9th January – Please find here a link to a very useful paper written by Lord Lilley about the truth about a WTO terms Brexit.
I write following the conclusion of the Prime Minister’s negotiations with the European Union. The Prime Minister has agreed the Withdrawal Agreement, and the associated Political Declaration with the European Union.
Firstly, I commend the Prime Minister’s determination, fortitude and persistence in her negotiations with the European Union, and in her repeated public statements and addresses to the House of Commons.
I, like many of my constituents, want to conclude arrangements with the EU as swiftly as possible, in order to carry out the result of the 2016 referendum. I very much wanted to be able to support the deal which the Prime Minister brought back from the EU.
I have studied the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration, and there are some welcome aspects. The political declaration, which contains the details of our future relationship with the EU, is ambitious and wide-ranging.
The Withdrawal Agreement, however, contains an enormous problem. The Northern Ireland Protocol, known as the backstop, contains provisions for an extension to the Customs Union which would keep the United Kingdom in the Customs Union and some aspects of the Single Market of the European Union.
The backstop has no unilateral exit mechanism, and so we cannot leave the Customs Union without the permission of the EU.
International treaties always contain a unilateral exit mechanism, so that one side can leave if the deal no longer works for them. In the case of the European Union Treaty, that mechanism was called Article 50, and we triggered it unilaterally in March 2017 to begin the process of leaving. The EU could not stop us from doing so.
Ironically, the lack of a unilateral exit mechanism means that leaving the backstop and the Customs Union could be more difficult than exiting the European Union.
This cannot be right and so I cannot support any deal which leaves the EU able to block our exit from the Customs Union, should that arrangement no longer work for us.
The problem with being stuck in the Customs Union and having to follow EU rules is that we will not be able to sign trade deals with other countries. We would face the choice of either not being able to trade with the rest of the world under the backstop, or accepting whatever trade deal the EU wishes to impose on us as the price for exiting the backstop.
The backstop is also a stumbling block that threatens the Union of the United Kingdom and threatens the peace process in Northern Ireland.
The people who voted for Brexit voted for independence, and the backstop prevents us from fully leaving the EU Customs Union. The current Withdrawal Agreement therefore does not respect the will of the people to leave the EU.
Brexit, for me, was about democracy and taking back control, and this arrangement actually leaves us less in control of our own customs arrangements than we were whilst a member of the EU.
What happens next?
The Prime Minister has said that without the backstop there is no deal, and that the EU will not change their position now. I hope she is wrong as if that is the case, I will find it extremely difficult to support the deal.
In this case, it is extremely unlikely that the Deal will gain the support of the House of Commons. The opposition parties have all committed to vote against it, and there are many Conservatives who have publicly said that they cannot vote for the deal with the backstop.
However, there are several other factors to take into account including the two weeks in which the Prime Minister may try to make changes to the Treaty which would enable me to support it.
An example of such a change would be the removal of the backstop arrangement, or the introduction of a unilateral mechanism to exit the backstop, or indeed the retention of our £39 billion ‘divorce bill’ until a future trade agreement has been signed.
If, however, the Prime Minister does not or cannot amend the Treaty, then I am sure the deal will be voted down in the Commons, and I am therefore concerned about what would happen next.
Under the EU Withdrawal Act 2017, the Prime Minister has a further 21 days to make a statement setting out how the Government intends to proceed in the negotiations.
This statement will then be voted on by the House of Commons, but the outcome would not be binding.
For example, the Government could make a statement suggesting that it wishes to make the House vote again on the proposed deal. Even if this motion is defeated, the Government is then able to continue with its preferred course of action, as the vote will not be binding.
In this instance, the Government could very quickly lose the support of the House, and will want to put forward an option that can be supported by MPs.
If, after 21 days and the Government’s motion on how to proceed being defeated again, I fear that the Government will declare parliamentary deadlock, and begin the process of returning the question to the people, either through a second referendum or through a General Election.
If Parliament cannot decide between the Prime Minister’s Deal and No Deal, I would be happy for that specific question to be put to the people.
However, I do not want a second referendum as many have threatened to use it to keep us in the EU.
I believe this would be a gross miscarriage of democracy, and that the result of the first referendum, however difficult to implement, must be carried out.
Many people have said to me that it is sufficient merely to continue voting down the Government’s proposals, as leaving under WTO terms will be the default on March 29th 2019.
I am not scared of leaving on WTO terms, but unfortunately I am not certain that the Government will allow this to happen.
Under the EU Withdrawal Act 2017, if no agreement has been reached with the EU by 21st January 2019, the Government has 5 days to set before the House its plans for the next step, which will be either leaving with no deal, or asking for an extension of the negotiating period under Article 50.
I fear that the Government would have no choice, given the short timescales, but to ask for an extension of Article 50, costing more of our money and leaving us no closer to a deal.
This would not deliver on the result of the referendum.
I have carefully set out what I currently believe will be the likely course of action over the coming weeks.
I write to share with you that I do not currently support the Prime Minister’s Deal, but that with alterations that remove the power of the backstop (which traps us in the EU until they give us permission to leave), then I would be happy to support it.
Indeed, given the likely course of events after voting down the Deal, it is still possible that it may be better than risking losing Brexit altogether.
We want to be independent of the EU and the backstop prevents that.
We do not want to be trapped in the Customs Union until we sign a punitive trade deal.
I must take this decision balancing the threat to Brexit with the restrictions the backstop would create.
Much may change before the meaningful vote on 11th December, and I thank everyone who has taken the time to write to me, from all sides of the political divide.