If the most recent polling is to be believed, Thursday’s unintended and unwanted European Parliament elections will have been a disaster for the Conservative Party. We may well fail to have a single MEP returned. The Labour vote, too, will have been drastically reduced, as voters abandon the two main parties, principally in favour of one that has existed only for a few weeks.

The reason is obvious. Despite being told it time and again, the UK did not leave the European Union on 29th March. As soon as the Prime Minister opted to extend Article 50 and so necessitate the UK’s participation in these elections, the sense of betrayal – which had been long brewing – overflowed. When Mrs May compounded that sense by opening the door to a second referendum on Tuesday, it erupted. One by one, the 17.4 million people who voted to Leave the European Union had seen each and every promise which had been made to them since the referendum broken.

In 2015, the Conservatives promised that, if elected, we would hold a decisive referendum on the UK’s EU membership. The party was returned to government with more votes and MPs. When the then Foreign Secretary – a certain Philip Hammond – introduced the legislation to the Commons to bring that promise about, he exhorted MPs:

“…to give the British people the final say on our EU membership in an In/Out referendum… The decision about our membership should be taken by the British people, not by Whitehall bureaucrats, certainly not by Brussels Eurocrats; not even by Government Ministers or parliamentarians.”

The Government then spent £9.3 million of taxpayers’ money during the referendum campaign telling every household that: “This is your decision. The Government will implement what you decide.” After the referendum, in which more people voted to Leave than have ever voted for anything in British history, the 2017 Conservative Manifesto pledged that the UK would leave the Single Market, the Customs Union and the jurisdiction of the European Court. Page 36 said that “no deal is better than a bad deal.”

In her fateful “Charing Cross speech” this week, the Prime Minister’s “ten-point” offer starkly laid out the extent to which those promises have been reneged upon. The legally-binding Withdrawal Agreement remains unchanged, as she confirmed to me in the House of Commons this week. That means the Backstop remains, fundamentally altering the constitutional status of Northern Ireland by keeping it permanently locked to EU rules, overseen by the European Court of Justice.

The Prime Minister said that, should the Backstop be triggered, a disparity between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would be resolved by having Great Britain follow EU rules as well – simply multiplying the number of people sharing in the misery. In any case, we would remain aligned to EU rules for goods, severely hampering our ability to forge an independent trade policy. It was an interpretation of Taking Back Control warped beyond all recognition.

Mrs May’s decision that she was not now the person to find a new way forward was, of course, the correct one.

But her departure, and with it that of her Withdrawal Agreement, will not be enough on their own. The radical shifts in voting intention – even in long-held party allegiances – in recent weeks demonstrate that there is an accelerating appetite for genuine political change and realignment. If the Conservatives want to survive, we have to change course, deliver a genuine Brexit as we promised and demonstrate that when we make such totemic promises to the electorate, we will keep our word. We will simply not be listened to on any other issue until the UK leaves the EU and we fully take back control.

Immediate action is required on the part of the incoming Prime Minister. Of chief importance will be returning to Brussels to tell them that the current Withdrawal Agreement is dead and then seeking a wide-ranging, zero-tariff, zero-quota Free Trade Agreement, of the kind offered by Donald Tusk in March last year.

That offer initially foundered on the question of the Northern Ireland border. But the work of the European Research Group, built upon by the Alternative Arrangements Working Group alongside senior European customs professionals, has provided robust solutions to guarantee continued seamless trade based upon existing techniques and administrative processes. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, has expressed confidence that arrangements can be implemented to avoid new border checks. Even Michel Barnier has now confirmed that in any scenario the Belfast Agreement will continue to apply and “there will be no hard border” using our alternative arrangements.

There is, therefore, every reason that the UK and the EU ought to be able to come to a mutually-beneficial trading relationship. If, however, the EU refuses, then the next Prime Minister must be prepared to leave without a deal. The extraordinary success of the Brexit Party is testament to the public enthusiasm for this approach. Indeed, a recent ComRes survey found that two thirds of those expressing an opinion agreed that “if Parliament rejects the Withdrawal Agreement, then Parliament has to accept no deal as a consequence”.

There is nothing to fear from this “Plan B” outcome. First of all, the arrangements for the Northern Ireland border were devised without prejudice to the nature of the trading relationship. They are available and can be effective in any event.

Secondly, “no deal” is a misnomer. What we are really talking about is a WTO deal – leaving the EU without a formal Withdrawal Agreement but instead with a series of pragmatic mini-deals.

The WTO approach has often been criticised on the basis that very few countries trade on “purely” WTO rules. It is true that many micro-agreements exist between countries without a formal trade agreement, but it is important to keep these in perspective.

The EU does not, for example, have a trade agreement with the USA, but 147 side-deals are in place. Of these, most are multilateral agreements such as the Air Transport Agreement (to which the UK is also a party) and only 31 of the bilateral agreements have any relevance to trade.

The EU also has 97 micro-agreements in place with Russia, on which it is currently applying economic sanctions. It is surely ridiculous to suppose that the EU would be unwilling to replace many micro-agreements with the UK.

Indeed, as the former Brexit Minister Chris Heaton-Harris confirmed, unilateral and bilateral preparations for “no deal” are “well advanced”. The European Commission similarly confirmed in March that its preparations for “no deal” have been completed.

