will never forgive a government that signs off a blank cheque.
Underpinning this effort to renegotiate must be a robust plan to prepare for our departure on WTO terms. One of the biggest mistakes the Government has made is not preparing sooner for this course of action to prove certainty for business, although the escalation of effort on this is now welcome. This serves four purposes.
First, by demonstrating to the EU that we are fully prepared for departure with or without a specific deal, it strengthens our hand to negotiate a better deal.
Second, it ensures that trade can be facilitated with the EU with any additional border friction caused by the EU accommodated and the necessary measures put in place for businesses to adjust.
Third, it enables the Government to introduce policies to give our businesses a boost and competitive edge.
Fourth, a departure on WTO terms immediately frees us to secure and negotiate new trade deals with the rest of the world without any hindrance. Under the proposed deal the UK Government and EU wants us to approve, our hands would be tied with the EU able to effectively veto our trade negotiations with non-EU countries. We should be free to enact trade deals with countries that are growing faster than the EU and will be responsible for over 90% of the world economy by the middle of this century. This deal simply won’t allow that. It is astonishing that we would sign a deal that would hold the UK back from these trade opportunities, including with our friends in the Commonwealth.
On top of this, we would also not need to hand £39 billion over to the EU, giving the Government resources to support economic growth, job creation and new trade opportunities. We should not fear a departure on WTO terms and should not be frightened to reject the deal agreed by the EU and UK. We should instead fully prepare, pursue a renegotiation and get Britain ready to make a success of the opportunities that come with Brexit.
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