It’s time to get on and leave the EU. Great efforts have been made to be prepared. Britain stands ready. In the 2016 referendum, 17.4 million people – including two-thirds of my constituents in Dover and Deal – voted to Leave. Action has been taken to make sure we are as ready as we can be – deal or no deal. The Article 50 extension the Prime Minister is planning to seek at the European Council today is not merely a mistake. For decades to come, it will be seen as a tragic failure of leadership.
The voters knew that leaving the EU would not be easy and that there would be challenges and risks of disruption. They knew that because, during the 2016 EU referendum, that was all the Remain campaign talked about. We were warned of gridlock on the roads to the Channel ports. We were told the Calais Jungle would be moved to Dover. We were even warned of a terrible economic calamity in which millions would lose their jobs and house prices would collapse. Yet despite all these dire warnings, the people still voted to Leave.
Now, two years after notice was served under Article 50, we are as ready to leave as we will ever be. So we should get on with it – not raise a white flag and beg for an Article 50 extension.
Because we are ready at the Dover frontline. Of course, the merchants of Project Fear seek to frighten people with visions of gridlock in Kent and months of disruption if we leave without a deal. Indeed the warnings become ever more fearsome. We will run out of medicines. Aeroplanes won’t not take off. Pets will die in quarantine. Food will run out. We are even told even our water will become poisonous and undrinkable.
With warnings like this, one is left wondering, how on earth did we ever manage these past thousand years? Of course they are nonsense too. First, aircraft flights are subject to global conventions, not an EU one. Second, the poisoned water story has been debunked by Environment Secretary Michael Gove. The medicine panic has been rubbished by the Health Secretary Matt Hancock.
It’s the same at the Channel ports too. They account for around a third of the UK’s entire trade in goods. There are around 60 sailings to the port of Dover from Dunkirk and Calais every day. The cross-Channel trading route is a huge success story. More than £120 billion of trade moves through Dover’s docks alone.
So will there be gridlock on the roads to our ports? The truth is that it is in everyone’s interests – France’s as well as ours – that traffic continues to flow. The EU sells us £95 billion more in goods than we sell to them. And, despite all the Brexit uncertainty, our economy is growing faster than France’s and Germany’s. Small wonder that Xavier Bertrand, the boss of the Calais region, says they have no intention of holding things up there. As does the chief of the Port of Calais itself. Moreover, Brussels has decreed that the EU Transit Convention will continue to apply. This means that there is no need for any queues at Dover or Calais as few searches or hold-ups would take place. Under the Transit Convention, checks would be undertaken at the place of destination.
Indeed, even if the Transit Convention turned out not to be enough, extra steps have been taken beyond that to make sure we stand ready. A plan has been put to the Department for Transport to ensure that the town of Dover is free of gridlock and that both of Kent’s motorways can be kept open and free-flowing. Strategies for lorry parking on- and off-road have been developed. Extra funds have been agreed for the police so they can devote whatever resources may be required in the event of difficulties.
The Government does not need to seek an Article 50 extension. It can be seen that great efforts have been made to ensure we are ready to leave without a deal. There might be bumps in the road – some of those bumps could even be pretty jarring. Yet we would get through it.
We could have been in a far stronger position of course. Imagine how much better things would be if the Cabinet had put as much effort into preparing for no deal as they have in preparing for talks with the Labour Party to agree a customs union deal, that breaches the 2017 Conservative election manifesto. Imagine they had put as much effort into taking early action as has been put into warning about the possible consequences of inaction. The choice faced by our country would be between no deal and a much better deal – with both options looking more favourable than they do today.
It’s also important to remember that if we leave without a deal we would have extra cash available to help us – some £39 billion – because there is no legal duty to pay more than a fraction of this money to the EU in the absence of an agreement. £39 billion would go a long way to smooth the path of any challenges we may meet.
Britain stood ready in 2016 to make the call for our nation’s independent future. Britain stands ready now. It’s time our Government matched the political courage of the British people. We have discussed Europe for long enough. Today we should not be seeking an Article 50 extension. We should be leaving, deal or no deal.
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This week I spoke to the MP for Dover and Deal, Charlie Elphicke, to discuss what Theresa May should do now after her Withdrawal Agreement suffered a crushing defeat in the House of Commons.
Pulling the vote on its Withdrawal Agreement at the eleventh hour, the Government acknowledged what we already knew: the Backstop proposal is completely unacceptable and the Agreement stood no chance of winning the support of Parliament.
