The following statement sets out my initial response to the Draft Withdrawal Agreement and Future Partnership.
The Withdrawal Agreement and Future Partnership
I welcome the fact that a draft Withdrawal Agreement has been concluded, because for a while it looked like we may not be able to come to an agreement and I do not believe that leaving the EU without a deal would be good for the UK - or the EU.
The deal is far from perfect but no deal was ever going to be. Deal-making is about compromise and I am comfortable with - rather than enthusiastic about - the draft deal.
I recognise that many of my constituents have concerns about the Agreement, but it is important to recognise that the Withdrawal Agreement is not the same thing as the Future Relationship, but a route to achieving it. Broad terms of our future relationship have been set out in an ‘outline political declaration’ that accompanies the Draft Withdrawal Agreement, and work will continue on this future framework deal but the final details remain subject to final negotiation during the transition period.
As with the referendum, opinion on the Withdrawal Agreement in my constituency is divided. But I do believe that the deal does deliver on the vast majority of things that people who voted Leave in the referendum said they wanted. I think it also provides clarity and comfort to those who voted Remain that we will continue to be strong friends and close trading partners with the EU.
Crucially, what the deal the government proposes does all of the following:
- Ends free movement of people.
- Guarantees the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU.
- Creates a free trade area for goods with zero tariffs with the EU.
- Gives us the freedom to sign trade deals around the world.
- Ends our monetary contributions to the EU. The agreed settlement of £39 billion allows us to meet existing obligations but we will no longer make payments towards the EU’s budget.
- Ends the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the UK.
- Removes the UK from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
I wish to re-emphasise that this is not the final negotiated deal that will dictate our full future trading relationship with the EU. The Withdrawal Agreement will ensure our orderly exit from the EU on 29th March and will be followed by a transition period during which we will finalise the terms of our future trading relationship.
The Northern Ireland ‘Backstop’
With regard to the so called ‘backstop’ there has been considerable confusion as to what this means and when it may come into force. Let’s be clear, both the EU - including the Republic of Ireland - and the UK want to avoid a hard Northern Ireland border so the ‘backstop’ is a back up plan (explicitly not a desired outcome) in case they cannot reach a long term trade agreement which does this (ie. avoids a hard border). The intention of both sides is to avoid defaulting into the backstop during the transition period, not to implement it.
Northern Ireland presents a particular challenge because it shares a land border with an EU member (The Republic of Ireland) and is separated from the rest of the UK by the Irish Sea. This means it is difficult to negotiate an arrangement that does not either create a hard customs border (with physical checks) on the island of Ireland or necessitate increased checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
A backstop arrangement has therefore been put into place to act as a safety net if no solution to avoiding a hard border is found during the transition period. The backstop would mean greater regulatory alignment between the EU and Northern Ireland in order to ensure a frictionless border on the island of Ireland. It would also mean a temporary single custom territory between the whole of the UK and the EU until a point at which both agree that this arrangement is no longer necessary.
This arrangement would only come into effect if no solution is found during the transition period as part of the final negotiated deal. I am personally hopeful that a technological solution at the Irish border can be found that ensures that movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is, in practice, frictionless but still meets customs requirements between the EU and the UK.
If such a solution is found the backstop does not come into play and becomes irrelevant. The backstop is therefore not inevitable and it is not true to suggest that the Withdrawal Agreement permanently ties the UK into a single customs territory with the EU. The backstop is not the desired outcome nor, crucially, the intended outcome of either side. Every effort will be made to avoid it.
I think it is entirely valid to be concerned about the backstop and the proposed mechanism for exiting it, should it come into place. I have concerns myself and would have, in an ideal world, preferred to see an arrangement that allowed us to give unilateral notice of our intention to leave the backstop rather than by mutual agreement. But as I said above, this is the Withdrawal Agreement and not the final deal. If we are able to find a way in the coming weeks to renegotiate these aspects then I will support such efforts.
But I would not want to throw the whole deal out and risk no deal on the misunderstanding that the backstop is inevitable or if it did come into place that it would be permanent. I have greater faith in our ability to find a technological solution - and have greater faith in the ability of the EU and UK to come to a reasonable future relationship arrangement than that. I recognise that other people have less faith and therefore are more concerned about the backstop.
It is important to note that many of the alternative models being proposed for leaving the EU do not adequately deal with the issue of the Northern Ireland border either - and it is likely that the EU would insist on similar backstop arrangement under many of these proposals.
