Bim Afolami is MP for Hitchin and Harpenden.
I voted Remain. I represent a fairly strong Remain seat in Hertfordshire. I voted for the Prime Minister’s deal three times, and implored my colleagues to do the same. I don’t believe that the backstop is as bad a problem as many have pointed out.
So why am I joining the Prosperity UK Alternative Arrangements Commission, to try and work through the problem of how to ensure that – whatever the Brexit outcome – there is no physical infrastructure at the Irish border? Three words: responsibility, responsibility, responsibility. As a person privileged enough to be a Member of Parliament, I have a responsibility to do everything I can to fix the chaos, and find a practical solution to our problems.
Any MP with a pulse knows that the public is more than fed up with the collective indecision and incompetence that Parliament has shown over Brexit. However, in the midst of chaos and calamity, the paths out of this mess are easily discernible. Parliament has made it clear that it will not countenance a No Deal outcome because it regards it to be a damaging outcome that would weaken Britain’s negotiating position with the EU rather than strengthening it. Lest I provoke any howls of rage here by saying this, I state it as a piece of objective political reality. Face facts. Parliament has shown that it will do practically anything to stop that outcome.
This means that there remain only two ways of resolving the impasse, unless we want to repeat the humiliating spectacle of the Prime Minister visiting Brussels, like a modern day Pope Gregory on his knees at Canossa, begging for another long extension. The first is a second referendum. I do not want to rehearse the arguments for or against such a course, as they are well known. Personally, although such a course would resolve the impasse temporarily, I believe it would be injurious to the body politic as a whole.
The second way to resolve the impasse is to get the Withdrawal Agreement passed. How can the agreement be passed, seeing as it was rejected a third time by 58 votes (with 34 Conservative MPs voting against)? The EU will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. Would you? From their perspective, they have agreed a treaty with a sovereign government, and re-opening it to amend or change the backstop would allow the 27 other EU countries to lobby to change different sections of the agreement (such as fishing or Gibraltar) that they are not wholly comfortable with. This is the only way out of the EU, warts and all.
The key to passing the Withdrawal Agreement lies in trying to ensure that the Alternative Arrangements – in other words, working technical and administrative solutions – are shown to be practically achievable to such a robust degree that the EU accepts them. If the EU accepts these Alternative Arrangements, then the backstop will become defunct as it will never come into force. This is what the Commission, chaired by the highly capable and effective Greg Hands and Nicky Morgan, is trying to achieve. Remember, the only positive motion that has passed the House of Commons on Brexit is the Brady amendment – which called for “the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”.
The Commission will include representatives from across the political spectrum. It has engaged a technical panel comprising border and customs experts, practitioners and lawyers with detailed knowledge of Ireland as well as the EU, UK and international trade regulations in order to create draft processes and procedures to fulfil these goals. In addition, the Commission will engage with established technology providers in order to develop a comprehensive set of solutions and timelines for review.
Members of the technical panel include: Lars Karlsson, former Director for Capacity Building of the World Customs Organization (WCO) and international customs expert; Hans Maessen, international customs expert; Shanker Singham, international trade expert; and representatives from the UK Association for International Trade (ACITA), CLECAT, the association of European customs brokers and many corporates that are users of Customs and need borders to work properly.
For any readers who are sceptical about the chances of the EU accepting these Alternative Arrangements, I understand. I was sceptical, too. But I have come to this conclusion: Over the medium/long term, if we want to have an independent trade policy (which we should) at the same time as maintaining an invisible border in Ireland (as we must), the only way to do so is to agree a set of Alternative Arrangements with the EU. We have to engage with them, and the Irish government, properly. They are going to remain our trading partners. We have to show them, in concrete terms, how an invisible border can be maintained without need for the backstop.
Such a course does not prejudge our eventual trading relationship. Over the next couple of years we will still continue to have fascinating arguments about the merits and demerits of a Canada-style relationship versus a Norway model, and everything in between. But if we want the option of an independent trading policy, which must surely be the aim for the fifth biggest economy in the world with a place on the UN Security Council, we are going to have to finalise alternative arrangements with the EU.
On the domestic politics of this, the DUP and the 28 members of the ERG who still refuse to back the deal have the backstop as their biggest concern about the Withdrawal Agreement. Coming to a developed and robust sense of how Alternative Arrangements will work, and to have them accepted as a potential way through by the UK Government and the European Commission will help them come behind the agreement and allow the Withdrawal Bill to pass through the Commons. The Alternative Arrangements Commission might just be a key part in helping the Government and Parliament come to a solution. If there is a chance we can find a path through this, we have to try.