Air travel will continue. The EU confirmed in November that it would continue to allow UK airlines to fly over, land in and return from EU airports even if there is no Withdrawal Agreement, provided the UK reciprocates. Baroness Sugg, the then Transport Minister, confirmed this reciprocity in March when she told the House of Lords that: “Measures put forward by the UK and the EU will ensure that flights can continue in any scenario; deal or no deal.”

Medical supplies will arrive. The President of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, Professor Russell Viner, confirmed in a message to 19,000 doctors:

“I have been considerably reassured by governments’ preparations relating to medicines supplies…Governments, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency and the NHS have been working hard behind the scenes… and we believe that our medicine supplies are very largely secured.”

Cross-Channel trade will continue. The continuing Remain campaign has made particularly alarmist claims of a country completely cut off from the rest of the world, but they are nonsense. The Chairman of the Port of Calais, Jean-Marc Puissesseau, has robustly refuted suggestions of disruptions to freight. Xavier Bertrand, President of the Hauts-de-France region, dismissed the scaremongering completely: “Who could believe such a thing? We have to do everything to guarantee fluidity.”

Sensible measures can be straightforwardly implemented in the best interests of both the UK and the EU, mitigating any potential disruption.

Most significantly of all, it is important to remember than “no deal” need not be an end state. Indeed, even without a Withdrawal Agreement, both sides can agree to a transition period maintaining our current zero-tariff, zero-quota arrangements while a new trade deal is negotiated. Under Article XXIV of the WTO’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, this can be achieved by the UK and EU both agreeing to a Free Trade Agreement and notifying the WTO of a sufficiently detailed plan and schedule for it. As David Campbell-Bannerman has pointed out, such an “interim agreement” need be little more than an agreement to continue talks.

The incoming leader has, therefore, a clear remit on how to proceed. One thing is absolutely certain. There can be no further extensions to Article 50. Failure to meet the 29th March deadline has been near catastrophic for the Conservatives. Any further delay would surely prove fatal.

Any new leader must say, completely unequivocally, that we leave on 31st October at the latest, whether or not we have a new deal. We must seek to negotiate a wide-ranging trade agreement, but we must be prepared, if necessary in the interim, to go to WTO terms. We must also correct a significant mis-step by giving absolute clarity that EU citizens resident in the UK will continue to have the right to live and work here in any event.

The new Prime Minister and the new Cabinet will face a difficult task, but one which can be expressed very simply. If it wants to have any hope of bringing back the members and voters it is currently haemorrhaging, and if it wants to have any credible claim to believe in democracy, it must make good on the promises which the outgoing Government has broken. It must repair the trust which the mistakes of its predecessor have so profoundly eroded.

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The Prosperity UK Alternative Arrangements Commission, which launched earlier this week, is a serious attempt to address the complexities of the Irish border and break the Brexit logjam. Co-Chair Nicky Morgan and I have decided to take an entrepreneurial approach to solving the conundrum of the Irish border, and ask the private sector for its help.

Our starting point is to find out what is possible by asking a panel of technical experts to develop credible Alternative Arrangements for the Irish border, which can be delivered in a timely fashion, and without the presence of physical infrastructure at the frontier.

The Commission will be made up of a broad spectrum of MPs and Lords, representing many different views on Brexit. The Commission is agnostic on the preferred future relationship between the UK and EU. Our work will be compatible with virtually all of the EU-UK end states currently under consideration and will ensure that the UK retains full flexibility in its future negotiations with the European Union.

There are three common misconceptions about Brexit which are relevant to the Commission.

The first is that Alternative Arrangements will not be necessary. But in every single scenario bar staying in both the EU Customs Union and the Single Market, for goods and agrifood, alternative arrangements of some kind will be necessary. And if we are in that scenario, we would have no ability to execute an independent trade policy or improve our domestic regulations, taking away all the potential economic gains of Brexit.

It is not well understood that free circulation of goods comes from both the Customs Union (CU) – and the rules of the Single Market. If the UK were a full member of the EU Customs Union, this would only address rules of origin. Checks would still be needed on animals, animal products (including processed food), plants and plant products. Technical regulations and standards that define specific characteristics of a product would also require checks. If the UK was in a CU, not the CU (like Turkey), the UK would need movement certificates for all relevant goods. For these very reasons, a customs union on its own does not solve the Irish border question.

Let us look at some of these potential scenarios:

  • Membership of the EFTA/EEA? We will need to prove origin, and consequently, there will be customs checks.
  • Membership of a Partial Customs Union? We will need movement certificates and there would need to be checks for standards, TBT (Technical Barriers to Trade) and SPS (Sanitary and Phytosanitary) issues.
  • A Customs Union and EEA? We would still need movement certificates and some customs checks.
  • A comprehensive Free Trade Agreement between the UK and the EU? Yes, this will require the complexities of the Irish border to be addressed.
  • But what about leaving on WTO terms, a so-called ‘no deal’ scenario? Leaving the EU without a deal doesn’t absolve us from finding a solution to the Irish border. If anything, it makes it more important.

The second misconception is that there is no majority in Parliament for any Brexit alternative. But as avid BrexitCentral readers will know, the Brady Amendment was the only amendment during the recent Brexit debates to gain a parliamentary majority. Central to the amendment was the need to come to an agreed path on alternative arrangements for the Irish border.