But rather than simply seeking “reassurances” on this issue – which, though a central objective, is but one of many – the Government needs to consider more boldly the possible alternative arrangements which might command Parliament’s support. The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, offered just such an alternative in March: a wide-ranging, zero-tariff trade agreement.
That deal foundered on the question of the Northern Ireland border, but existing techniques and processes can resolve this.
This view is endorsed by the professional customs body, CLECAT. They recommend we acknowledge the present state of customs technology, using procedures based on intelligence and risk management available in current EU law. These are currently used to manage the border which already exists – for VAT, tax, currency, excise and security – and can form the foundation for continued seamless trade.
From my October meeting with Michel Barnier and senior officials, I know that a willingness exists on the EU side to explore these possibilities more fully. The meeting also confirmed that Tusk’s offer is still on the table.
Rather than cling hopelessly to the Withdrawal Agreement, the Government must return to that offer. By resolving the border question with existing techniques, we can immediately start negotiating an optimal, wide-ranging Free Trade Agreement. I have already presented the Government with a Trade Facilitation Chapter and new Border Protocol to catalyse this process.
In parallel, we must intensify our preparations for trading on WTO terms. This is no cause for alarm, and those doubting this should look to the UK’s booming exports – up by nearly £100bn since before the referendum. The latest ONS figures put exports to non-EU countries at £342bn, compared to exports to EU countries of £274bn.
Much of that boom is through expansion into new markets. Since 1998, UK goods exports to non-EU countries have grown 16 times faster than its exports to the EU.
Yet scaremongering has clouded our perception of WTO rules. We are told that just-in-time supply chains will be unable to continue across customs borders. But in reality the operation of these chains is as dependent upon non-EU goods as on those from the EU. 21% of UK automotive manufacturers’ bought-in supply chain comes from outside the EU – compared to 36% from the EU and 43% from the UK – yet the customs procedures required for that sizeable proportion do not pose an insurmountable problem.
We are told that even minor customs delays will cause unprecedented queues on the M20 and economic disaster. But Operation Stack – limiting access to the Channel Tunnel and the Port of Dover – was activated for seven months in total between 1998 and 2015, without any of the “catastrophes” now imagined.
Responding to these Project Fear claims, we must always ask: why? Why would a rules-based organisation like the EU suddenly start behaving illegally, to the detriment of its people and in defiance of international agreements? As Xavier Bertrand, President of the Hauts-de-France region, has said in dismissing fears of major disruption between Dover and Calais: “Who could believe such a thing? We have to do everything to guarantee fluidity.”
It is true that the EU has trade deals with around 70 countries, which the UK will have to novate. This process has already begun and no country has signalled an unwillingness to co-operate. But remember that many of these agreements are very small. Switzerland alone accounts for half of UK exports to these 70 countries and it, Norway, Turkey and South Korea account for over 75%. Renegotiating a small number of agreements to cover the vast majority of this trade should not be a prohibitive task.
Though not an optimal arrangement, there is thus nothing to fear from WTO rules. Its 164 members represent 98% of world trade. We must be ready to trade on those terms to smooth the transition and demonstrate that we are serious.
That way, we shall be negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with the EU on sure foundations. Realistically, of course, a full agreement will not be reached by March, but this need not pose a problem. So long as progress has been made towards an agreement by then, the EU and the UK can jointly notify the WTO as soon as possible after our exit date of our intent to negotiate an FTA. Under Article XXIV of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, after notification of a sufficiently detailed FTA with an appropriate plan and schedule, we could maintain zero tariffs and no quantitative restrictions for a “reasonable length of time” (exceeding “10 years only in exceptional cases”) without violating the bar on discriminating against other nations under WTO rules.
So, rather than the Withdrawal Agreement’s choice of a transition period ending in “20XX” or a potentially permanent and definitely intolerable backstop, this proposal would provide stability and clarity for the time-limited negotiating period, delivering a zero-tariff, mutually beneficial trade agreement. That would surely command a majority in Parliament. That is the alternative. That is the way ahead.
This is an extended version of an article originally which appeared in the Daily Telegraph
It is often claimed that a no-deal Brexit would cause chaos at UK ports, with long delays at critical bottlenecks such as Dover and motorways turned into vast lorry parks. Indeed, we are told that any weakening of our ties with the EU would inevitably disrupt supplies of time-sensitive goods, such as fresh foods and medicines, and cripple businesses that rely on complicated cross-border supply chains. Fortunately, all these warnings have more than a dash of ‘Project Fear’.
