The current political turmoil and constitutional crisis has so many twists and turns that it makes House of Cards look pedestrian.
Of course the real issue comes down to what happens when – rather than if – the proposed deal is voted down on tomorrow, 11th December (or even dropped).
Here there is a clear gap opening up between media reports and hard legal reality – what the actual effects are of the political manoeuvring of Dominic Grieve, Sir Keir Starmer and their merry conniving bands. There have been desperate media reports that ‘no deal’ is off the table, when it is actually remains the ‘default position’ as Andrea Leadsom told Radio 4 just last week.
Let’s assume Conservative MPs think there is enough turkey on Christmas menus not to be part of the required two-thirds majority needed to vote for a General Election, and that the EU have indeed ruled out any major renegotiation.
The bottom line is that the various options being desperately pushed by those who want ‘anything but a true Brexit’ are just not viable. There is:
- ‘Norway Plus’ – even worse that the slavish EEA, which adds back membership of the customs union, thereby killing all future UK trade deals, and with no control of immigration, no say over EU laws, and large payments;
- A ‘Second Referendum’ – with its totally confused offer: ‘tell us if this final 2,000-page deal is better than staying in the EU when we’ve already left. Oh, and by the way you will have to join the euro and lose the rebate’. Pointless too in that Leave is predicted to win again; or
- Extending Article 50 to allow more muddle time – which will either mess up the EU by landing the Brexit issue right in the middle of European Parliament elections in May or mess up all the groups, chairmanships and procedures of the European Parliament in the farcical situation of British MEPs being elected for a few months.
But all such amendments to the motion are not legally binding anyway – they can only be advisory. They might bring political pressure, but they do not have legal effect. As the Commons Chief Clerk, Sir David Natzler, confirmed: whatever MPs vote on by way of motion “has no statutory significance”, as they do not constitute “a vote on whether to accept or reject no deal.” That requires new legislation. The actual law – in the EU Withdrawal Act – states clearly that we will leave on 29th March 2019.
Given that reality, and bearing in mind how rash it is to try to indicate a way forward in this maelstrom, this is what I propose now as the best next steps:
1) Assuming the vote fails on 11th December, or is put off, I believe the Government should make a statement immediately saying that preparations for a ‘no deal’ option – better called a ‘Clean Global Brexit’ or ‘World Trade Deal’ – will go into SuperDrive. Sorry, but defer Christmas!
Where there’s a will, there’s a way: in the Falklands War, the Ministry of Defence managed to put together a task force of 100 ships in just 48 hours. We can manage this process, and thousands of civil servants have been on the case for years. Like the Millennium Bug, claims of Armageddon and planes falling out the sky gave way to nothing happening on 1st January 2000.
2) The UK should then go back to Brussels, not to renegotiate this current draft Withdrawal Agreement, but to agree a pared-down, bare bones emergency series of bilateral agreements covering only the essential ‘must haves’: aviation, customs, citizens’ rights, medical products, European Investment Bank assets etc. The beauty of this is that if one agreement falls, then the others are not lost. The DUP’s Arlene Foster has proposed bilaterals. These bilaterals could be agreed by Westminster and the EU by March, and would any sane MP or MEP dare to seek to derail any such vital preparation in these circumstances? They should hold all further Westminster business, such as the Immigration and Trade bills, that may be hijacked.
3) The UK should also formally advise the EU that it wishes to accept the offer made not once but three times by the EU: that of a SuperCanada/CETA+++ Free Trade Agreement with 100% tariff- and quota-free access to the EU Single Market plus comprehensive services (first offered by Donald Tusk on 7th March), and which we could start negotiating from the day we become a ‘third country’ – 30th March next year.
We can build on the three pages on trade in the more appealing draft Political Declaration, but drop all notion of a ‘Single Customs Territory’ – the UK must firmly leave the EU’s Customs Union and Single Market. We are in a unique position to negotiate an FTA fast – as all our laws are convergent at present and we don’t have to spend years wrangling over which tariffs to keep or get rid of, as others do.
4) Having initiated moves to agree a SuperCanada FTA, the UK and EU can now jointly notify the World Trade Organisation (WTO) that in the light of working to agree a comprehensive FTA and future Political Declaration, we are invoking Article 24 of GATT (the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade).
This is important because Article 24 allows us to maintain the same tariff-free access to both our markets without breaching WTO discriminatory Most Favoured Nation (MFN) laws. Article 24 allows “an interim agreement leading to a formation of a free trade area” and allows “a reasonable length of time” – up to 10 years – to negotiate it.
So, we whilst we will need customs declarations under WTO, we will be able to maintain the same zero tariffs as now with the EU – the free trade area will remain. EU exporters to the UK would save £13 billion in tariffs (and our consumers too) and UK exporters £5 billion. We will also be free to lower tariffs for other trading partners as we wish – something specifically excluded in the Backstop. Nor should there be any Non-Tariff Barriers (NTBs) either under WTO agreements.
We can also enact the WTO’s Trade Facilitation Agreement which recently came into force that obliges the EU27 to adopt measures like authorised economic operators (trusted traders), which are part of the solution for the Northern Ireland border issue along with electronic declarations and remote checks away from the border.
5) As a sign of Britain’s free trade intent, we can now immediately initiate full and unfettered negotiations with international trade partners such as the USA, China and India, without these deals being torpedoed by being tied into the EU Customs Union, Chequers or the Backstop. The picture would be clear at last, and not be delayed by unending years of transition. Similarly, we will seek to build on current work to ‘roll over’ the benefits and obligations of existing EU trade deals such as that with South Korea.
6) So, on 30th March the UK can be cleanly out of the European Union and back into the world, with an acceptable and managed World Trade Deal option in place, free of years more wrangling over transitional arrangements, cost demands, alternative models and heightened business uncertainty – and with negotiations underway for a closer SuperCanada trade deal. We can reallocate much of the £39 billion payment lost by the EU to compensate UK-based companies legally in terms of R&D, regional aid and transport infrastructure – helping to stimulate our economy.
Like an operation we know needs doing, let us get on with the surgery quickly and speed up the recovery process.
This is indeed a Clean Global Brexit. Brexit could be over in a few months, rather than drag on for years on end.
And, for all our sakes – both Remainer and Brexiteer – let’s just get it done.
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