The Alternative Arrangements Commission is – and was designed to be – a broad church. We welcome any parliamentarian who is committed to finding a workable solution to the Irish border, which means the UK can leave the EU.

The third misconception is that Alternative Arrangements for the Irish border would be a hi-tech unicorn, dreamt up by some futurologist in Silicon Valley and which would take years to develop. To that, I say, no, absolutely not. We are seeking solutions based on existing, working technology and processes. There just has not been sufficient practical work done on this by the Government or anyone else. And whilst this lack of work is regrettable, it does no good to look backwards.

The Commission has engaged a Technical Panel comprising border and customs experts, practitioners and lawyers with detailed knowledge of Ireland as well as the EU, UK and international trade regulations in order to create draft processes and procedures to fulfil our goal. In addition, the Commission will engage with established technology providers in order to develop a comprehensive set of solutions and timelines for review.

The Technical Panel will address the most challenging aspects of the Irish border including small traders, tax issues, security and movement of people, trusted trader schemes, rules of origin, financial settlement and issues relating to Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (i.e. treatment of food and plant-based goods).

The Commission is seeking solutions that are both realistic and sustainable and recognises that their formulation and implementation will require the engagement of many stakeholders in the UK, the Republic of Ireland and Europe. Central to the proposals will be a commitment to protecting the Good Friday Agreement.

There are no easy answers with Brexit, but I hope this Commission into Alternative Arrangements is the impetus for finding both the technical solutions and the political consensus for a deal with the EU. We owe it to the country, and Northern Ireland in particular, to do everything we can to create a seamless border in Ireland. Just because it has not been done before, does not mean it is impossible.

Anyone wishing to offer their expertise or to make a submission to the Commission can do so by emailing Greg Hands.

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This morning sees the launch of a new initiative to develop “credible and practical alternative arrangements relating to the Irish border that can be delivered in a timely fashion to ensure that the UK retains full flexibility in its future negotiations with the European Union”.

The Alternative Arrangements Commission is to be co-chaired by former International Trade Minister, Greg Hands, and Treasury Committee Chair and former Cabinet minister, Nicky Morgan, and will be a cross-party venture with yet-to-be-identified representatives from across the political spectrum, with a view to producing a report in June.

But, intriguingly, it has not been established by the Government – which some might suggest ought to be working night and day on this very issue – but rather Prosperity UK, the organisation co-founded by Sir Paul Marshall to bring together business leaders, academics and policy-makers to seek solutions to Brexit issues and look constructively at the UK’s post-Brexit future.

The House of Commons may have rejected the Government’s Brexit deal three times and then every proposal tabled during the ‘indicative votes’ process before Easter, but lest we forget that back on 29th January, MPs did support by 317 votes to 301 (majority: 16) the proposal from Sir Graham Brady (the Brady Amendment) to back the Withdrawal Agreement subject to the Northern Ireland backstop being “replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border”. It is indeed the only Brexit proposal to have enjoyed a parliamentary majority.

The Commission’s aim, therefore, is to build upon the Brady Amendment, working within the parameters of the Withdrawal Agreement, to seek solutions that are both realistic and sustainable while continuing to protect the Good Friday Agreement. Its principal objective will be to develop detailed proposals to avoid physical infrastructure at the border via “consideration of comprehensive customs cooperation arrangements, facilitative arrangements and technologies,” as was described within the Joint Instrument relating to the Withdrawal Agreement agreed in Strasbourg in March.

A press release announcing the establishment of the Commission provided the following further details:

The Commission’s work seeks to create further material for parliament to debate, to highlight to our European partners that there is an ongoing parliamentary majority for the Withdrawal Agreement provided that a template for alternative arrangements can be agreed. It should be noted that the work of the Commission will be compatible with any of the EU-UK future relationship proposals currently under consideration.

The Commission has engaged a Technical Panel comprising border and customs experts, practitioners and lawyers with detailed knowledge of trade, business and community relationships in Ireland as well as the EU, UK and international trade regulations in order to create draft processes and procedures to fulfil these goals. In addition, the Commission will engage with established technology providers in order to develop a comprehensive set of solutions and timelines for review.

Nine working groups have been created covering topics including the border and the movement of people in the context of the Good Friday Agreement, Tax, Sanitary and Phytosanitary standards, Small Traders and Trusted Trader Schemes. As part of the Commission’s work, a consultative conference will be held in London before the publication of its report. Further events are planned in other European jurisdictions to communicate the Commission’s recommendations.

Explaining the decision to establish the Commission, Prosperity UK Co-founder Sir Paul Marshall said:

“It is clear that the real Brexit logjam is around managing the Irish border and thereby eliminating the need for the Backstop. Our intention is to bring people together and to find practical solutions to this complex and emotive issue, drawing upon the expertise of some of the world’s best border experts.”

Commission Co-Chair Nicky Morgan – who was previously involved in the Government’s Alternative Arrangements Working Group which considered some of these issues in February – explained:

“The work of this Commission is hugely important. Implementation of suitable border arrangements for Ireland are vital not only to fulfil the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, but also key to agreeing a successful future UK relationship with the European Union, whatever happens in the withdrawal phase and however that future relationship is formulated. The EU have already indicated a desire to get on to discussing alternative arrangements and so we should try to do that.”

