Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe.
I had hoped that MPs would return from Christmas ready to find a compromise – a path through Brexit so we can move on to deciding what sort of future relationship we want. Yet, for now, it seems that Parliamentarians on both sides of the debate have hardened their positions. In a week, the House of Commons will get its first chance to vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal. It’s not perfect, and few people would have started from here. But it is a reasonable deal that takes us right out of the EU and the Single Market. And yet it seems that some Eurosceptic MPs just don’t want to take yes for an answer.
Many of the concerns about the deal centre on the backstop – an arrangement to keep the Irish border open. There are certainly problems with it but there are also advantages. Some people are worried we could end up “trapped” in the backstop. They rightly treat the Prime Minister’s insistence that we won’t get there at all with raised eyebrows. So let’s consider a worst-case scenario. Imagine that we end up in the backstop and there’s no immediate path out.
We could be in the backstop in less than two years’ time, once the standstill transition ends. Or we could apply to extend the transition for a one-off further period of up to two years, meaning that (unless we had agreed a successor relationship) we would be in the backstop by January 2023. It is not the case, as Sir Bill Cash suggested at the weekend, that the transition could be extended until “the end of the century”. Either we enter the backstop, or we agree a new deal.
In the backstop the UK can end free movement. I back an open migration system that welcomes the world’s brightest and best to contribute to our country. But the public want our Parliament to decide who comes here. We could do that from day one of the backstop.
Our gross contributions to the EU are currently over £350 million a week, as the Leave campaign infamously pointed out. Of course the UK gets some of that back. But in the backstop our contributions wouldn’t just be less. They would be zero. No compulsory payments at all, once the divorce bill is settled. So if the UK was parked in the backstop we wouldn’t have to hand over any of our hard-earned money.
As a Eurosceptic, one of the things I most wanted from Brexit was an escape from the political project. I wanted to stop the EU integration ratchet, where the answer to every problem is “more Europe”. The backstop would wind the clock back, taking us towards the trading bloc model of the early 1980s. Eurosceptics used to say that was what they wanted. Now it is offered on a plate, some are saying it’s not good enough.
Our services sector, accounting for 80 per cent of our domestic wealth, will be free from EU control in the backstop. We will be obliged to maintain current European rules on goods and agriculture in Northern Ireland, but could resist damaging new rules. This point has not been well appreciated. In the backstop we would be able to say “non, merci” to new laws from the EU (other than on state aid and competition). We would have to implement amendments and updates in Northern Ireland, but if the EU tried to use these to ‘sneak through’ major changes we could push back.
In the backstop, we could set our own laws on employment rights and environmental protections, as long as a baseline of general principles are maintained. Eurosceptics have long complained about the Habitats directive – we could re-examine that. Imagine in the mid-2020s the French forcing through a new EU directive, mandating a 35-hour week for all and a month’s August holiday. We could go our own way.
I’m not Pollyanna – there are problems with the backstop, especially for Northern Ireland. But in that divided community Brexit was always going to be problematic. You could keep the whole UK in legal lockstep with Ireland and the EU, but that would defeat the point of Brexit. Leave Northern Ireland aligned to the EU, as the rest of the UK diverges, and you upset Unionists. Pull Northern Ireland away from Ireland, and you enrage Nationalists. The only answer is a hybrid solution. The backstop, imperfect as it is, and improved though it should be, does that. No wonder unionist business and farming groups back it. Some see a chance to be a British ‘Hong Kong’, although as Open Europe has pointed out that’s not a very applicable analogy.
The backstop gives the UK zero-tariff trade with the EU, helping protect manufacturing. That means we won’t yet get control over our trade policy – something I would ultimately like. Some fear the EU could exploit the backstop agreement to sell access to our markets without our consent. I’m not convinced. We could push back against new EU trade deals. Anyway, if a country like Australia was about to sign a deal with Brussels, they would also want to sit down with us. The UK isn’t Turkey. We are one of the world’s biggest economies so it’s inevitable a new EU trading partner would want to discuss mutual market access, as well as the bilateral services and investor protection trade deals which it’s possible for the UK to sign while in the backstop. (By the way, in the backstop we could do our own services trade deals with other countries, independently of anything the EU agrees).
The Government has made plenty of errors while negotiating Brexit. Downing Street is appallingly bad at explaining its own policies. At no point did the Prime Minister really level with the public about the compromises necessary to reach agreement with Brussels, which has its own red lines. But it’s also true that critics of this deal are often confused about the details and unrealistic about the alternatives. Too often they seem to fetishise a few details of the problems around the backstop, missing the wood surrounding the trees. They also tend to take the European Commission’s spin at face value – instead they should listen to diplomats from EU member states, who are far from happy with the backstop.
At this point there are only three real options: first, stopping Brexit, probably with a divisive second referendum which could tear our country apart. Second, pushing the UK out the EU with No Deal, which Parliament would surely try to block. We would be fine in the medium-term but the immediate disruption would be profound. Or third, taking the bird in the hand. Back the only deal on the table. Push the Prime Minister to get tweaks to improve the backstop, but accept that we have been members for four and a half decades and getting out won’t be like flicking a switch. And then on 30th March 2019 we can put Groundhog Day arguments about whether we should or shouldn’t leave behind us, and concentrate on what we do with our newfound freedoms.