Owen Paterson is a former Environment Secretary and former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. He is MP for Shropshire North. He is Chairman of UK2020.
The EU question has always been about sovereignty. It is about who governs the United Kingdom and how. Parliament deliberately put the answer to this in the hands of the British people by passing the EU Referendum Act in 2015. In 2016, the people gave their answer. They wished, via democratically-elected Members of Parliament, to govern themselves.
The Withdrawal Agreement categorically fails to deliver that result. Despite repeatedly ruling out membership of the Customs Union, the Prime Minister’s proposed “single customs territory” locks the UK into it in all but name. The UK would be tied to EU rules on critical policy issues, with the European Court of Justice retaining the right to issue “binding rulings” on the interpretation of such rules and sanction the UK for non-compliance.
The Agreement is not even compatible with the EU (Withdrawal) Act passed earlier this year. This Act repeals the European Communities Act 1972 (ECA) entirely from March 29 of this year. Yet under the Prime Minister’s proposed Withdrawal Agreement, a version of the ECA will remain in place throughout the lengthy transition period.
The supine nature of the Withdrawals Agreement’s negotiation is fully revealed in its treatment of Northern Ireland. The Backstop would keep Northern Ireland in the Customs Union and Single Market, creating a new political entity called “UK(NI)”. Northern Ireland’s elected politicians would have no say over significant areas of this new entity’s policy (ironically, unlike those in Dublin); Northern Ireland’s constitutional status would be fundamentally altered in clear breach of the Belfast Agreement’s Principle of Consent, the requirement to consult the Northern Ireland Assembly and even the Acts of Union 1800. With no unilateral right to end the arrangement, the UK could continue indefinitely as a permanent rule-taker, with no say as to how its rules are made – while paying £39 billion for the privilege.
None of these failures arise under World Trade Organisation terms. The WTO has already confirmed that “nothing in WTO rules . . . forces anyone to put up border posts”, so there would be no “hard border”. The jurisdiction of the ECJ would end and we would save ourselves £39 billion. The UK would be free to make its own laws, to be interpreted in our own courts. We would take our independent seat on the WTO to work for free trade with allies across the world.
Perhaps the real reason for the Establishment hysteria surrounding a No Deal Brexit under WTO rules is that we actually would be leaving. The other options now being floated – extending Article 50, a second referendum, or the subjugation demanded by the Withdrawal Agreement – are designed to hold the UK in the EU’s orbit in the hope that it may be sucked back in. These options would completely fail to honour the biggest democratic verdict ever delivered in British history.
The optimal Brexit outcome remains a wide-ranging, zero-tariff Free Trade Agreement as offered repeatedly by Donald Tusk. Such a deal can still be negotiated, but not by the end of March. Having wasted so much time on the Withdrawal Agreement, leaving on WTO terms is now the only way to break free fully and build a more prosperous, independent future.
This article is adapted from a new Economists for Free Trade report: ‘No Deal is the Best Deal for Britain