Despite her Salzburg mauling, and Labour’s continued Brexit jumble, the Prime Minister remains adrift, clinging to her Chequers Agreement. I strongly advise her to jump ship into the ‘Canada +’ free trade life raft, says John Baron MP.
Since the declaration of Article 50 in March last year, the clock has been ticking on our departure from the European Union. What that exit looks like, and the terms of our future relationship with the EU, have remained up for grabs, and will be further debated when Parliament returns after the party conference season. For the time being at least, despite her mauling in Salzburg, the Prime Minister is sticking to her guns in the form of the Chequers Agreement. I would strongly advise she instead adopt a ‘Canada +’ free trade agreement.
As regular readers will be aware, I believe that the Chequers Agreement suffers from some significant shortcomings. In the first instance, the ‘Common Rule Book’ would hinder the UK signing free trade agreements with countries outside the EU, by obliging imports from these countries to keep to these rules. These rules have been a factor as to why the EU has such a poor track record at securing trade deals. This would also entail the UK becoming a ‘rule taker’, as we will lose influence over EU decision-making when we formally leave the organisation.
Finally, I am not sure how different a ‘Mobility Framework’ will be from ‘Freedom of Movement’, meaning that the UK may not be able to introduce a fair and controlled immigration system which no longer discriminates against the rest of the world outside the EU.
As the Prime Minister has rightly said on many occasions, including after her return from the Salzburg summit, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. Yet ‘no deal’ is a misnomer in the sense that World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules are there for us to fall back on if we can not secure an agreement before our exit day. Many countries use these rules to trade easily and profitably with countries outside the EU, and it should be no different for Britain.
Indeed, we already trade successfully with the majority of the world’s economies on WTO terms, including China, India, Brazil and the US. Economists for Free Trade have already produced an interesting report looking at the WTO option, and have concluded that it is a viable way forward for the UK whilst fully respecting the result of the 2016 referendum and providing a platform from which a fully-fledged free trade agreement could be negotiated and signed.
Despite this, there is little doubt that a free trade agreement with the EU which came into effect at the end of the implementation period would be the best and preferred option. This is the arrangement put forward by the Prime Minister in her speeches at Lancaster House, Mansion House and Florence, and I still hope that we will be able to proceed on this basis. After all, a good deal is in both the interests of the UK and the European Union.
There are welcome reports that some in the Cabinet are coming around to a ‘Canada +++’-style free trade agreement, and this sounds like a good development. The Northern Irish border issue will still have to be resolved, but there are good options out there, such as those explored in the White Paper being drawn up by the Brexit Department before the ‘Chequers Ambush’, as well as those presented by fellow Brexiteers on 12th September, which merit proper consideration.
It should also be remembered that a former Taoiseach and Irish civil servants have suggested this should not be an insurmountable problem. If small companies in my constituency can send goods around the world, crossing many customs régimes, then monitoring goods crossing the Northern Irish border should be doable in this modern day and age. It just requires political will – and some goodwill!
However, if this is not possible to achieve, MPs and Peers will have to make a set of difficult decisions. I am mindful of the fact that the overriding message of the electorate in the 2016 referendum was to leave the EU. By some definitions, Chequers measures up to this, even if I am not comfortable with all of it. But I would urge the Prime Minister to come round to the ‘Canada +’ idea, as this would best respect the wishes of the electorate whilst it should be easier to achieve given we start from a standpoint of total regulatory alignment.
If the Opposition does come out in favour of a second referendum – I strongly oppose a ‘People’s Vote’, having already had two people’s votes in the referendum and the General Election – this would add a wholly new dimension. The Labour Conference has had the benefit of reminding everyone that, if anything, the Conservative Party is more united on Brexit than the Opposition. The following months will be very interesting indeed.