Let’s start, though, with the element of truth. There are some potentially valid concerns about the non-tariff barriers (NTBs) that would be erected if the UK exits in March 2019 without a deal. These include logistical barriers, such as delays caused by physical customs and regulatory checks, and additional administrative hurdles, including the need to comply with ‘rules of origin’ and new licensing requirements for vehicles and drivers.
Most attention has focused on Dover, which handles 17% of all UK trade in goods worldwide. According to evidence compiled by the House of Commons library, Dover processes up to 10,000 incoming and outgoing freight vehicles a day. Currently, 99% of these originate in the EU and are processed in around two minutes, but checks on non-EU trucks typically take 20 minutes. The UK Freight Transport Association has estimated that an additional two-minute delay, on average, could cause a 17-mile queue on both sides of the Channel.
These risks obviously need to be taken seriously. Indeed, the Government is already beefing up contingency plans to keep the M20 flowing in the event of any future problems at Dover, and recommending that suppliers add to precautionary stocks of critical goods, including medicines. Car makers have also suggested that they might reschedule planned maintenance shutdowns to coincide with the period of maximum risk.
Nonetheless, fears that ‘no deal’ would result in substantial disruption at ports (or Eurotunnel) are exaggerated. The key point is that they assume a significant proportion of lorries crossing the Channel would be subject straightaway to the same checks as those from non-EU countries. This is very unlikely, for three reasons.
The first is legal. It has been argued (notably by Economists for Free Trade) that new UK-EU NTBs would be unnecessary, and even illegal under WTO rules, given that exports from both sides will still be made to the same standards immediately after the UK’s departure from the EU. Others have countered that some additional checks would still be required, or else the parties would be in breach of the WTO’s Most Favoured Nation principle. But there is at least broad agreement that checks could be limited. There is certainly no legal requirement to inspect every vehicle, or to carry out every check at the border itself. It is also not as if there are currently no checks at all.
The second is economic. Even French officials have stressed that it would be in their country’s own economic interests to minimise any additional delays. In particular, they have dismissed fears of a Calais ‘go-slow‘ and suggested that as few as 1% of UK lorries would be subject to a physical check (my own crude calculation is that an additional two-minute delay, on average, would require at least 10% of UK lorries to be subject to a 20-minute check).
The third reason is practical, and may well be decisive. Put simply, neither the UK nor the EU has the physical infrastructure, or enough officials, to check every vehicle anyway, or even a significant proportion. In this respect at least, the lack of preparedness could actually be a blessing in disguise.
A more pragmatic approach could also help solve other problems. For example, in the absence of any alternative arrangements, UK haulage companies would no longer be able to operate in EU countries under existing EU rules. This is much the same as the problem facing the aviation industry: if no mitigating action is taken, ‘lorries cannot be driven’, in the same way that ‘planes won’t fly’.
However, the EU has already made a reciprocal offer to the UK in respect of air traffic rights and the validity of aviation safety certificates in the event of ‘no deal’. The EU has continued to take a tough line on road transport, but an important precedent has been set. A similar solution could presumably be found if existing rules on road transport would significantly disrupt trade from which both parties derive large economic benefits.
What’s more, any initial disruption should be short-lived. For example, border delays could be reduced in future by the sort of ‘maximum facilitation’ (MaxFac) proposals that many have already suggested as a means of reducing the costs of customs clearance. The recent parliamentary testimony from customs experts Hans Maessen and Lars Karlsson should be required reading here (and for those who still believe membership of a customs union is the only way to avoid a hard border in Ireland).
Crucially, too, any problems created by a ‘no deal’ in March 2019 do not have to be permanent. Leaving on WTO terms could simply be an alternative stepping stone to a comprehensive free trade agreement that would keep any additional frictions to a minimum, rather than the standstill ‘transition period’ and Irish backstop proposed in the current Withdrawal Agreement.
Of course, I’m not suggesting we should dismiss the concerns of UK businesses entirely. Leaving the EU in March without a deal would clearly create a lot of challenges. But there are also many good reasons why even the initial disruption at ports should be much less than feared.
In 2016 the greatest democratic event in this country’s history took place. 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU. They wanted us to become a strong, independent trading nation once again – a country unafraid of standing on its own two feet. That is why we’ve got to stop allowing ourselves to be bullied by our EU counterparts and start believing in Britain.
It’s only by accepting that we’re strong enough to walk away from the negotiating table – and thoroughly preparing to do so – that we will secure a trade deal with the EU that is good for our consumers and businesses.
