David Davis is a former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Haltemprice and Howden.
The deal Boris Johnson brought back from Brussels last week looks pretty good on the face of it. It seems to achieve the aim of regaining control of our laws, borders and money promised by Johnson himself in the Leave campaign. When Parliament votes for it this week – as it will – it will bring to an end the eternal wrangling in British politics over our involvement with the European Union. Even Nigel Farage has declared, “The war is over”.
So why are some of us so determined that Parliament should spend a serious period of time reviewing the 1,200 plus pages of the new UK EU treaty? Johnson himself has said that he believes it will stand up to the “scrutiny of the scholiasts of the Star Chamber.” Of course scholiasts are commentators on ancient and classical texts. But this text is neither ancient, nor classical. It is a complex document that will dictate our future, not our past. Indeed it will determine our relationship with the European Union for the rest of our lives.
There is nothing wrong with giving the Prime Minister the authority to sign the treaty, in the same way that Ursula von der Leyen is given that authority by the European Union. In that case, the document then has to go to the European Parliament in the New Year. If it follows its normal procedure, the parliament’s equivalent of a select committee will provide a report to the Parliament, and MEPs will vote on it in their own time.
That is unlikely to be the end, however. Since it is a complex treaty, it is very likely to involve what is known as “mixed competences”, which mean that national parliaments throughout the 27 will need to vote on it too. We should remember that when the (simpler) Canadian free trade treaty went through this approval process, it was held up by the Walloon Parliament. It would be extraordinary if the Walloon Parliament had months to vote on our future, but the Westminster Parliament were constrained to one day.
But this is not simply a question of Parliamentary amour propre. Complex international treaties often generate incredibly important outcomes that are not always foreseen by one or other parties.
This is particularly true with the European Union. Back in the 1990s, the Swiss people rejected the idea of membership of the European Union, despite the enthusiasm of their own establishment. After that there was a tough negotiation between the Swiss government and the EU, which generated over 20 trade treaties. A few years ago, the Swiss people voted in a referendum to restrict migration into Switzerland, including that coming via the EU. The European Commission saw this as an affront to the free movement of people, and threatened to use previously unnoticed guillotine clauses to stop every single treaty. Unsurprisingly, Switzerland gave in to these ruthless hardball tactics: given its dependency on the EU it had little choice.
We do not want find ourselves in an equally difficult bind over some unforeseeable problem at some point in the future. We hope and intend to have a good and friendly relationship with our European cousins. Indeed, one of the great benefits of a deal is avoiding the acrimony that might have accompanied a No Deal outcome.
But we should not be naïve about it. As their handling of Switzerland demonstrated, and in another context, their management of the Greek crisis, when they think their fundamental principles are at stake the European Union is completely ruthless. So we should act accordingly.
This means that detailed wording matters. Take one example that will almost certainly be a bone of contention in the future – namely, the so-called “level playing field”. This argument centres around a European belief that United Kingdom is, or wants to be, a “wild west” of deregulation, determined to undercut and outcompete our European neighbours.
This is of course in defiance of the facts. It ignores the fact that the current balance of physical trade is so heavily slanted in the continental mainland’s favour, to the tune of a hundred billion euros every year. This is no accident.
So, for example, the UK has amongst the highest industrial electricity costs in the EU, because of our commitment to green objectives. As for the future, the UK is the only country actually to legislate for net zero by 2050. On another front the UK has the highest animal welfare standards in Europe: ask any pig farmer.
But the most easily quantified existing disparity is, ironically, in labour law, particularly on wages. The minimum wage in the United Kingdom ranks alongside nations like Germany and France. But most new industrial competition actually comes, directly or indirectly, from the more recent accession countries in the old Eastern Europe, where minimum wage levels are less than half ours. So for example, when the new Jaguar Land Rover plant was built in Slovenia, it benefited from €125 million of state aid, in a country where labour costs are a fraction of what they are in the UK.
When the arbitration panels rule on “level playing field” issues, will the criteria imply maintaining the current disparities in favour of European industry, or will they imply a real level playing field? Or will they evolve between the two? This matters not just because it may influence any judgement on the deal, but also because it should influence the regulatory strategy that will be followed in the future by government and Parliament. If we do not think this through, we may end up in some treaty-driven checkmate position, as the Swiss did recently.
So how this will work will depend upon the detail of the wording of the treaty. And there will be hundreds, if not thousands of similar issues that can only be understood by close analysis of the text. That will take time, and Parliament must do it.
In headline terms, this new treaty is clearly going in the right direction. The negotiating team under David Frost have undoubtedly done a great job. But Parliament has to understand details because they are what will dictate our whole approach to our regulatory relationship with the EU in the future. The success or failure, and the amity or acrimony of that relationship will colour every other aspect of the way we get along with our continental friends and neighbours in the future. Getting that right will require Parliament and government to understand exactly what we are signing up to, which will take more than one day.