Iain Mansfield is a former senior civil servant and winner of the Institute of Economic Affairs Brexit prize. He writes in a personal capacity.
The Brexit White Paper does not comprise the Brexit deal I wanted. As with many Leave voters, I find much of it sub-optimal, in particular the ongoing role of the ECJ, the proposed customs arrangements and the abandonment of mutual recognition in favour of continued alignment. All of this cedes more control to Europe than many of us would wish and will make it harder – though not impossible – to realise the benefits that should come from being outside the EU.
But for all its flaws, there are some good parts to it – particularly now that the Government and Parliament have accepted the sensible amendments laid by the European Research Group. We’d have the freedom to determine our own tariffs, to abandon the Common Agricultural and Fisheries Policies and to regain control over our own borders. Services would be outside the EU’s aegis and the authority of the ECJ would be diminished, though not abolished. I’ve heard it described by one MP as ‘going back to the Common Market’ – a summary which captures the spirit of the agreement, and one that speaks strongly to the view that what we signed up to in 1975 had been about trade, not political union. Most tellingly, if this deal had been offered to us five years ago, when leaving the EU seemed an impossible pipe dream, wouldn’t we have leaped at it?
Whilst the Chequers deal is clearly not the best possible Brexit plan, events this week have demonstrated that it may be the best plan that will be supported by a Parliament in which the majority of MPs voted Remain. Whilst I have the highest respect for David Davis and Boris Johnson for standing by their principles, Douglas Carswell offered a sobering thought when he tweeted:
‘I hope that some of the more excitable Eurosceptic backbencher MPs don’t one day look back with regret at turning down a Brexit deal that allows for incremental divergence. Ffs, take the win. You’ve been losing for most of the past 30 years….’
Rejecting the Chequers deal may increase the chance of a good Brexit, but at the price of simultaneously increasing the chance of no Brexit at all. Even were one certain that it’s worse than no deal, is that a risk worth taking? Many individuals whose commitment to Leave cannot be doubted – including Michael Gove, Suella Braverman and Daniel Hannan – consider that, whilst imperfect, it’s still a deal worth delivering on. Whilst they continue to back it as the best deliverable option, we should back their judgement.
Igitur qui desiderat pacem, praeparet bellum
Or, to paraphrase Vegetius, if we would secure the Chequers deal, we must prepare for No Deal. For if we should back the Chequers deal, that is only on condition that it must not be watered down further. And only by immediately, rapidly and publicly accelerating our preparations for No Deal can we demonstrate to Brussels that the Brexit White Paper is our absolute last word on the subject.
For the simple truth is that the European Commission does not know how to genuinely negotiate. I first realised this when I represented the UK’s position in Brussels on the EU’s Economic Partnership Agreements – preferential trade agreements with countries in Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific, devised in part as a solution to the fall-out of the ‘Banana Wars’ trade dispute of the 1990s. For year after year, the Commission’s idea of negotiation was to attend meetings and repeat the same red lines – even though many Member States were pressing, in private and in public, for flexibility. Ten years on, fewer than half of the countries involved have signed up to an EPA, with the majority preferring to remain on the default Generalised System of Preferences.
Europe’s intransigent approach to negotiation can achieve its aims, notably when imposing terms on Greece or when dealing with accession states which genuinely want to join. Such imperious tactics, however, are less effective when dealing with larger nations. They are a key reason why the EU long failed to negotiate trade agreements with any economy larger than South Korea or Canada, whilst the far smaller Switzerland secured trade deals with both China and Japan.
In the Brexit negotiations, the UK has already conceded points. Of course, there will need to be adjustment points of detail, but if we are to successfully bring the EU to the table, we must convince them that the parameters set out in the Brexit White Paper are our final word.
The Dissolution of Czechoslovakia (1993)
Since the referendum itself, Brexiteers have rightly rejected the doom-mongering of Project Fear. However, a more subtle deception has been allowed to gain traction: the myth that separating a nation from an supranational alliance must take years to complete. Even amongst relatively neutral sources, the idea that it will take five to ten years to properly negotiate an exit is regularly presented unchallenged.
It doesn’t have to be that way. The dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993 demonstrates how rapidly a country can be separated – and that involved the division of an entire country, not simply withdrawing from the EU.
Up until 1992, despite growing pressures, the prevailing political direction in Czechoslovakia was for reform, for example by creating a form of federation. However, following the 1992 elections, on 17th July the Slovak Parliament adopted a declaration of independence. The following week, leaders from both sides agreed to dissolution. On 13th November and 25th November, respectively, the Federal Parliament passed Acts determining the distribution of property between the two future nations and then to the dissolution of Czechoslovakia itself. The two countries became independent on 1st January 1993, the whole process taking less than five months.
A few small details were resolved subsequently, but in all meaningful ways the two nations were independent from the beginning of 1993. There was no suggestion that every i must be dotted and every t crossed before separation could occur. What’s more, the separation was completely peaceful and, whatever the initial disruption, the GDP of both countries grew by an annualised rate of over four per cent a year for the next decade. When the will to separate is there, separation can occur remarkably quickly – and a No Deal or minimal deal agreement could be concluded in a similar manner.
The Chequers agreement may represent the best Brexit deal that can be delivered under this Parliament. It is therefore worth backing. Yet, in abandoning so many of its own red lines, the Government has understandably created doubt amongst the Parliamentary Party, the grassroots and the country at large as to whether, in the words of the former Brexit Secretary, “our negotiating approach will not just lead to further demands for concessions.”
There is only one way to avoid this happening – and for the Prime Minister and Dominic Raab to reassure us that the Brexit White Paper is indeed the final word. To secure agreement from the EU for the Chequers agreement, it is essential to accelerate preparations for No Deal – and to not hesitate in pursuing that option, if the Chequers agreement is rejected.