The Transition Period
A number of my constituents have raised concerns about the transition period and have questioned why it is necessary to extend our alignment with EU rules and customs arrangements after 29 March 2019. I hope that the section above on the Northern Ireland backstop has gone some way in addressing why this is necessary. A full negotiated deal is something that will take time to finalise and prepare for implementation so it is sensible and necessary to ensure that we do not fall over a cliff edge at the end of the Article 50 period.
If we did not have a transition period, we would leave the EU on 29th March without agreed customs, trade and legal arrangements in place. This could potentially cause uncertainty, logistical challenges and confusion (despite considerable no deal scenario planning) and would mean reverting to the default World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs for many sectors. Vital sectors like aviation are not even covered by WTO rules and complex arrangements would be required to come into place at late notice to ensure such sectors could continue operating smoothly in the event of no deal. This may well be possible but would cause considerable problems for many industries and sectors.
Therefore whilst I understand that many of my constituents want to leave the EU as quickly as possible, I fully support the agreement of a transition period in this Withdrawal Agreement.
Calls for a Second Referendum
I understand the strength of feeling on this matter as we saw during the march in London recently. I know that some people want to have a complete re-run of the initial referendum with an in and out option again; whereas others are looking for a referendum on the precise Brexit terms being negotiated by the government (with or without a remain option).
But I do not support calls for another referendum on Brexit at this time. I think it would have profound implications for our democracy. We can't keep going back asking the same or a similar question until we get a different answer. A second referendum is also likely to be incredibly divisive for the UK.
From a personal perspective, I voted in favour of having an in/out referendum on our membership of the EU soon after being elected in 2015. There was an overwhelming demand for this amongst my constituents - as evidenced by the fact that in the end 59% of them voted Leave. I said throughout the referendum campaign that I would respect the result - whether remain or leave - and take it as an instruction and vote in Parliament accordingly. If I had made a different commitment, I may act differently.
MPs voted 494 to 122 in favour of invoking Article 50 in 2017 and it would not be right for us to try and frustrate the process now. Now that a Withdrawal Agreement has been agreed I believe Parliament must vote on the adoption of the Agreement and I am not convinced that a second referendum could even be arranged in time to satisfy the Brexit timetable - even if it was desired.
The next few weeks will be a challenging time for parliament and the country. To hold a second referendum or hold another election would be a distraction. That is not to say that a public vote on our future relationship with the EU is never again possible. I suspect that within a generation there will be another referendum on whether or not we join/rejoin whatever form the EU evolves into over the next few years - and suspect different political parties may propose alternative arrangements with the EU in future election manifestos.
But for the reasons I have outlined above, I am not supportive of another referendum now.
I believe there is a time and a place for idealism in politics, but now is not it. We need to be practical and realistic and deal with the world as it is, not as we would desire it to be. So we need to be conscious of the timetables that have been agreed to relating to our withdrawal from the EU and we need to be aware of the attitudes and constraints of those whom we are negotiating with.
The choices therefore are not as wide and varied as some would ideally wish. The suggestion that we should start again with the negotiations is not a realistic one. The clear choice at the moment is between this deal and no deal. As I have repeatedly stated, I personally believe no deal is not a desirable outcome, so I want a deal. The Withdrawal Agreement is the only deal on the table and I believe it is a reasonable outcome. BUT if there are creative and practical ways in which we can improve the Withdrawal Agreement then, of course, I will support such manoeuvres.
The Prime Minister
The Prime Minister has faced one of the greatest challenges of statecraft and negotiation in our country’s history. To have come back with a deal that moves this process forward in a mutually beneficial manner is an achievement for which she has not been given enough credit. She has worked tirelessly for over two years in an unenviable position and come away with a 585-page document that can now unlock the process towards a final negotiated deal.
It would be foolish to undermine her now and risk leaving with no deal at all. Time is short until March 29th 2019 and the Prime Minister is best placed to see this process through. Theresa May is a dedicated public servant who has shown great resilience and determination under extremely difficult circumstances.
Moreover in the chamber of the House of Commons on Thursday 15th November I asked the Prime Minister directly if this deal was the best available and if it was in the best long term interests of my children. She turned around and said yes - and it may sound old fashioned, but I believe when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom looks you in the eyes and makes a commitment like that, it means something.
I will therefore continue to support the Prime Minister as this negotiation develops and hope to see a sensible deal passed in Parliament in time for our exit from the EU.
Nigel Huddleston MP – November 2018