The EU Withdrawal Agreement
November 30, 2018
I am very grateful to all local residents who have contacted me so far with their thoughts on the withdrawal agreement and political declaration on our future relationship with the EU, the parliamentary vote on which will be held on Tuesday 11th December after 5 days of debate.
I am taking careful note of what constituents are saying, and I would encourage anyone who wishes to share their views with me to get in touch. I want to hear from the widest possible range of York Outer residents, not just the most vocal people on all sides of the debate.
The decisions of the next few weeks, and the consequences that flow from them, are of genuinely historic importance, and I am therefore taking some time to consider whether I should support the agreement. I understand and respect the various concerns that have been raised about the government’s deal, and personally have some significant reservations. I am therefore carefully considering the withdrawal agreement and future relationship documents, and weighing up what has been negotiated against the possible alternatives.
I am clear that the government need to respond to concerns over whether we would be trapped permanently in the ‘backstop’ temporary customs arrangement with the EU that the draft agreement provides for. This is meant as a last resort if we are unable to agree a satisfactory trade and customs arrangement with the EU that avoids the need to erect a hard border in Northern Ireland during the transitional period (March 2019-December 2020) after we leave the EU in March 2019.
Although I agree this is objectionable, I think it is vital to remember this is meant only as an insurance policy, and is not the outcome the government want to see. I will also be looking for reassurance from the government that we have a robust exit mechanism from this temporary customs arrangement, and that we would be able to get out of it when we wanted to, if it gets to the stage of having to invoke this. I am encouraged by the provision that disagreement with the EU on this would be resolved through independent arbitration, but I feel the government needs to make clear that we could not be held in this customs arrangement with the EU against our will. I am concerned by the possibility that being trapped in this way could weaken our negotiating hand in talks on a future trade agreement with the EU.
I also think it is vital for the government to address concerns over the role of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) under the agreement. I want to be assured that the technical role of the Court in clarifying and ruling on EU law and the provisions of the agreement will not give it unreasonable influence over the UK. I am glad to see the government confirm the jurisdiction of the Court will end, and that UK courts will be fully independent, no longer having to refer cases up to the ECJ.
I believe the government also have to reassure people that this agreement will not prevent our country signing new trade agreements with nations outside the EU.
Overall, I have some reservations about whether the deal is fully compatible with the Brexit commitments in the Conservative manifesto on which I was elected, and the objectives outlined by the Prime Minister in the Lancaster House speech. These committed the government to leaving the EU Single Market and Customs Union. If the United Kingdom ends up locked into the customs arrangement with the EU as a result of the Irish backstop, I am concerned we have not fulfilled our commitment to leave the Customs Union.
Against these concerns, I am encouraged by the fact that the government’s deal provides for an orderly exit from the EU. In particular, it secures the way to a special UK trade agreement with the EU based on free trade and zero tariffs, something many people said would be impossible to achieve. Retaining easy access to EU markets in this way is vital for our prosperity.
It also delivers on other headline Brexit requirements, taking us out of the political framework of the EU, regaining full control of our borders and fisheries, taking us out of the Common Agricultural Policy, and ensuring no more large annual payments to Brussels.
I think it is important to remember that a lot of the detail of our future relationship with Europe will be settled in the next stage of talks during the transitional period between our exit in March next year and December 2020. The final overall outcome of Brexit actually depends on what our government does in this next stage. We therefore have the opportunity to negotiate new trade and customs arrangements that ensure we can make independent economic decisions separate from the EU, and during this period we will get to decide what balance we want our country to strike between a close access to the EU market, and a greater openness to new trade deals with the wider world.
I feel it would be useful for the government to be clearer on how they could use the fact we will be making our financial settlement with the EU over several years during this period as leverage if the European side is unreasonable, for instance over agreeing a fair trade agreement, or trying to keep us trapped in EU customs rules through the backstop. We could ultimately use the option of simply withholding the payment of these monies the EU so badly needs, ensuring we have some strong cards to play if negotiations become difficult.
It is important to remember that if Parliament rejects the government’s deal, we could end up in a situation where the options are either ‘no deal’, or no Brexit, both of which I do not think would be good for our country. I think no deal could mean an economic correction, which could cost jobs and increase the cost of living. Even the most optimistic predictions for ‘no deal’ accept the value of sterling would take a hit, which would mean inflation and prices would rise as our currency could buy less abroad, inevitably hitting household budgets as goods became more expensive. Even more positive economic analyses also suggest we would lose a percentage point of economic growth. While I am confident we could get over this effects in a couple of years, I think it is reasonable to ask if this is a gamble worth taking.
The failure of the deal could also start a drift towards remaining in the EU, as there is no majority in Parliament for a more complete break with Europe than that advocated by the government, perhaps via attempts to call a second referendum. This would mean annulling the result of the 2016 referendum, which was held on the explicit promise that the government would respect and enact the result. As you may recall, before the referendum every UK household was sent a government leaflet saying ‘this is your decision, the government will implement what you decide’. I think not to honour this promise would be widely seen as undemocratic and dishonest. This commitment to enact the referendum result was also reaffirmed at last year’s general election, when over 80% of voters backed parties committed to upholding the 2016 result.
I do not support a second referendum, which I feel would be fruitless and divisive. We could then face calls for a third or fourth referendum if a segment of the electorate remained unreconciled to the result, and this would just generate more uncertainty and division.
I want to assure all York Outer residents that I am considering how to vote very carefully, and weighing up all the relevant factors. I am considering all the points of view that have been shared with me, and am interested to hear from people who have yet to contact me. This is not a simple decision, and there are no easy answers, but I would like residents to know I am continuing to think and to listen, so that I make sure my final decision is in the best interests of our city, and our country.