THE UK has ended up in a national crisis, with an economic ‘cliff edge’ looming over Brexit, largely due to a negative attitude towards the only viable solution – Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement.
Yet, when you actually read the document, it seems to me that there is nothing wrong with it. It is complicated, but it is a complicated problem and we are not being served well by those who suggest there are simple solutions to Brexit.
Exaggeration, negativity and misinformation have been spread about the Agreement, particularly by members of the so-called Conservative ‘European Research Group’ that was headed by Jacob Rees-Mogg before he joined Boris Johnson’s Cabinet.
Right from the word go, the ERG has approached the Agreement with paranoia and hostility. Words like ‘betrayal’ and ‘trap’ crop up frequently in their warped analysis. The ERG rocked the boat so much it brought down Theresa May and we may even see an early end to the Johnson government.
The ERG (and other Eurosceptic hardliners) constantly use hyperbolic language to describe the Agreement. They say it is not Brexit when, in reality, it gets us out of the European Union and gets us off the slippery slope towards an EU superstate. They say we’ll be subject to the European Court of Justice forever when, in fact, we are only required to ‘pay due regard to’ ECJ case law after the implementation period – and we often pay due regard to foreign case law anyway.
We should be looking more positively at the Agreement, which would provide us with a smooth transition towards a new relationship with the EU, where the main issues that led to us wanting to leave are all addressed. Those issues were an end to freedom of movement, to ensure that any new trading rules have to be accepted by our Parliament and the ability to strike new trade deals. The Agreement (and the Future Relationship document) caters for all these issues.
The ERG has a jingoistic dream that we can suddenly be completely independent, and fully autonomous, overnight, as if we’ve never been part of the EU for 40 years. The reality is that complex agreements need to be made to cater for many important issues, including workers’ rights, provisions for ongoing court cases and other issues not resolved after the implementation period.
In order to have access to the proposed Free Trade Area, we will need to co-operate with the EU and ensure we are aligned as closely as possible with EU regulation. This will be done through a joint UK/EU committee. On day one of Brexit, we will be fully compliant, having transferred all EU laws onto our statute books. So initially we’ll trade with the EU on virtually the same basis as before. However, moving forward, we will have the right to diverge; by striking out laws we’ve transferred onto our statute books, or by refusing to implement new rules.
When considering divergence, however, we would need to take into account the disruption that such divergence might cause. Until we had built up substantial trade elsewhere, it would be unwise to diverge substantially from EU laws, but we’d at least have the right to do so.
If we have a ‘cliff edge’, we will risk cutting ourselves off from substantial amounts of trade with the EU, without having secured any compensating new trade with other countries. It will take several years to create satisfactorily the necessary trade agreements with other countries. So, that is why the Agreement provides for a long period of transition. It recognises the need, initially, for a safety net of continued close co-operation with the EU.
Contrast our attitude towards the EU with, for example, America for whom, it would appear, we are prepared to sign a blank cheque in advance to get a deal. We seem to trust the USA more than the EU but, in fact, the USA is also demanding that there’ll have to be a Northern Ireland backstop and, furthermore insists that we won’t be able to tax digital companies properly. Then, consider India, who will demand large concessions on immigration in return for any deal.
After a ‘cliff edge’ exit, we’ll be under pressure to sign deals in haste that we’ll regret at our leisure, and pressure from Irish Americans will almost certainly ensure that we have to have an NI backstop anyway. The Northern Ireland situation, as we all know, is very fragile. There’s a desperate need for stability and it seems to me that continued compliance with EU rules will solve that.
I have always been in favour of Brexit, but only if we can work closely with the EU over the coming decade to ensure there is no ‘cliff edge’, and this can only be achieved by passing the Withdrawal Agreement. If we can’t do that, then we’ve got to revoke Article 50.
Tim Hunter is a Knaresborough town councillor for the Conservative Party. He is writing in a personal capacity.