Her Co-Chair, Greg Hands, added:

“Alternative Arrangements were a key part of the Brady Amendment, the only Brexit proposal to have passed the House of Commons. I am looking forward to using my background to work with a wide variety of MPs and experts to help move this work forward and explore in detail how these alternative arrangements can work.”

Responding to the announcement, a DExEU spokesperson said:

We welcome all efforts by Parliamentarians to find solutions to break the Brexit deadlock and progress the development of alternative arrangements, as talks with the Opposition continue. The commission’s work will complement our own work on alternative arrangements, which we announced last month.

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One of the consequences of Brexit has been to crowd out from political discourse much discussion of further UK constitutional reform.

The irony is that the UK constitution, unwritten as it may be, will have to adapt to take account of post-Brexit arrangements. Our departure from the EU, and the disapplication of EU Law and its replacement with the new concept of ‘EU Retained Law’, as set out in the EU Withdrawal Act 2018, will require new processes, and structures, to be created within the United Kingdom.

And yet, very little thinking has been done about what this all means for the British constitution, and specifically for relationships between the four nations that make up our Union.

We will face these challenges sooner than we think. And with nationalists in different parts of the United Kingdom seeking to use Brexit uncertainty for their own political ends, it is important that unionists have a coherent response.

What has become clear is that there are areas of responsibility previously exercised at an EU level, for example on agriculture or the environment, which in terms of the devolution settlement would normally fall to the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly to be exercised. However, there is a clear shared interest in certain decisions in these areas being taken in future on a common UK-wide basis.

I believe that our departure from the EU provides the impetus to introduce important governmental and constitutional reforms to create a ‘quasi-federal’ future for the four nations of the Union.

In practice, there are four key reforms that I believe are required to strengthen the UK constitution post-Brexit:

  1. A new Statute or Charter of Union. This new Act of the UK Parliament would declare the creation of a quasi-federal state, and provide in law for the UK’s intergovernmental machinery.
  2. A new Senate representing different parts of the UK. The House of Lords as it currently exists should be abolished and replaced with a new Senate, or Upper House, representing different parts of the UK, predominantly if not entirely elected, and fulfilling the role both of a revising chamber and as a counterweight to the House of Commons.
  3. A new UK Council of Ministers. The establishment of UK Common Frameworks requires the replacement of the existing Joint Ministerial Committee system with a new UK Council of Ministers, representing component parts of the country.
  4. A new English Grand Committee. In the absence of significant further devolution or moves to federation within England, there is a need for England as a whole to be represented within the new UK Council of Ministers, with representatives elected by the English Grand Committee.

This package of reforms could, together, address a number of current issues.

First, it modernises the UK Constitution, and allows it to adapt to the new situation that has been created following our departure from the EU, and the disapplication of EU law.

Second, it delivers the long-awaited and overdue reform of the House of Lords, giving a better balance to the UK Constitution and protecting the interests of the nations and regions furthest from London.

Third, it allows the people of England for the first time a proper voice within the institutions of the UK, distinct from that of the UK Government, which also has to have a wider consideration for all the Union’s component parts.

Fourth, it addresses the continuing concerns that exist in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland – and also are growing in many parts of England – about an over-centralised state where, despite asymmetric devolution over a period of two decades, there is still pressure for more power to be passed down from the centre.

Taken together, these proposals modernise and strengthen the UK constitution, and help us adapt to the post-Brexit world.  Simply carrying on as we are is not an option.

Murdo Fraser’s paper Our still United Kingdom – A ‘quasi-federal’ future? was published on 22nd April by Bright Blue

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The self-satisfied, smug smiles of those who arrogantly proclaimed that tearing up the Standing Orders of the House of Commons and creating a dangerous constitutional precedent would produce a way forward in the current Brexit impasse, turned into angry scowls when, for the second time, Parliament was unable to come up with a solution which commands a majority last week.

Without the least sense of irony, those who quite rightly pilloried the Prime Minister for bringing her failed deal back for a third vote believe that they should be allowed a third attempt to get their preferred option adopted. Even if they were to get a majority for one of the Remainer options (which are the only ones the Speaker has allowed the House of Commons to consider), there is absolutely no reason why the Government should run with it and every reason why it should refuse to promote something which would tear up its own manifesto and split its own party. To recap on the four options rejected in the last week’s indicative votes: 

  • Kenneth Clarke’s customs union proposal would remove any ability for the UK to have control over its trade policy, would result in us having to pay huge amounts into the EU and not deal with the United Kingdom-splitting backstop.
  • Nick Boles’ “Common Market 2.0” proposal keeps us in the Customs Union, the Single Market, requires us to keep open borders and pay for the privilege, while having little say over the rules which the EU would impose on us. It is not even clear after having conceded all that whether the backstop imposition would be fully removed.
  • Peter Kyle’s confirmatory vote is no choice at all since it would give a referendum where the public could choose between remaining in the EU or accepting a Remain Parliament’s version of Brexit which would keep us so involved with the EU that we may as well be full members. It’s a real Hobson’s choice dressed up as a democratic exercise.
  • Joanna Cherry’s Article 50 revocation proposal is simply a call to abandon the result of the 2016 referendum.

It is hard to see any basis on which the Government could adopt any of those options unless it was prepared to ignore the views of the majority of its own party and drive through the policy or policies of its opponents. Surely even this dysfunctional Government would baulk at that?

It’s easy to shoot down others’ proposals but that is no substitute for a strategy to break the impasse. This is caused by the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement and the impact it would have on the unity of the UK and the restrictions it would place on the ability to negotiate our future relationship with the EU which would not be detrimental to our economic and legislative freedoms and which would not have us prisoners of the EU until we agreed whatever deal suited its objectives. That is why the backstop has to be dealt with.

Impossible, say some, because the EU have said they will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. Yet it is clear that the argument on which the backstop is based – i.e. the unacceptability of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – is no longer a credible threat since the EU and the Irish Government have demonstrated in their plans for a no-deal Brexit that it can and will be avoided.

The Government may have weakened its hand by its own pathetic negotiations, but it still has arguments which could be used to have the toxic backstop removed instead of either becoming the advocate for the policies of the Labour Party, the SNP and the Lib Dems or continuing to hope that it can get the Withdrawal Agreement accepted by wearing down the opposition to it.

Neither can succeed and both run the risk of destroying what credibility the Government has with its own frustrated and angry supporters. There is still time to put the heat on the EU.

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Theresa May’s deal has now been defeated three times and whilst the number of Brexiteer Tories has been whittled down, it was thanks to them and the DUP that Theresa May’s deal didn’t pass.

Leave MPs who backed the deal yesterday claim that the fact that we are legally out is a price worth paying. But this is exactly the point. Once our membership is legally over, Remainers will argue Brexit has been delivered. And if Brexiteers make the mistake of endorsing the vote when it passes, they will add to the Remain spin that we have entered a legitimate Brexit.

Whilst some claim we can break the treaty, Remainers would argue with some force that this was the ‘Brexit’ that Leavers voted for. It stands to reason that the intolerable state that we end up in means that full EU membership will be the only way of ‘taking back control’. And how could any future Tory leadership support it? It would take Trump-like strength for the next Prime Minister to break an international agreement – but it would be near impossible if the Prime Minister had actually voted for it.

Some claim that the fact hard-core Remainer like Dominic Grieve voted against it was a reason to back it. The logic goes that since the europhiles were voting against, they must know the alternative will be more integration with the EU. But just because Grieve has a smile on his face does not mean he is correct.

Others claim to want certainty over the chaos of Oliver Letwin and the chance of the Commons passing an Act to seek Customs Union membership. True, backing the deal brings some end to the confusion. But it also risks bringing about the end of the UK as a sovereign entity. Could we legislate out of it? Article 4 allows the EU to disapply domestic legislation incompatible with the agreement. We will be locked into another, final, treaty with the EU and when the history books are written on how the UK became sucked into the EU, it is not fanciful to imagine students studying Maastricht, Lisbon and the Withdrawal Agreement.

Many claim a long extension would be worse and lose the momentum of the referendum. But the deal guarantees it. Under the transition, we shall explicitly be non-voting members for two years and, as Brussels has spelt out, the only change will be that Britain loses its Commissioner, its MEPs and its vote in the Council of Ministers. Then, under the backstop, which we can never leave without permission, we will be stuck with a trade-barrier between the UK and Northern Ireland.

The direction of travel under the treaty is clear. On defence, the agreement calls for UK participation ‘to the extent possible under EU law’, a law which can be changed by the EU27 without the UK being in the room. We will bind ourselves into the defence purchasing budget, and the permanent integration of our defence capabilities and control.

Under it we will continue to apply the Common Fisheries policy which has been used to deliberately shrink the number of fishermen by over a third from 1995 to 2005, a neurotic regime that forces boats to return to port when they have caught too much of what they don’t want whilst allowing EU boats take £4 billion worth of our fish.

And with the deal, EU State aid powers means the Commission can control any VAT changes and could block the UK from reducing its rate in a particular industry to incentivise a business to locate or invest in the UK. The dream of Free Ports will be snuffed out: Any infrastructure investment that is likely to generate money like toll roads, ports, airports or industrial parks can be vetoed by arbitrary EU commissioners.

If this deal had been presented to MPs directly after the referendum they would have baulked and flatly rejected it. But many have succumbed to the bullying tactics of No.10 who consistently lied to them at every stage of the process. Even some on-the-fence Leavers were pushed into supporting the deal yesterday after they were told the result was so close they would make the difference. Many feel trapped. But in the face of such uncertainty it is always wiser to vote solely on the thing in front of you. Is the deal bad? Then vote it down. Thankfully yesterday many MPs did just that.

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The theme for Westminster this week has been a political trap. Remainer MPs seem to have finally ensnared the Prime Minister with the advent of ‘Indicative Votes’. Consequently, Mrs May seems to have trapped at least some of her eurosceptic rebels with the threat that the only alternative to her deal is no Brexit.

For Brussels and Dublin, however, as the DUP’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson has argued, it is like cats let out of bags over the Irish backstop.

The Irish border quickly became the thorn in the side of the Brexit negotiations. The backstop was designed by the EU, Ireland and – to its shame – the UK Government, in order to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland in the event no agreement is reached between the UK and the EU.

The backstop has now become the major problem with May’s Withdrawal Agreement. It is by no means the only problem with the AgreementGet Britain Out has documented at least 15 major failings here, and Britain would be preposterously shackled to EU institutions indefinitely unless a UK Government was prepared to conscience the unconscionable by allowing Northern Ireland to end up under EU jurisdiction.

Brexiteers have been consistent in upbraiding the outlandishness of the backstop because it blackmails the UK into remaining within the EU or risks the annexation of its territory. What’s more, it is wholly unnecessary. Firstly, the hard border was a phantom created to scare the UK. Both the UK and Irish governments have made it clear they would not erect a hard border which could therefore only come into effect if it were imposed and erected by the European Union.

Secondly, if the problem was willed by the EU, so too was the denial of its solution. Political will and goodwill are very different things. Both the EU’s Chief Brexit Negotiator, Michel Barnier, and Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, have continually refused to consider intuitive technical solutions involving customs checks away from the border in the event of No Deal. These would ensure smooth cross-border trade as they do increasingly across the world.

Indeed, as recently as February, the suggestion technology would obviate a hard border, rendering the backstop unnecessary, was frustrating the Taoiseach. It has been fascinating to observe, then, how earlier this week this has become the position of both the Irish Government and the EU in the event of a no-deal Brexit.

The EU has announced it is “working very closely with Irish authorities to try and perform controls away from border”. Varadkar is confident a special arrangement can keep the border in Ireland invisible in a no-deal scenario. He is right to be confident. He and the EU were wrong to deny the undeniable for so long.

With the political and moral EU-Irish justification of the backstop crumbling, the bad faith with which the EU has been conducting the negotiations is now abundantly clear. Yet the Withdrawal Agreement still stands, proof of the con played by the EU and Ireland to keep Britain as closely tied to the EU under highly restrictive terms.

It is one thing for the EU and Ireland to have made their bad faith and the unnecessary, draconian nature of their agreement so clear. It is quite another for the UK Government to have let this happen in the first place, and to have put itself in a position where it is both unprepared and unable to stand up for itself, tear up the Agreement, leave without one and negotiate a new trade deal from a position of strength.

This, and not May’s Deal, is the only realistic course left open for our withdrawal from the European Union and to save Brexit.

With this in mind, the DUP are right to refuse to be threatened by the Prime Minister into backing her deal. However, they must put the emphasis on the acceptance of a WTO No Deal on 12th April, rather than a long extension which Sammy Wilson is now suggesting. A long extension to the Withdrawal Agreement would give far too much time for the majority of Remainer MPs in Parliament to continue to agitate for a revocation of Article 50 or a second referendum.

Eurosceptics in the European Research Group – blackmailed by Mrs May’s threat of ‘my deal or no Brexit’ – may well vote for May’s Deal as the ‘least worst’ option. They must reconsider just how bad May’s Deal really is. 

To examine perhaps the important issue of our defence after Brexit (as Veterans for Britain have briefed here this week), under the wording of the Political Declaration attached to the Withdrawal Agreement, the UK is committed to EU defence architecture to the “full extent possible under EU law”. Therefore it is now drawn to our attention, the UK can either continue to submit itself to full EU defence authority, or we will be forced to remain in the backstop in perpetuity.

As if that false choice was not bad enough, it is the EU which gets to decide whether the UK’s defence commitments match those made in the Political Declaration. With all eyes on the Withdrawal Agreement, it is often forgotten just how problematic the Political Declaration is. This must serve as a timely reminder.

The ‘least worst’ choice is therefore still a very bad choice, which should not be voted for by anyone who wants to Get Britain Out of the European Union and ‘take back control’. The reasons for the backstop con and the subsequent Withdrawal Agreement may well have been illusory, but their dangers are not.

The post The Irish backstop alone provides reason enough to oppose Theresa May’s deal appeared first on BrexitCentral.

As the dust settles after another hugely important couple of nights in Westminster, there are some who have sadly sought to issue recriminations about those Brexit-supporting MPs – most of 75 Conservatives and the 10 DUP MPs – who did not support the Withdrawal Agreement on Tuesday.

I am one of those MPs, and I think it’s really important to make something clear. The proposed Withdrawal Agreement that has twice been put before Parliament (and twice rejected by historic margins) is not merely a ‘bad deal’, it is simply not Brexit.

I don’t think many in Westminster are more passionate about delivering Brexit than I am. But Brexit meant one thing above all others: taking back control. The deal that was on offer to us on Tuesday – with its wholly unnecessary ‘Backstop’ – was not, even on the most generous reading, ‘taking back control’.

It would have handed Brussels 100% control of our trade and customs policy and precluded the UK’s right to sign trade deals with the rest of the world. Worse, when the EU signed a trade agreement with another country (for example, China), we would have been compelled to make all the concessions agreed to by the EU, but China would only have needed to offer its concessions to the EU 27, not to the UK. In other words, we would have become the EU’s expendable bargaining chip in negotiations.

Meanwhile, the Agreement would have stripped Northern Ireland of the ability to control and decide its own constitutional status – a right enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement. Northern Ireland would have been treated separately to the rest of the UK, and become a rule-taker in areas such as goods, agricultural products and VAT. As confirmed by HMRC, this regulatory divergence would have required the introduction of paperwork for those who wanted to trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This went against express promises made by the Government that such a thing would never happen.

To top it all, the UK would have been unable to leave this humiliating state of affairs without the EU’s permission – a situation completely unprecedented in international law. Far from taking back control, the Agreement would have diminished our country to a state of unending ‘vassalage’. This was the bottom line of the Attorney General’s damning legal advice – an opinion echoed by many prominent international lawyers, including Professor Phillipe Sands, Martin Howe QC, and Lord Anderson QC.

It was surprising, therefore, to hear the accusation that those of us repudiating such an agreement were ‘risking losing Brexit altogether’, and will somehow be held responsible if the Government, Parliament and EU subsequently conspired to keep us in the EU.

We need to be crystal clear: the only people who would be responsible for ‘no Brexit’ would be those who vote to take no deal off the table, or to extend – for no good reason – Article 50. The vast majority of Parliament voted to trigger Article 50 in full knowledge of its significance: that we would – in both domestic and international law – be leaving the EU on 29 March 2019 with or without a deal. They also stood of manifestos reiterating the same promise.

If some individuals now regret those decisions, so be it – but they ought to look the electorate in the eye and admit that, rather than hunting around for Brexiteers onto whom to deflect the blame. As the final acts of this drama unfold, I will vote for a good deal, if one can be secured, for the Malthouse Compromise, if this can be delivered, and if needs be for leaving without a deal. But I will not let down my conscience, my constituents or my country by voting for a deal that doesn’t deliver Brexit at all.

The post Brexiteers were right on Tuesday to reject a deal that would leave Brussels in control appeared first on BrexitCentral.

What follows is an open letter from the authors to Theresa May…

Dear Prime Minister,

We understand the future of Northern Ireland weighed heavily in your decision to agree an Irish backstop in the draft Withdrawal Agreement and remains a factor in your continuing support for the backstop, albeit now on a temporary basis. Your concerns are said to include maintaining a peace widely seen as fragile, sustaining the Union and protecting jobs.

We fully agree, of course, that peace is vital. Your undertaking on no new infrastructure on the border in Ireland is wise. No-one wants the police or others to come under attack erecting, repairing or maintaining barriers, cameras or anything else. Expert opinion given to the Northern Ireland Select Committee suggests that infrastructure is no longer needed since modern electronic procedures can do the job, so we hope that this is not an issue.

On your trips to Northern Ireland some will have told you in all sincerity of a more general danger to peace from disaffected Republicans. However, in the over-heated context of Brexit many arguments are self-serving and cannot always be taken at face value. Sinn Fein themselves say there will be no return to violence. Indeed, sacrificing their hard-won electoral position in the Republic of Ireland would be an illogical thing for them to do.

Gerry Adams also asserts that dissident Republicans have negligible support in the Nationalist community. A few dozen dissidents may always be capable of criminal activity as the recent Londonderry car bomb showed, but the security services have managed the dangers with admirable skill and will no doubt continue to do so.

Nor is there much evidence that Brexit puts the union in any real danger either from Nationalist disaffection or because Protestants would prefer Irish unity in order to remain within the EU. Reliable evidence shows little rise in support for Irish unity following the 2016 referendum. While some polls have indicated support for Irish unity in the high forties per cent range, more reliable polls have it down closer to the traditional 20%.

Polls showing higher support for Irish unity use samples drawn from voluntary panels and these seem to biased away from working class people and especially from the Unionist working classes. The gold-standard polls are undertaken for the Life and Times Survey funded by the UK’s Economic and Social Research Council using face-to-face interviews.

The latest LIFT survey from 2018 showed that support from both communities for Irish unity was around 20% and only a little above pre-referendum levels. Support for Irish unity among self-described Protestants remains minuscule and of course the DUP made major gains at the 2017 General Election in reaction to claims that Brexit meant growing support for Irish unity. Even among Catholics, Brexit has not led a majority to support Irish unity. Sinn Fein’s calls for a
border poll have become Augustinian – a border poll yes, but not yet.

The correlation between Catholicism and support for unity is weaker than many assume. The 2011 census showed that only half of Northern Ireland’s Catholics identified as ‘Irish’ and fewer than half had an Irish passport. The Life and Times Survey shows that even in 2017/18 the proportion of Catholics who support eventual Irish unity is 41%. Only 7% express a desire for immediate unity.

Professor John Fitzgerald of ESRI in Dublin has recently calculated that living standards are 25% higher in Northern Ireland compared to the South. Although wages are generally higher in the South, higher taxes and fees and inferior levels of public service provision mean that northerners do better even before we take cheaper housing into account.

Some argue that the rising share of Catholics in the Northern Ireland population will continue, leading to a majority in a few decades. There is no evidence for this. The 2011 Census clearly shows that the percentage of the population who described themselves as Catholic had peaked among those born almost two decades ago and has subsequently slowly declined. Since Catholic birth rates are now close to those of Protestants, it seems likely the trend will continue.

Migration is also important and here there is major new factor. One in twenty of Northern Ireland’s Catholics are now from Poland, Lithuania, Portugal and the Philippines. The future constitutional preference of these immigrants and their children is hard to predict but it would be wrong to expect them to support Irish unity.

Nor do we believe that jobs are greatly at risk in Northern Ireland. Studies which purport to show economic damage from No Deal are self-contradictory and fail to take into account obvious opportunities. The main challenge would face the dairy industry, but the large potential loss of markets in Great Britain by southern food producers in the event of No Deal would open substantial opportunities for Northern Ireland’s farmers to fill the gap in Great Britain.

All in all, we believe the dangers facing Northern Ireland are much smaller than you may have been led to believe. You face difficult decisions on the UK’s future outside the EU. We do not believe that these decisions should be dominated by groundless fears about Northern Ireland.

