Today the House of Commons will finally have the chance to express its view on the government’s proposed European Union withdrawal agreement. My own opinion remains unchanged since the proposals were first published, and I will be voting against it.
The withdrawal agreement commits us to enter into a transition period when we leave the EU on 29th March, during which we will discuss our future trading relationship. We will also continue to make £39billion in contributions to the European Union’s budget, up to the end of the transition period in December 2020. We have to make these payments regardless of whether or not we are successful in concluding a trade agreement with the EU; we will not get any of this money back if the transition period is unsuccessful.
If in December 2020 we have failed to agree our future relationship with the EU, under the terms of the withdrawal agreement, we would enter into the backstop arrangements. The backstop commits the UK to remain in the EU Customs Union, to closely following all of the EU Single Market rules, even though we would have no say in making them, and we would be heavily restricted from agreeing trade deals with countries outside of the EU. What is more, this arrangement could go in indefinitely. We would have no independent mechanism for exiting the backstop, if we felt that the talks on our future relationship had broken down. This is clearly an unacceptable position for the UK to be in. It would allow the EU to approach the negotiations on the future relationship knowing that they had already secured many key concessions from the UK, including being locked into the customs union, and seeing what else they could extract from us in return for allowing us out of the backstop.
We are told on the one hand, that the EU doesn’t want the backstop to be the basis of a permanent relationship with the UK, and that some European leaders think the deal favours Britain; no doubt they would like an even more punitive settlement. Yet, if the backstop is so unpopular in Brussels, why does the EU consistently refuse to allow us to exit it independently, as that might bring it to a close sooner? It must mean that the EU attaches particular significance to this part of the deal.
Some say that the EU’s commitment to the backstop is in order to prevent a hard border on the island or Ireland; yet we do not want such a border, and nor to the Irish. By insisting on the backstop without giving the UK the power to leave it independently, the EU is pushing the House of Commons into rejecting the deal, and the consequences of a no deal Brexit have the potential to be much worse for Ireland. Are we to believe that the EU is prepared to support the interests of the people of Ireland today, but then after the withdrawal agreement is voted down the House of Commons, they will then completely abandon them.
I believe there is still time to get this deal right, to give the UK and the EU the opportunity to agree a wide-ranging free trade agreement during the transition period, but if that fails, to give us the freedom to go in a different direction after 2020.