Like every previous major European negotiation, our discussions with the EU over our future relationship for after we leave, are running right down to the final few weeks before the deadline. However, we must remember that we do not need their permission to leave. That decision was taken by the British people in the referendum, has been given legal force by parliament passing the EU Withdrawal Act. Also, under the process defined by article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, we are only required to give notice of our intention to leave, and this takes automatic effect two years later. Our date of departure therefore remains fixed for 29th March; just over a month away. The choices for parliament now are whether we leave with an agreed deal on our future relationship with the EU, leave with no such deal, delay the date of Brexit, or ask the people to make the final decision through an election or referendum.
Firstly, I do not believe we need, nor do I want to see, another election or referendum. The decision on our future relationship with the EU is one that can and should be made by parliament. I want us to negotiate a deal with the EU that will give us a smooth transition out of the single market and customs union after we leave, and then the opportunity to conclude a wide-ranging free trade agreement that will the basis for our long-term relationship with the EU, as an independent nation. I believe that it will be possible to reach such an agreement, if we can resolve the issues around the proposed ‘backstop’ to the withdrawal agreement. It cannot be right that the EU should insist that we commit to a process of leaving which would mean that we would remain trapped in the backstop and with it a requirement to largely comply with the rules of the customs union and single market. The backstop would enable the EU to dictate terms to the UK in any future trade negotiation, knowing that even if those talks failed we would remain in the backstop and be unable to put in place new trade agreements with other countries. I will not vote in the House of Commons to enable this to happen. Ultimately it would be in everyone’s interests to get a deal done on the withdrawal agreement, and the Prime Minister has confirmed that she will continue to negotiate with the other EU leaders to try and achieve this.
On Tuesday this week, Theresa May also set out to the House of Commons the process we will follow if it is not possible to get a deal on the withdrawal agreement. Before 14th March, Parliament would be given the option of leaving with no deal on 29th March or delaying our exit date until the end of June, in order to provide more time to complete negotiations. If this were to happen, we would still leave before the European Parliament reforms after its forthcoming elections, and so would not be required to elect new MEPs, as they would not take up their seats before Brexit takes place. Again, I hope we can avoid this entirely by reaching a deal on the withdrawal agreement before the end of March.