Yet again, Brexit produced unprecedented scenes in Parliament yesterday. Using a little known provision of parliamentary procedure, the Government cancelled the planned MPs’ vote on the draft EU Withdrawal Agreement.
This latest turn of events will leave many people outside the political bubble feeling bemused and worried about yet another twist in the Brexit saga.
Even more disappointing than the cancellation of the vote was the announcement on what the Government plans to do next.
I have been calling on the Prime Minister to seek better terms from the EU. But in her statement in Parliament, it became clear that Mrs May is not going to ask for the major rewrite of the withdrawal deal which is needed. It seems that all she will seek is ‘reassurance’ on the so-called ‘backstop’. What form that reassurance will take is not clear, but it seems unlikely that it would involve altering even one word of the 585 pages of the agreement.
The draft Withdrawal Agreement is not the national interest and does not respect the vote to Leave. Even if the Government is successful in achieving some kind of side letter or declaration on matters relating to the backstop, that is not enough to make the deal acceptable.
I recognise the need for compromise as we settle a new relationship with our European neighbours. I strongly believe we need to listen to views of people on all sides, whichever way they voted in the referendum. But right across the spectrum of views on Brexit, there are many who believe that this draft agreement is not the right one for our country.
A legal obligation to pay in the region of £38 billion to the EU without any certainty on our future trading relationship will significantly undermine our negotiating position. We would be giving up a key advantage in the negotiations for little in return.
The so-called ‘backstop’ would do even greater harm. It is not acceptable for the United Kingdom to become a satellite of EU, locked permanently into their regulatory and customs orbit, without a vote or a voice or even an exit door. Even the EU’s trade agreement with tiny Moldova has a break clause allowing them to make a unilateral decision to leave.
Northern Ireland would have an even greater proportion of its laws determined by institutions in which they have no say than would be the case in the rest of the UK. Even listing the titles of those laws takes over 60 pages of the draft agreement.
As the Attorney General’s legal advice confirmed, Northern Ireland would be required to treat Great Britain as a third country in relation to goods coming across the Irish Sea. According to Martin Howe QC, the backstop is arguably inconsistent with the 1800 Articles of the Acts of Union, a core part of our constitution. These state that:
“in all treaties with any foreign power, his Majesty’s subjects of Ireland shall have the same privileges and be on the same footing as his Majesty’s subjects of Great Britain”.
The Articles also stipulate that all prohibitions on the export of products from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, or vice versa, should cease from 1st January 1801.
Even if the backstop were to be entirely removed (and this is not something the Government has said it will ask for), there would still be unacceptable flaws in the draft agreement. In particular, the significant continuing role for the European Court of Justice would prevent us from restoring democratic control over making our laws. Yet when I appealed to the Prime Minister in Parliament yesterday to try to get the role of the ECJ scaled back, she declined to do so.
If Parliament ratifies this treaty, it will be legally binding and it will apply regardless of any warm words or declarations that might be secured from EU leaders over the next few days.
More people voted to Leave in June 2016 than have voted for anything else ever in the history of British democracy. This was a legitimate expression of the natural desire to be an independent self-governing democracy, the basis on which most countries around the world operate their systems of government.
EU membership means vesting supreme law-making power in people we do not elect and cannot remove, people who in this negotiation process have shown clearly that they do not have our best interests at heart and are prepared to try to inflict punishment on us for the democratic choice we have made.
Brexit is an issue which has divided the country. We need to try find a way to bridge the divisions which the referendum has exposed. But I do not believe that the draft Withdrawal Agreement is the right way forward for my constituency or my country.
I will continue to press the Government to seek changes from the EU to remedy the deal’s fundamental flaws. If the EU refuse. then we must be prepared to walk away without a deal and step up preparation for a clean break Brexit on 29th March on WTO terms.