I will not be supporting the agreement proposed last week by the Prime Minister, for the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. My concerns are that it does not deliver the Brexit that people voted for, and that it could leave the UK locked into a relationship with the EU that would be worse than our current terms of membership. I do not accept the Prime Minister’s argument that this is the best we can do, and that we should go with it, or run the risk of a chaotic hard Brexit in March next year. The terms of this agreement have not yet been finalised with the leaders of the other EU member states, and in every European negotiation there is the opportunity for discussion and amendment right up until the final moment before the deal must be done. Given we are not due to leave for another four months, I believe that there is still time to get this right.
There are many concerns about the Prime Minister’s draft agreement that could be raised, but for me there is a fundamental issue that needs to be resolved before I could support it. The draft agreement proposes that there should be a transition period after we leave the EU on 29th March next year, lasting until 31st December 2020, where we remain in the Single Market and Customs Union. This transition can be extended if both sides agree, and failing that we would fall into a backstop arrangement until a future trade agreement is reached. During this period the UK would be part of a single customs territory with the EU, requiring us to remain aligned to their rules. Furthermore it is proposed that we would not be able to leave the backstop independently, and I believe this is totally unacceptable. This arrangement would also require different rules to operate in Northern Ireland to the rest of the UK, something that we had said we would not accept.
As an independent nation, we must retain the power to set the time limit for any period of transition out of the EU, and to end any backstop arrangements if a future trade deal has not been agreed. These decisions cannot be taken jointly with the EU, or other international assessors, as has been proposed in the draft agreement. In such a scenario, the EU would be happy to effectively lock us indefinitely into rules that we have no say in shaping. Without this guarantee, we run the risk of being permanently suspended in a backstop limbo, unable to fully leave the European Union.
There are some who say that we don’t need a trade agreement and should just leave. However, we need to consider in Kent in particular, the massive disruption that would be caused if there were any delays in the processing of road freight through the Port of Dover and Channel Tunnel. It would be far better to prepare for a transition to a new free trade agreement, than to leave without one. We could also use the transition period to make more robust plans for alternative means of managing freight in and out of the UK, if a free trade agreement was not reached. I do not believe that we yet have the necessary infrastructure in place to do this, but with more time, we could.