George Eustice is MP for Camborne, Redruth & Hayle, and is a former Minister of State at DEFRA.
First they tell you we should try to block it. Next they say that since its happening anyway, we should try to change it. Eventually, they say that while we didn’t get many changes, the Commission did give us something, so it would probably be bad etiquette to vote against it now, and we should therefore support it.
For anyone who has been a Minister in a Department like Defra, this is the familiar pattern of advice that comes from policy officials as a succession of EU dossiers meander their way through technical working groups. The existence of Qualified Majority Voting creates a particular dynamic and fosters a particular culture that leads to comfortable defeat. No one need take a hard decision to get up and walk out of the room. No one need worry that an agreement might never be reached. QMV means that everyone can have their say, and probably have a few crumbs to brandish back home, while the EU ploughs on relentlessly with its own agenda.
The reason our negotiations to leave the EU have got in to trouble is that we have played to their rules, and we have used the familiar tactics of being an EU member when we needed to adopt totally different ones. We have approached the negotiations as if we were in a safe space that would allow compromise and comfortable defeat, but defeat this time round will not be comfortable at all. We have given the impression that we believe we can only do what the EU grants us permission to do. Instead, we needed to behave like an independent country. Rather than asking ourselves how we might accommodate EU concerns and demands, we should have been asking ourselves how we could face down their demands.
If the Prime Minister’s deal does not pass next week, we must have the courage to take our freedom first and talk afterwards. We must not take No Deal off the table; instead, we should embrace No Deal. The EU has stated in terms that they will not even discuss a future partnership until after we have left. As always, this is dressed up as some kind of legal problem, but it’s deliberate. So let’s take them at face value and, if necessary, just head for the exit.
No Deal is a bit of a misnomer anyway. It doesn’t mean No Deal for evermore. What it really means is No Deal yet. In effect, it would morph into an informal nine month transition period, during which talks could continue and we could conclude a deal. We already know that there is no border infrastructure in Ireland, and we can reassure our Irish friends that the UK will definitely not be putting any up.
If we leave without a deal, we should give a unilateral undertaking to dynamically align all our regulations with the EU for a short period of nine months. If we do that, then the EU has the internal justification it seeks not to bother much with Border Inspection Posts and other infrastructure, while the talks continue. We have already decided what we will do. We will have a light touch approach to border checks, judging that if we trusted goods from the EU on the day before we left there is no reason not to the day after we have left. We will have a unilateral tariff schedule in the short term that stabilises prices and allows tariff-free trade to continue in most product lines. We will recognise everything from protected food names to fertiliser labels for a short transitional period.
The civil service has done a sterling job preparing for no deal. We are in the process of laying hundreds of Statutory Instruments to make retained EU law operable. There are a few that have been de-prioritised and will not be done by the end of March but, when I went through the small number that were being left behind, it was pretty clear that they were a collection of inconsequential rules that were either not particularly relevant to the UK anyway or were where alternative powers already existed.
In all of our no deal planning, the difference between a reasonable best case scenario and a reasonable worst case scenario really comes down to one thing: would the EU behave in a sensible and pragmatic way or will they behave recklessly and irresponsibly? If the former, there would be some bumps along the way, but things would essentially work out fine for both parties. If its the latter, things would indeed be much harder, but at least we would know where we stand. The only way to find out for sure is to do it and see.
Within Whitehall, fears that the EU would behave recklessly and irresponsibly in a No Deal scenario have receded in recent weeks. The body language from the EU has been very much signalling a willingness to have an informal understanding over a nine month transition period. For instance, they have already asked us whether we might dynamically align our regulations on food for a period of nine months and we have agreed, provided we are listed as a third country from day one to enable exports to continue. We have also learnt more about what is planned at Calais. The French have devised a plan that when lorries board in Dover they could be given colour coded windscreen posters to denote what sort of goods they are carrying so that things can flow more easily at the other end. Border inspection of foods probably won’t actually take place at Calais at all. Instead, a site has been identified six miles away from Calais to ensure there is no disruption to the port should queues develop.
There had been some concerns about whether a restriction on transport permits for lorries might affect the ability of British haulage companies to operate in the EU affecting logistics, but the latest indication is that there is likely to be flexibility with little change to current arrangements for a period of, you guessed it, nine months.
About a decade ago, I met Brigadier Ed Butler, who was the British Commander in Afghanistan at the time. I always remember him saying that British soldiers have all the training its possible to have, but that no amount of training can ever fully prepare a 19 year old for their first deployment in a theatre of war. It is only once they have done it that they become fully ready for the next mission. We are as ready as we are ever likely to be to leave the EU without an agreement. The only question is whether Parliament has what it takes to make the decision.