No self-respecting country would accept this deal. MPs must vote it down
The deal that will come before Parliament this week represents a devastating failure of British statecraft. It would keep most of the costs of EU membership while junking most of the benefits. It would require Britain to cede part of its territory to foreign jurisdiction. It would allow Brussels to control our commerce with non-EU states even after we leave.
MPs who believe in parliamentary sovereignty should vote against it. MPs who believe in the Union should vote against it. MPs who believe in free trade should vote against it. MPs who believe that there is such a thing as national honour, and who recognise that we are being treated in a calculatedly vindictive way, should toss it out with especial force.
They should do so even if the alternative is a delay to Brexit. They should do so, indeed, even though a such a delay might allow the Mandelsons and Blairs to step up their campaign for a second referendum. A postponement, undesirable as it is, is less damaging than accepting permanently disadvantageous terms.
As Lord King, the former Bank of England Governor, put it: “There are arguments for remaining in the EU and arguments for leaving. But there is no case whatever for giving up the benefits of remaining without obtaining the benefits of leaving.”
We keep being told that unreasonable Eurosceptics are their own worst enemies and that, if Brexit is now thwarted, it will somehow be their fault. But it is hard to think of a more unreasonable proposition than that all that matters is coming back with something that can technically be termed Brexit. Even after 30 months, Leavers are still being subtly patronised. It is assumed that the dim-witted oafs cannot possibly have weighed the costs and benefits before voting, and that all that the government needs to do is to show them something that has BREXIT written on it in bright, shiny letters.
In fact, Leave voters understand that some forms of Brexit are better than others. They understand, too, that some are so bad that they would be worse than either staying or leaving. The EU, of course, has understood this from the start. As Michel Barnier put it in 2016, “I’ll have done my job if, in the end, the exit terms are so bad that the British would rather stay in the EU”. Such an attitude on the part of Brussels was to be expected. The readiness of our negotiators to go along with it was not.
Far from being uncompromising, the supposed hardliners in the ERG have accepted a series of concessions, including a continuing role for the European Court of Justice after we leave, 21 months of non-voting membership, an absurdly one-sided arbitration mechanism and a £39 billion financial settlement that no international arbitrator would uphold. They have accepted all these things despite the conspicuous absence of the trade deal that was supposed to be the quid pro quo.
Eurosceptic Tories have dug in on only one point, namely the backstop, and with good reason. No self-respecting country would allow the regulatory annexation of part of its territory in exchange for... well, for nothing at all, really, since the promised trade deal hasn’t materialised. At least EU membership, unlike the backstop, comes with an exit mechanism. We are thus being asked to replace a temporary arrangement with a permanent one. That alone is reason enough to refuse.
If the EU wanted, it could easily fix the problem, either by inserting a standard break clause into the backstop, or by allowing that, as with other international treaties, either party could withdraw after a year’s notice or, indeed, by setting a time limit. Its refusal to do so is telling. The EU wants to keep Britain in the customs union forever, a captive market for its exporters.
The President of the Irish Farmers’ Association, Joe Healy, spelt it out with a bluntness that EU leaders generally avoid: “It is very important that the UK in any deal wouldn’t be able to go off and do their own trade deals with other countries,” he said this week. The backstop had to be permanent, because EU exporters “couldn’t compete” with global producers.
Faced with such intransigence, how did we respond? Did we prepare for a no-deal outcome while leaving the offer of a deal sansbackstop on the table? No. In a perfect demonstration of what it has got wrong since the talks began, the government set out, not to change the substance of the deal, but to give MPs an excuse to back down. The formula our negotiators have settled on, I understand from numerous Brussels sources, is a declaration to the effect that Britain could pull out of the backstop if talks on our future status had irretrievably broken down, or if one side were negotiating in bad faith.
This is meaningless, as everyone involved is aware. We know perfectly well what the EU sees as the way out of the backstop: a permanent customs union. It can continue forever to negotiate “in good faith” for that outcome, batting away any alternatives. The customs union will be permanent in practice; but the Attorney General will be able to claim that it is theoretically finite.
Since no one will actually believe that such a clause makes any difference, what is the purpose of the whole exercise? Well, government strategists believe that the DUP is looking for an excuse to climb down and that, if it does so, the ERG will follow – or, at least, enough Eurosceptics will follow to allow the deal to be pushed through with some rebel Labour votes.
Why should the DUP back down? After all, the party has been clear throughout that it has only one red line, namely that Northern Ireland should not be treated differently from Great Britain. The backstop erases that red line in a quite aggressive way. It has been reported that the EU’s Anglophobic chief official, Martin Selmayr, calls Northern Ireland the “price” Britain must pay for Brexit. Whether or not he spoke those exact words, the reality is clear: Ulster will have its economy largely regulated from Brussels, where it will have no representation – though, naturally, Dublin is offering it vicarious representation.
Could any Ulster Unionist accept such a settlement? Don’t underestimate the canny, materialistic aspect of Unionism. Some businesses and agricultural interests in the Province see the backstop as an investment opportunity. They believe that firms might relocate to Northern Ireland in order to have privileged access to both British and European markets.
Would the DUP, of all parties, put such calculations above the Union? It’s hard to say. But don’t make the common English mistake of thinking that Ulstermen live more in the seventeenth century than the twenty-first. Unionism has always been a partly financial proposition. I sometimes tease my Ulster friends by asking them if they can tell me how the 1912 Ulster Covenant, the founding charter of Unionism, begins. You’d think it would start with a declaration of loyalty to the Crown, or perhaps with a commitment to religious liberty. You’d be wrong. The opening words are “Being convinced in our consciences that Home Rule would be disastrous to the material well-being of Ulster…”
The government hopes that the DUP, under pressure from Northern Irish corporates, will back down, and that Tory Eurosceptics will then grit their teeth and accept the deal rather than risk a delay. And so it may come to pass. But is a terrible Brexit in 2019 really worse than a successful one in 2020? Isn’t there at least an argument for replacing 21 months of non-voting membership, when we’d have no veto and so be in the weakest possible position to negotiate a final settlement, with a new deal whereby we moved straight to the final settlement, with no need for a transition?
To be clear, I’d prefer to leave on time. But if the choice is between deferral and surrender there is surely a case for, as we Old Brussels Hands say, reculer pour mieux sauter. A new prime minister could start again with a better approach. It is hard, after all, to imagine a worse approach than that we have pursued since October 2016. If you had told me before the referendum that we’d end up quitting the single market but keeping the customs union – the worst of all worlds – I’d have laughed.
It’s worth stressing, though, that rejecting the deal might not lead to a deferral. There are several parliamentary hoops that need to be jumped to secure an extension, and it takes just one EU state to veto it.
At the very moment that Parliament is having a nervous breakdown about no-deal, the contours of a no-deal settlement are coming into view, with stand-still agreements or other technical arrangements on aviation, financial services, the Irish energy grid, road haulage and so on. Parliament’s terror of leaving without the EU’s permission – which what no deal really means – has never looked more misplaced.
One thing, at any rate, ought to be beyond dispute. Britain should not sign a permanent treaty under duress. The Withdrawal Agreement has been proposed in a vengeful spirit, and the biggest surprise in Brussels has been Theresa May’s readiness to accept it.
Eurocrats have understandably concluded that we have no bottom line, that the British are negotiating, as Herman Van Rompuy, the former Commission President, put it this week, “with their backs against the wall, the abyss in front of their eyes and a knife on their throat. We are nearly there.”
There was a time when that attitude would have been enough to convince us politely to decline the EU’s terms and forge our own way. Are we still the nation we used to be?