Today, the House of Commons is voting to decide whether or not to approve the agreement the Government has reached with the European Union in relation to the terms of our withdrawal from it. The Agreement also includes a “Political Declaration” on the future relationship between the UK and the EU which it is hoped will subsequently be negotiated, during the “Transition” period of 20 months which will follow our departure. The Political Declaration is not, however, a treaty binding on either party to it.
You will not be surprised to learn that I have received a large number of communications from constituents about the deal and the vote. There is no evidence from them of any majority view on the best course to be followed. Some have written in support of the deal and others to denounce it, irrespective of their past views on Brexit. I am grateful to all who have taken the time and trouble to write. The issue is of the utmost importance to the future of our country.
Prime Minister has undoubtedly done her best in difficult circumstances to negotiate an agreement that she sees as both respecting the Referendum result and which will allow for a transition over several years to an end state that might allow us to continue to enjoy some level of frictionless trade in goods with the EU, whilst being able to make, at the same time, trade deals with third countries and have better control of immigration by being outside the Single Market in goods and services. She has also sought to provide reassurance that the UK will honour its obligations to the Republic of Ireland under the Good Friday Agreement by agreeing a “backstop”. This requires us to maintain an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and would come into operation if it is not possible in the twenty months of transition, or in the two year extension of transition thereafter, to devise an alternative system to maintain an open border. The backstop would operate to allow the UK to stay in what is in reality a customs union with the EU for the foreseeable future. But at the same time it would force Northern Ireland to remain in both the customs territory of the EU and be bound by the regulations that underpin its single market in goods. Should the UK ever wish to diverge from the EU in any area of trade in goods, the consequence would be to detach Northern Ireland from the UK as an economic unit and require regulatory and other checks on goods flowing between the rest of the UK and Northern Ireland. Most importantly the wording of the terms of the backstop make clear that the UK would be locked into it and could never leave it unilaterally. It could only be ended by agreement with the EU. An arbitration system is offered to cover disagreement between the UK and the EU as to whether or not the conditions exist for the backstop to be terminated.
In my view the existence of the backstop on these terms has to be rejected, as incompatible with principles of our national sovereignty. Whereas the Good Friday Agreement is a bilateral treaty between the UK and Ireland that was approved by referendums north and south of the border, the backstop turns the EU into the guarantor of our observance of those parts of it relating to the border. This is the reverse of “recovering” sovereignty and is constitutionally unacceptable. It endangers the integrity of our country.
Moreover, it is important to understand that it is impossible to say that the agreement will deliver the intended benefits. Far from concluding Brexit, the date of our departure on the 29th March will usher in a prolonged period of intense negotiation. There is little doubt that the Future Trade Agreement negotiations will be used by some EU countries such as Spain to try to extract bilateral concessions on issues like Gibraltar. Any future trade agreement needs unanimity of all twenty seven member states. For those who wish to bring the debate on Brexit to an end so that we can focus on other matters, the deal on offer cannot meet that hope. Indeed one of the matters that concern me particularly is that there are some of my colleagues at Westminster who clearly see this agreement as merely a device to ensure departure on the 29th March and intend to try to change or dismantle its terms afterwards. This reinforces my view that it is unlikely to resolve Brexit at all. We are still at the start of a process not at its end.
As I argued in and after the 2016 referendum, I believe that the decision of the UK to leave the EU is a historic mistake. For all its undoubted flaws it has helped deliver economic growth and stability for us and our near neighbourhood over the period of our participation in it. The proclaimed advantages of leaving are speculative and the evidence of the damage which leaving is causing us is now present, including a substantial reduction in inward investment on which our recent economic growth has depended. Some of that damage may diminish with time if there is certainty to our future relationship. But the political turmoil which Brexit has unleashed does not make me optimistic about this.
But I am also very mindful that the result of the 2016 referendum cannot be ignored. If the public wish to have Brexit on the terms offered by the Prime Minister then they are entitled to get it irrespective of my own personal views. Similarly if there were alternative forms of Brexit that were certain and legally and constitutionally deliverable by Parliament they must merit consideration. Equally however, I do not think that we can close our mind to the possibility that the public could have changed its opinion on the desirability of Brexit altogether. We are now over two and a half years from the 2016 Referendum and the realities we are facing now bear little relationship to the debates that were taking place then. I entirely reject the view that a referendum result cannot be revisited if circumstances change. That is the opposite of democracy.
This is why I believe that a further referendum to consult the public on the choices before us is desirable. It presupposes no single outcome and offers the best chance of resolving a prolonged national crisis. I will therefore be working at Westminster with like minded colleagues to try to promote it. But I will also endeavour to co-operate with all colleagues who support and promote rational plans for resolving the current parliamentary deadlock, in the event of the Government”s current deal being rejected. Should an attempt be made by the Labour Party to bring down the Government on a motion of No Confidence following any defeat of the Prime Minister’s deal, I will, of course, support the Prime Minister.
Dominic Grieve QC MP