On Wednesday the Prime Minister announced that the UK government had concluded negotiations with the European Union in relation to the EU withdrawal agreement.
It is important to point out that the draft withdrawal agreement concerns the technicalities regarding how the UK leaves the EU. It has nothing to do with any arrangement about the UK’s permanent future relationship once we have left.
The draft withdrawal agreement is a hefty read totalling 585 pages. I doubt most people will take the time to sit down and read the whole agreement, and I have even more doubt that most of those who read the agreement will actually understand the meaning of many of the provisions contained within the draft.
I have always been a staunch supporter of this government and our Prime Minister- that has remained unchanged. However, I have always been clear, that if there would be one issue in which my support of this government would begin to waiver, it would be over Brexit.
I do not deny that this document is a magnificent achievement, it is the product of countless hours of hard work and tough negotiation. It is a draft agreement which I am sure that the opposition would have failed to secure. Sadly, despite these achievements it is with a heavy heart that I cannot support this version of the draft withdrawal agreement
I think it important to emphasise that I want nothing more than for our party, and our country to unite around Brexit. But I simply cannot remain silent about my deep reservations about some key aspects of the draft agreement; to do so would simply be with the objective of putting party before country.
There are many aspects of the draft agreement which warrant intense criticism, for the purposes of this article, I shall limit my criticisms to a few fundamental “crunch” issues:
Although the draft agreement states that “both sides will use their “best endeavours” to ensure that a long term trade deal is in place by the end of 2020, the transition period which is designed to allow time for the UK and the EU to reach a trade deal has no end date, meaning that the UK could be suspended in a state of permanent transition.
Furthermore, any extension of the transition period would be decided by the European Union, and they have clearly stated that such a decision would require the UK to pay for it. What they haven’t outlined is how much we would have to pay.
The second issue with the draft agreement is what would happen in the event of there being no negotiated trade agreement and no extension of the transition period- whilst the government has managed to incorporate a UK wide “backstop” into the agreement, it would still involve the whole of the UK being chained inside a customs union- single customs territory- breaking the Prime Minister’s pledge to leave the customs union in her Lancaster House speech.
Additionally, the backstop in this draft agreement would keep Northern Ireland in an even deeper customs relationship with the EU than Great Britain, and even more closely tied to the rules of the EU single market- treating Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK is a direct threat to the constitutional integrity of the UK.
Furthermore, whilst we would be leaving the Common Fisheries Policy, the UK has agreed to maintain EU fishing rights and standards, meaning that EU law would still apply and we would remain under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
Essentially, EU fishermen would still have access to UK waters- we would simply be leaving the CFP in name only. (The draft withdrawal agreement has not yet finalised the complete future relationship of EU-UK fishing relations).
Finally, I come to the main reason as to why I cannot support the current draft withdrawal agreement. If either party notifies the other that it wants the backstop to come to an end, a joint ministerial committee will meet within six months to consider the details. But the backstop would only cease to apply if “the Union and the United Kingdom decide jointly”.
This essentially means that the UK will not have the unilateral right to bring these temporary arrangements to an end- effectively requiring the UK to seek permission from the European Union to leave.
This to me is one of the most astonishing and inconceivable provisions in the whole draft withdrawal agreement. The EU would possess a veto in which they could use to prevent the UK from leaving the temporary custom arrangements- meaning the UK could be trapped inside the customs union indefinitely and forced to negotiate its permanent future relationship on the basis of custom union membership.
I have seen many supporters of this agreement claim that it is only the “blueprint” for a future relationship. Whilst that is true, it is a fact of basic constructional and engineering competency to realise that if you have a wonky blueprint, you’ll end up with a wonky construction.
This draft withdrawal agreement binds the UK to follow EU standards and regulations when striking trade deals with third party countries- destroying the aspiration of many for the UK to become a global competitive trading nation. If the transition period is extended, the UK. will not even be able to implement any deals on goods (but it will be able to action some deals it reaches on services).
Whilst we would in theory have the ability to strike independent trade deals, we would legally have to be on the same terms as those which the EU applies to ensure that we do not “undercut” EU industry- such an obligation is profoundly damaging to the UK’s ability to become competitive. This is the so-called “level playing field” commitment on competition and state aid, as well as employment and environment standards and tax.
Brussels has also demanded “dynamic alignment” on state aid, which would compel the UK parliament to simply cut and paste EU regulations as they are issued by the EU- without having a say when they are being created. The UK would simply become a passive rule taker for an indefinite period. Such a measure is completely unacceptable, as this would plunge the UK into a competitive disadvantage when striking new trade deals (in the event that we are even “allowed” to peruse third country trade deals).
Perhaps I am a hypocrite for I am criticising an agreement which has been secured after two years of hard work, and I couldn’t myself suggest a better alternative which would have a better chance of being passed by parliament.
I still support the Prime Minister and this government- a change of leadership would not change the problem of parliamentary arithmetic.
A leader of whichever shade of Brexit would inevitably encounter the same problem- there just is not a majority of support for one particular version of Brexit.
The draft withdrawal agreement does not have the required support needed to pass through parliament. The government needs to acknowledge this fact and adapt their strategy accordingly.
Renegotiation is required; particularly around the backstop extension provision, rule creation during the transition period, and the mechanisms in which the UK can leave the temporary custom union arising from the activation of the backstop.
If the government refuses to acknowledge this and the PM is willing to go down with a sinking ship, then I am afraid that there is very little that can be done.
I firmly believe that the government has negotiated this agreement in good faith. I do not believe that this government has deviously attempted to subvert the referendum result, far from it.
It is my belief that the EU seeks to deceitfully blackmail the UK into accepting a withdrawal agreement which they could use to trap the UK into a permanent customs union, which was only intended to be temporary.
Why would they do that? Simply because it is not in the EU’s economic interests to allow us to leave.
Yes, the provisions are said to be temporary, but the mere fact that the EU would be bestowed the power to veto the UK’s exit from a temporary customs arrangement arising from a backstop leaves me feeling very uneasy.
The United Kingdom MUST have the insurance of having the power to unilaterally withdraw from backstop arrangements in the event that future negotiations fail.
The current circumstances are very saddening, almost a tragedy. I feel that the government’s position is best captured by a quote from former Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher- “Standing in the middle of the road is very dangerous; you get knocked down by the traffic from both sides”.
This article was written for We In This House by Robert Langley who can be found on Twitter: