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The Withdrawal Agreement is fine
30 Jun, 2019

It’s Brexit that is no good

London4Europe Committee member and former HM Treasury senior civil servant Michael Romberg argues that the Remain movement’s criticism of the Withdrawal Agreement has been overdone. There does have to be a Brexit plan. The Withdrawal Agreement regulates the exit well enough. The problem with Theresa May’s deal is that the Political Declaration is not based on a consensus of what the country wants from Brexit. Our issue is that we dislike Brexit. So let’s have a referendum.

 

The 2016 Mandate

Leave won. So the Government was right to negotiate Brexit. But in the 2016 campaign, Leave had no plan. All possible Brexits were on the table. We can however implement only one of them. We need to know whether the bare majority that was the sum of the votes for each possible Brexit turns into a majority for the one Brexit we will actually have – especially as it bears so little resemblance to the Brexits that were promised.

Hence the need for a referendum. That referendum needs to have not just Remain as an option but also one or more Brexit plans.

 

The Withdrawal Agreement

It’s good enough at what it does: regulating the exit. We pay our bills; UK/EU citizens who are currently exercising freedom of movement are largely looked after (though their lobby groups would like more protections); the EU and UK will go a long way towards avoiding friction on the Irish border; there is a transition period; 500+ pages of other stuff.

Jeremy Corbyn used to ally himself with the DUP and ERG by opposing the Irish backstop, but Labour seems to have dropped its objection. Now Labour have no substantive disagreement over it - though for purely party political reasons Labour continue to object to it and voted against it in Parliament in March 2019 even when it was presented without the political declaration.

The main opponents of the Withdrawal Agreement are the ERG - and the Party Leadership contenders hoping for their support - who fear that the temporary UK customs union in the backstop will become permanent and thus hamper their Global Britain fantasies; and the DUP who have the opposite fear that the UK customs union will prove to be temporary and that there will be a border in the Irish Sea.

I don’t want Brexit at all. But if there is to be a Brexit, there needs to be a Withdrawal Agreement. This one is good enough. Being for Remain is a reason for rejecting Brexit, but not for rejecting the Withdrawal Agreement as a basis for a Brexit plan. 

 

The Political Declaration

There should have been a real-world fact-based open debate leading to a consensus view of what we wanted from Brexit. But we have never had that. So the political declaration is vacuous. What Brexit means will be determined by whoever is in Government during the next phase of negotiations choosing from the options that the EU has already made available.

The recent talks between the parties have been fatuous. As Sarah Wollaston MP puts it “If a customs union is the answer, we’re asking the wrong question”. Nobody cares about a customs union. On its own it makes a real difference only to low-grade manufacturing products sold with no services component and not subject to much regulatory oversight.

There are only these future relationships:

  • In the EU;
  • Outside the political co-operation and rule-making structures but operating within the systems that enhance the life chances of individuals and bring people closer together as well as supporting prosperity: the single market with freedom of movement. So that is Norway/ EEA. But because of the Irish border it needs to be Norway Plus (ie with a customs union and possibly membership of the CAP and some more add-ons);
  • Distant from the EU, with some sort of amicable free trading agreement and a patchwork of additional agreements on policing and security (and the Irish backstop from the Withdrawal Agreement);
  • Hostile to the EU (No-deal).

We could put these options for the future relationship to the public in a referendum in order to set the direction. But I fear that it is more likely that if there are options they will be No-Deal (with unrealistic promises of how free and wonderful that will be) and Theresa May’s successor's and Jeremy Corbyn’s deals with renewed claims that both offer a lot of have-your-cake-and-eat-it and that they are very very different from each other and from Theresa May's deal when really they are just the same.

Whatever. Who cares. Remain is the only answer that matters.

 

Conclusion

Whatever the conclusion of the Conservative Party leadership campaign it is likely that the new Prime Minister will bring back from Brussels the same Withdrawal Agreement and a minimally changed Political Declaration. Rafael Behr makes this clear in the Guardian

When that comes before Parliament, MPs should vote to accept the proposal – with an amendment demanding a referendum with the option to Remain.

Accepting the proposal would not mean that MPs like it. Just that they recognise that the Withdrawal Agreement exists, has been negotiated with the EU, and is a Brexit.

The bit that matters is the referendum.

 

  

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