Having had the chance to look at the draft Withdrawal Agreement reached with the EU, I’ve attended further briefings on the more contentious points, discussed it with colleagues from both sides of the debate surrounding it, and I want to set out the position I have come to.
Throughout the negotiation process, I have always believed that the result of the referendum must be respected. I write as someone who voted to remain, and as someone who has always been conscious of the fact that a majority of my constituents voted to remain, while a significant minority of over 40% voted to leave.
However, the referendum presented voters with an unambiguous choice to remain in the EU or to leave and the consequences of either decision were conveyed to the electorate extensively, including the then Government sending a document to every household in the UK on the benefits of staying in the EU. The House of Commons voted by 544 to 53 for the referendum to take place and ultimately, 17.4 million voters supported the UK leaving the EU. MPs from across the political spectrum then voted by 494 to 122 in favour of invoking Article 50 and in doing so, to uphold the result of the referendum.
The proposed Withdrawal Agreement enables a time-limited implementation period to follow our formal departure from the EU in March next year, giving both the UK and the EU access to each other's markets on current terms. Although we will have to follow the same regulations for a limited period, a Joint Committee will enable us to raise objections to new rules introduced during this time so that our interests are protected.
The implementation period will provide Governments, businesses and people on both sides of the Channel with the time to put in place new arrangements, such as infrastructure, as the details of a trade agreement become clearer. The UK will be able to negotiate, sign and ratify free trade agreements with countries from around the world during the implementation period which will come into force after it has concluded.
I entirely understand why many are concerned at the prospect of a prolonged implementation period. Therefore, I want to be clear that if this was to happen, it would only be for a very limited period of time. The Prime Minister has indicated that she could not support extending the period beyond June 2022. Similarly, the European Commission have proposed December 2022 as the maximum extent of any extension to the implementation period. In my view, both parties must aim to have all agreements and border issues resolved before 2020.
However, there are certain circumstances where an extension to the period would be in both the UK’s and the EU’s interests. For example, if the future relationship was in the final stages of negotiation in December 2020, a short extension would be preferable to British businesses having to adjust to a new trading relationship, whether it be WTO rules or the so-called backstop, for a very short period of time, only to then have to adjust to the future relationship a few months later.
Regarding the so-called ‘backstop’ contained within the Withdrawal Agreement, I want to be clear that this does not amount to long-term membership of the EU’s Customs Union. I believe that leaving the EU means leaving the customs union because it is one of the main and essential elements of the Union. Furthermore, I was re-elected in 2017 on a manifesto which clearly stated that a Conservative Government would leave the Customs Union. The UK must be free to make its own trade deals after its withdrawal from the EU and remaining a member of the Customs Union would mean we could not make our own trade deals.
This agreement simply gets us out of the EU in March 2019 while giving people and businesses the certainty they need. In response to concerns that we could end up trapped in a permanent ‘transition’, Article 50 itself states that the Withdrawal Agreement is not a legal basis for a future trade deal. While the political declaration issued alongside the Withdrawal Agreement seeks to build on our relationship during the transition period, it is also explicit in saying that the UK will regain its own independent trade policy.
The EU and UK are legally bound to work with “best endeavours” to get the future relationship in place by the 31st December 2020. The legal interpretation of a "best endeavours" obligation is that it places upon the party the onus of making every reasonable effort to achieve the desired objective. Therefore, in my view, it is likely that the backstop will not be invoked. Furthermore, it is argued that the EU would not want the UK to stay in the backstop any longer than necessary as they believe it would give the UK an unfair competitive advantage. The UK can call for a review of the backstop at any time and the matter would go to independent arbitration. However, I would like to reiterate that it is unlikely the backstop will be invoked and that even then, both the UK and the EU would be seeking to leave the backstop as soon as possible.
Regarding Northern Ireland, the backstop ensures that Northern Ireland cannot and will not be left in the Customs Union without the rest of the UK, thus ensuring that there is no tariff barrier between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The backstop would require Northern Ireland to stay aligned to some rules of the EU single market but the Prime Minister has said that if the backstop was used, the UK government could make a unilateral commitment not to have regulatory divergence with Northern Ireland and so reducing the necessity for new checks and controls.
I would like to emphasise that any checks on Northern Ireland goods would always be carried out by UK authorities and for agricultural products, it is simply a case of increasing existing checks at ports and airports. For example, live animals coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain are already subject to checks and controls.
Furthermore, the agreement states that "nothing in this protocol prevents the United Kingdom from ensuring unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom's internal market." Indeed, products being made only for the UK market would not need to go through an EU approval process. They would follow the approvals and certifications processes they do today, through the same UK bodies. Northern Irish businesses selling products in both the EU & the UK would need an EU approval but that approval will also be valid throughout the rest of the UK. That means NI businesses selling in both the EU and the rest of the UK will not have to go through two separate approvals processes.
It is for these reasons that after much consideration I have decided to support the draft Withdrawal Agreement. In my view it respects the result of the referendum by ensuring that the free movement of people is replaced by a fair system which creates parity for prospective immigrants from both the EU and the rest of the world, in addition to ending vast annual payments from the UK to the EU, freeing the UK from the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy and ensuring that the UK can leave the Customs Union.
I support the draft Withdrawal Agreement, which in my view respects the result of the referendum by ensuring that the free movement of people is replaced by a fair system which creates parity for prospective immigrants from both the EU and the rest of the world, in addition to ending vast annual payments from the UK to the EU, freeing the UK from the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy and ensuring that the UK can leave the Customs Union. In my view, and perhaps as importantly, this agreement has the potential to unite both those who voted to remain and those who voted to leave. Indeed, one of the reasons that I am not in favour of a second referendum is precisely because some of those who voted to leave would not respect the legitimacy of a second referendum when they were promised by politicians from across the political spectrum that a leave vote in the referendum of 2016 would be respected and implemented.
Similarly I do not believe that leaving the EU without a deal in March is a position which the people and the businesses of Cheadle, or the country as a whole, would wish for. There is a clear majority of voters who want the UK and the EU to have the forward looking partnership of which the Prime Minister has often spoken, whether they supported remain or leave. It is clear that ahead of the scheduled vote in December, there was not a parliamentary majority in support of the Withdrawal Agreement and indeed, I appreciate many of the concerns raised by my parliamentary colleagues. The Prime Minister has therefore obtained further assurances with regards to certain aspects of the agreement from our European partners, and I will be supporting the agreement when Parliament votes on it in January.
I understand that some people in Cheadle, as well as some colleagues in the House of Commons, want to reject a deal in the hope that it forces either a ‘No Deal’ Brexit, or a second referendum and the UK remaining in the EU. Both of these cannot be right at the same time. I am firm in my belief that after the journey our country has been on over the past few years, to intentionally cause chaos now in the hope that it will produce one’s preferred outcome would be irresponsible.
I’m backing our country to succeed, I’m backing the Prime Minister, and I’m backing this agreement to take us out of the European Union into a more global future.