George Eustice is MP for Camborne, Redruth & Hayle, and is a former Minister of State at DEFRA.
The tide is rapidly going out on Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, and it is probably already dead. The EU have said they won’t make any substantive changes, and it is unacceptable to the UK in its current form.
Although the focus has been on the backstop, there are other problems too. The Implementation Period implements nothing and is effectively a state of limbo. As time wears on, the logic for it gets ever weaker.
As early as next spring, ministers would start having to consider whether to exercise an option in July to extend this state of limbo or to resign themselves to the backstop. Even the Prime Minister said she didn’t want to have to exercise either of those options, but its hard to see how such a fate could be avoided.
The Alternative Arrangements Commission, chaired by Greg Hands and Nicky Morgan, last week published an incredibly comprehensive piece of work showing how things could be done in a better way without the need for a backstop. Time will tell whether that unblocks the situation.
However, if it doesn’t then we will have no alternative but to just leave first and talk afterwards. I resigned from the Government earlier this year because I thought it was a mistake to delay our departure. We were far better prepared for “no deal” than some pretended. Personally, I have voted against every extension and voted to embrace no deal at every opportunity presented.
But I have also been far more willing than most to compromise, because many in Parliament are far more nervous of change. We have to try to reach an accommodation with them, because it’s hard to get anything done unless Parliament at least acquiesces to it, as the opportunistic amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill this week demonstrated. So the real problem is not that “no deal” would be catastrophic (it wouldn’t be) but that Parliament would stand in the way.
Boris Johnson has said that we must rule nothing out and keep all options open, and I think he is right. The next Prime Minister has a difficult course to navigate to get us out of the EU by the end of October without the current deal. We will need agility and a willingness to think outside the box. Some have suggested that we could rely on article 24 of GATT as part of a managed “no deal” to keep a stand-still in preferential trade but others, such as Liam Fox, have poured cold water on the idea, claiming you need an agreement for it to work.
The compromise I have advocated is that we rely on our existing treaty rights as a signatory to the EEA and simply rejoin the EFTA pillar, and use that as an exit mechanism.
The EU is obsessed by treaties, and they understand rights where they exist. It would be a faster solution with no need for any implementation period. Relying on existing rights avoids getting stuck in the morass of a protracted EU negotiation. We would be outside the Customs Union with an independent trade policy, but would have a ready-made free trade agreement. We would have full control of agriculture and fisheries, the 1972 European Communities Act would be repealed, and we would be an independent country again.
If we didn’t like the agreement and wanted to step away even further, then we could quit the EEA at any time with just twelve months notice in writing. No need to worry about whether some backstop is time-limited, or has a good-faith clause, or whether we could have a protocol or a codicil. Just give notice in a letter. On virtually every measure the EEA is a superior option to the Withdrawal Agreement that May finally negotiated.
I was not the first to suggest an EEA or EFTA exit mechanism. The late Christopher Booker, who sadly passed away recently, dedicated most of his journalistic career at the Telegraph to campaigning against the monstrosity that is the European Union.
He was uncompromising in believing we should leave, but he was also probably the first to declare that we should use the EEA as an exit mechanism, for tactical reasons, and he did so within weeks of the 2016 referendum result. His prescient argument was that we would be ground down by EU negotiators if we started with a blank sheet of paper. Richard North, another long-standing campaigner with impeccable Brexit credentials also advocated it, as did Dan Hannan MEP, who throughout his career has been one of the most thoughtful but principled campaigners against the EU.
Then from the other side of the political spectrum there is Lord Owen, who campaigned against the euro, campaigned to leave the EU, and has considerable experience of international diplomacy. Too many people on both sides of the argument have been too ready to dismiss the counsel of such long-standing eurosceptics without giving it proper consideration.
On the current debate about the scope of article 24 of GATT, maybe our existing EEA membership is the missing part of the jigsaw? We could leave at the end of October without May’s Withdrawal Agreement but, instead, rely on our existing legal rights under the EEA as a starting point. That then gives us an existing agreement which addresses the Trade Secretary’s legal concerns and enables article 24 of GATT to be relied upon after all.
All tariff rates could then stay the same while we build a new Free Trade Agreement out of the one we already have. We leave on time but in an orderly way, with the consent of Parliament, and in a way that would not fetter our future independence in any way at all.