We’ve heard some ridiculous suggestions from France recently. Apparently it will grind the Port of Calais to a halt unless we hand over £39 billion of taxpayers’ money, even if we don’t finalise any deal at all.
There are around 60 sailings to my constituency port of Dover from Dunkirk and Calais every day. The cross-Channel trading route is a huge success story. More than £120 billion of trade moves through Dover’s docks every year and when you add Eurotunnel to the mix, the Channel Ports account for about a third of the UK’s trade in goods.
Clearly the French and the Europeans want to keep this flowing after Brexit day next year. Indeed, a desire for any other outcome would be irrational economic self-harm. EU nations sell twice as much to us as we do to them, so any extra tariffs or traffic slowdowns would hit French farmers and German car-makers twice as hard.
Yet the public continue to be spoon-fed doom and gloom about border chaos, food shortages, price hikes, gridlocked motorways and even civil unrest from within this country – the latest manifestation of Project Fear. These vacuous threats from across the Channel represent a serving of Projet Peur 3.
To find the source, look no further than the Élysée Palace in Paris. President Macron and the EU want to bully us into accepting a bad deal. They think Britain’s greatest days are behind us and that we must be punished for daring to leave.
They are wrong about the British people. We know what it takes to stand up to bullies.
Fortunately, Xavier Bertrand – the forward-thinking boss of the Calais and Dunkirk region – takes the opposite view to President Macron. M. Bertrand knows the Port of Dover is an economic powerhouse that benefits the people of Calais and Kent. He wants to do the right thing, keep trade flowing and look after the people he serves.
But while calling out empty threats from across the Channel, we’ve got to strengthen our hand in the negotiations as well. We need to turbocharge preparations to leave the EU on World Trade terms and get serious about preparing to strike a World Trade deal. Unfortunately this week’s Budget did no such thing.
The truth is this work should have started the day after the 2016 referendum. I have long argued we need to be ready on day one for every eventuality – deal or no deal. No-deal preparations seem to have been held up by Whitehall officials who never believed Brexit would happen, and certainly don’t want it to now.
This week was crunch time and the Chancellor had the perfect opportunity in his Budget to prepare, ambitiously and positively, for a no-deal outcome. Instead he chose to set aside an extra £500 million – a drop in the ocean in terms of both government spending terms and what is actually needed.
He should be announcing an expansion of off-road lorry parking and committing to significant investment in our borders. The M2/A2 to Dover needs to be upgraded and widened. And we must start modernising our border systems, joining the likes of Singapore as world leaders in frictionless trade and security.
I state again that 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU – well over three million more than have ever voted for a political party in an election. They all believed in creating a better country for our children and grandchildren, where everyone has the chance to get on and succeed, where we are free to run our own nation and economy in a way that works best for us – not Brussels. Remainers are right when they say Brexit is the most important challenge our nation has faced since the Second World War. But they are wrong when they ignore its exciting opportunities, and dismiss what we must do to take them.
We need our leaders to start demonstrating a full commitment to making it work – no matter what happens in the negotiations. By continuing to talk our country down, allowing us to be bullied by idle threats from abroad and failing to prepare for any eventuality, all we’ll achieve for our country is a bad deal.
A bad deal would shackle us forever. EU rules are bad for hard-working taxpayers, as they allow giant corporations to dodge taxes. EU regulations are bad for business, as they protect those firms from honest competition. EU tariffs are bad for consumers, as they increase the cost of food and clothing. And all of it is bad for the rest of the world, as we cut off developing nations, as well as allies who not so long ago fought beside us for our freedom.
That’s why it is so important to agree a deal with the EU that works for us. And if we can’t agree one, we will walk away. Many countries are waiting in the wings, ready to strike free trade deals with their old friends. We cannot let the opportunity slip.
We must believe in Britain. We are strong enough to go our own way. Future generations won’t forgive us if we become so desperate to secure a trade deal with the EU that we do so at the expense of Brexit’s great opportunities.
Let’s stop being defeatist. Let’s become a truly free-trading, global nation again. We have had some great days. But if we hold firm, the greatest yet lie ahead.
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Will Theresa May's plan for a 'Stormont veto' over the Irish border backstop help win support for her Brexit deal?Analysis: The PM is desperate to convince the DUP to back her deal, but may be making promises that cannot be kept, says John Rentoul
- Britain might be facing challenging questions, but its political system is working just as it should