What this vote was about
Just to clear up one misunderstanding first: voting against the Withdrawal Agreement did not represent a vote against leaving the EU. This is misinformation spread by certain members of the government who know it not to be true. I fully support our leaving the EU, campaigned for a leave vote in the referendum and am determined that we shall leave. Voting against the Withdrawal Agreement does not mean that we will not leave the EU. We have passed the EU Withdrawal Act, and have triggered Article 50 by an Act of Parliament, and (unless the government itself tries to prevent this) we will leave on 29th March this year.
I could not support the Withdrawal Agreement as proposed by the Prime Minister and the EU. It is essentially the same as the one proposed in December, which the Prime Minister decided to withdraw from the House of Commons. In spite of assurances that she would seek changes to the legal text of the Agreement, in particular in relation to the backstop, this was not achieved and I’m informed was not even asked for. It was then surprising that the very same proposals were put to the House of Commons earlier this week.
“It’s the only deal available”
I don’t accept this. The EU offered a free trade arrangement last year, but only for Great Britain. The government should have said that such an arrangement was acceptable, but only if it included Northern Ireland. This point should have been made for the reasons I give below. And as Theresa May herself has said, no deal is better than a bad deal.
Problems with the Withdrawal Agreement
My objections remain: that the Agreement has to potential to lock us into the customs union with the EU indefinitely, which would prevent us from forging our own trade deals across the world; that there is no way we can unilaterally decide to leave that customs union; that it would place Northern Ireland in a different regulatory framework to the rest of the UK, which the Prime Minister had previously said she would not agree to; that the European Court of Justice would continue to have some jurisdiction over the UK; that, during this period, we would be treated a member state, but would not be able to influence decisions taken by the EU; and that we would be required to pay £39 billion to the EU without any guarantees of what we may get in return.
The Irish border
The government and the EU have said that they would hope that the backstop wouldn’t be used. However, since the referendum in 2016, the EU has consistently used the question of the Irish border as a reason to avoid agreeing future trade arrangements with us. All sides agree that there should be no hard border in Ireland, but the EU has used this issue as an excuse for making progress. To me this is a red herring, for the following reason.
It is accepted that people will continue to move north and south in Ireland (and across to the UK) due to the Common Travel arrangements which have existed between the UK and Ireland since 1923. The question is about goods. However, customs declarations can be made (and are made) away from the border. And given that only 1.3% of goods entering the EU from outside are physically checked, even if those goods were checked on the Irish border (which they wouldn’t have to be) such a small operation could not be considered to constitute a “hard border”. Indeed, the Chief Executive of HMRC has said that in no circumstances would they require further infrastructure along the border. The Taoiseach has said that there will not be a hard border in Ireland, regardless of whether the Agreement is accepted or not. So the Irish border question should not be allowed to get in the way of a trade deal.
So my point about the backstop is, if the EU have refused to accept that, for many reasons, the Irish border is not an impediment to agreeing a trade deal now, why would they in the future? So unless there is a change of heart within the EU, the backstop would come into play. If there is to be a change of heart, let that change take place now.
Honouring the referendum result
In 2016, people voted to leave the EU, albeit it by a small margin. They did not vote leave “providing a trade deal is in place” or “as long as there is frictionless trade in Ireland” or with any other proviso – they voted to leave. And we have to respect that decision. But contrary to what certain members of the government are claiming, this Agreement does not respect that decision. As the Prime Minister herself said in the Conservative Party manifesto, we will leave the customs union, and, as she said in her Lancaster House speech, we will leave the EU and not be half in’ half out. This Withdrawal Agreement would indeed leave us half in, half out. The point is that, while the trade arrangements with the EU are very important, delivering on the referendum result is the most important thing. Only around 5% of businesses trade with the EU, so we need to make sure that we free the 95% from the rules imposed by Brussels.
A second referendum
Some people have called for a second referendum to be held. But what question would be on the ballot paper – to leave or to remain? But this question was asked in 2016 and people said to leave. Some remain voters say that those voting leave didn’t know what they were voting for. Leave voters find such comments offensive, but they are also untrue. People voted for the principle of leaving, in the same way as people voted for the principle of remaining. No, leave voters didn’t know what the trade arrangements with the EU would be after we leave, but similarly, remain voters don’t know that the terms of EU membership will be in, say, a year, 5 years or ten years’ time. Nor do remain voters know what would be the details of the trade deals the EU might do with, say, the US or China – for example, before the referendum, many people wrote to me complaining about the details of TTIP (the proposed trade deal between the EU and the US). So, if trade deals are so important, might remain voters have subsequently wanted to leave if they didn’t like to terms of TTIP, had it been agreed?
Where to from here
I would suggest the Prime Minister goes back to the EU and makes a proposal for a free trade arrangement between the EU and the whole of the UK (not just Great Britain), with the assurance that we will use our best endeavours (a term which is so heavily relied on in the Withdrawal Agreement) to ensure that the Irish border will work to the satisfaction of all, with no hard infrastructure in place. Failing this, we should consider applying for Article 24 under WTO rules, which essentially means that we continue to trade with the EU under current or similar terms while we negotiate a trade deal. Or failing this, we leave under WTO rules. This wouldn’t have been my preferred option from day one, but it might end up being our only option from here, given the intransigence of the EU. We already trade with the two biggest trading nations on earth, the USA and China, and about 38 other countries under WTO rules, and while there may well be bumps in the immediate road if we take this option, I don’t believe it would be ”cataclysmic” as some have claimed it would be, in the medium to longer term.