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Ahead of the five day debate on the Brexit deal that the Prime Minister has negotiated I wanted to set out my thinking thus far.
Let me start by saying that, despite what the papers may say, I have not decided how I am going to vote in the 'Meaningful Vote' that will come at the end of the debate. To do so would rather destroy the purpose of the five days of debate in the House of Commons. One long standing MP rather cynically put it to me that the purpose of debate was not to change anyone's mind but simply to make position statements. That may be true of some but I find that one of the most depressing aspects of this whole business. Thankfully it is not true of all MPs.
What I want to do in this briefing is to set out how I see the Agreement as it stands. I do so having read the whole of the draft agreement published on 14th November and having had discussions with Ministers on some of the details. I have also heard differing views already expressed by colleagues, read some of the analysis in the media and the views sent to me by constituents. I will admit that I have been frustrated by those who have written with their views but who openly admit that they have not actually read the Agreement. If this is such an important issue then surely it is not too much to read the source document rather than rely on the interpretation of others. The document although long is not dense.
Just before I set out the detail, I would like to point out that it would be wrong for people to believe that I have had nothing but requests to vote against the Agreement and the deal that has been done. I have also had a large number of emails and letters in support of the deal. In fact I have had emails telling me that I should take a whole number of competing actions on this with most seeming to assume that there are no alternative views. There are those who voted to leave the EU who are urging me to push for us leaving with no deal; there are those who voted to leave reminding me that we should honour the outcome of the Referendum; there are those who voted to remain in the EU who want the Government to ignore the outcome of the Referendum and ask again; there are those who are urging me to support the current deal due to concerns at leaving with no deal – and so it goes on.
The Agreement contains good measures as well as those about which I have concerns. With an Agreement of this size that is inevitable. The Agreement is effectively divided into two key sections – the transition period and post-transition. This is based on a date of leaving the EU of 29 March 2019 at 11.00am. The transition period will last until 31 December 2020 and one of its purposes is principally to make sure that business, Government departments and individuals have a clear understanding of where they stand at that date. In the meantime, during the transition phase, businesses will be able to trade as now.
The transition period contains the following. First, the transition period ends on 31 December 2020. After that date, the temporary arrangement whereby the UK continues to count as if it were a member of the EU ends for good.
In the meantime, the Agreement commits us to work towards putting in place co-operation on issues of foreign affairs, security and defence but we would not be obliged to join an EU army if the rest of the EU developed this proposal.
During the transition phase it is not true that the UK will be excluded from all EU institutions and that we will effectively be what has been called a vassal state. We will continue to participate on a case-by-case basis with EU bodies particularly where what is being discussed affects the UK. During this period, we will be able to sign and ratify new bilateral trade deals between the UK and other countries.
In relation to fisheries our quota cannot be reduced. From the last year of transition we will be negotiating on a case by case basis with the aim of putting in place a new agreement shortly thereafter.
More generally, the UK ceases to be part of the EU Budget in December 2020 and negotiates its contribution based on what activities it participates in. Its capital in the European Investment Bank and the European Central Bank are repaid. A large element of the payment the UK will make relates to pensions for which we would otherwise be pursued through the courts.
The chapters on goods and customs contain some sensible provisions on the handling of matters related to what any charging authority would want to see as transition arrangements. Some of these inevitably last more than two years.
On Citizen's Rights the Agreement provides certainty over rights and applies both to EU citizens and their families living or working in the UK and to UK citizens and their families living or working in mainland Europe. This includes mutual recognition of each other's professional qualifications. UK courts will decide issues arising but will be able to seek the advice of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) for a period that has been seen to cover 8 years.
On the question of Northern Ireland I remain curious as to why this has taken on so much importance. Of course, I do not want to see the Good Friday Agreement compromised. But I think that too much emphasis has been placed on what should be an administrative problem. The Agreement creates a single customs territory of the UK so Northern Ireland will not be part of a separate customs territory. It also commits us to agreeing a better arrangement before the agreement or Protocol on Northern Ireland comes into effect. If this is not possible it gives the UK the right to two courses of actions – (1) either an extension to the transition period or (2) a backstop which maintains that the economic and constitutional integrity of the UK is maintained and to ensure the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will remain open as it is today.
Under the backstop there will be no tariffs on trade in goods between the UK and the EU and most trade restrictions will be removed. Northern Ireland will be the sole part of the UK which will be aligned to extra rules of the EU's single market meaning some checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK.
Although it is not intended for the backstop or the extension of the transition arrangements to come into force, this does give rise to concerns about how we will exit the backstop if we wish to without the agreement of the EU. I believe that this would fall to the international arbitration committee, which will handle disputes, to decide on but am waiting for clarification of this point from the Attorney General.
There is also a legal commitment to use best endeavours to avoid the backstop ever coming into force and there is scope in the framework about exploring alternative options. However, the reality is that the EU have every incentive to avoid the backstop coming into force as it would create a major back door risk for their single market and customs union and effectively give us access to the single market for goods without either money or free movement
This issue comes down to one single matter – trust. Do we trust that we will be released from the backstop? I know that the EU has not given us just cause for too much trust – or is that the spin put on by the press? But I am not going to believe that in the full international light of day either the EU or the 26 member countries will chose to stand in our way.
I am not going to pretend that the Agreement or deal answers all my questions or yours. But it is a million miles from the attacks on the EU I have been expressed. There are differing views on the extent to which the EU can be trusted with these negotiations but I do not believe that it is right to go into these negotiations not trusting them at all either to deliver on this Agreement or to do what they have committed to do.