Yours sincerely,

Rt Hon Lord Trimble
Kate Hoey MP

The post Don’t believe claims that Brexit threatens the peace in Northern Ireland appeared first on BrexitCentral.

As we rapidly approach the final showdown on the Withdrawal Agreement, it’s worth recalling what the problem with the backstop is.

At a visceral level, it really is about how we see our country. Are we going to keep the United Kingdom together? And what sort of trading country do we want to be once we leave the EU?

The United Kingdom as a whole gave notice under Article 50 that it was leaving the EU. That’s how it has to be under EU law: only states can be members. The EU has no legal basis at all, under the Treaties, for requiring that one part of the departing state be treated differently from the rest.

Yet we have acceded in that requirement without demur and the Withdrawal Agreement provides that Northern Ireland will be treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom. Some say that this is because the Good Friday Agreement demands a different treatment and that it “trumps” the UK’s legal right to leave the EU under Article 50.

I have given my own views on the core issues in Ireland here. Our Government could have argued that there was hardly a word about borders and trade in the Good Friday Agreement and that it could be made perfectly consistent with our departure from the EU. The Government could have pointed out that, when Ireland ratified the creation of Article 50 in the Lisbon Treaty, it entered no reservation or objection that it might be inconsistent with the Good Friday Agreement – perhaps because it isn’t. As far as I know, these arguments were never made: we accepted that Northern Ireland had to be treated differently.

Now Northern Ireland is indeed different in one important respect and that is that its constitutional status within the UK is subject to the Good Friday Agreement, an international treaty that both recognises that it is fully part of the UK and makes provision for it to leave the UK and become part of the Republic, subject to a separate referendum in the two parts of the island of Ireland. In effect that provides the people of Northern Ireland with a guarantee of no constitutional change without their consent. It also means, as the Irish Taoiseach said at the time, that the decision on Irish re-unification is no longer one for the British government.

I have no doubt that the British government will and must adhere to that binding commitment. But we should bear in mind that it has two elements: the people of Ireland will decide if there is to be constitutional change; and the people of Northern Ireland have a veto on it, solemnly, through a referendum. The Withdrawal Agreement is heavy with declarations that it does not involve constitutional change in Northern Ireland. But this is like a burglar leaving a note in your ransacked sitting-room to say that he hasn’t burgled you. It doesn’t make it any less of a burglary. And the fact is that major constitutional change is being imposed on Northern Ireland with only opinion poll evidence that the change is acceptable. The people of Northern Ireland get no say and all but one (Lady Hermon MP) of their only functioning elected representatives are opposed.

And the constitutional change being imposed on them is significant. They will, under the backstop, be subject to the direct effect of EU law with no representation and a border will be erected in the Irish Sea going way beyond the plant and animal health checks that currently operate, putting Northern Ireland firmly in the EU’s economic sphere and outside that of the UK.

We will not therefore be leaving the EU together, as a single country, as we are entitled to do under international law, but in two broken bits, Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

But this backstop may never come into effect, surely. And the EU assures us it is temporary (but they won’t re-open the text to commit to that) while we sort out our future relationship. In fact no: the backstop as drafted is effectively permanent and it determines everything about the future relationship.

That is because the Withdrawal Agreement is explicit that the Irish Protocol stays fully in place “unless and until” it is replaced. Replacement is contemplated of course, in the form of a new trading relationship between the EU and the UK, but that new relationship will require assent from all EU member states, including Ireland.

So imagine if Ireland said, as is very likely, that they wanted the special economic status that Northern Ireland has in the backstop rolled over into the new trading relationship. Without that they’d veto the future trade deal. The UK could say no, and do without a formal trade deal. But then the backstop would remain in force, because it wouldn’t have been replaced. So if we agree to the demand, Northern Ireland retains its special status. And if we say no, Northern Ireland retains its special status. It’s the perfect EU snooker. Who would sign that?

So much for keeping the United Kingdom entire. But how does the backstop determine our future trading relationship, not merely with the EU, but with the world?

The impulse to maintain the Union is strong in the Conservative Party and not at all absent in other parties represented at Westminster. Mrs May and her team clearly decided at some stage that the economic severance between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would be too stark if the backstop kept the former in the EU economic sphere while the latter became an independent trading entity able to strike its own deals around the world: the full panoply of EU border controls at Larne, on UK sovereign territory, wouldn’t look good. So she persuaded the EU, somewhat against their will, that in the period when the backstop applied, Great Britain too would have a special status: not quite as fully under EU law as Northern Ireland, but in a basic customs union.

Confusingly (and the confusion may have been deliberate) she dubbed this proposal the “backstop to the backstop”, later shortened to “backstop”. So when the Government uses the word, it can mean one of two things or both, as the mood takes them. And it is probably true that many Conservative MPs, when they object to the “backstop”, are more fussed about this separate relationship between the EU and Great Britain than they are about the special status imposed on Northern Ireland.

This basic customs union for Great Britain is, in the eyes of the EU, definitely temporary: it was a concession they never wanted to grant. Both they and the UK expect to see it replaced in the future relationship. But with what?

It could in theory be with a Free Trade Agreement modelled on that signed by Canada. The EU has offered this (though it wouldn’t include Northern Ireland). It could be a much closer and subordinate relationship, similar to that between Norway and the EU. It could be as distant an economic relationship as that enjoyed by Moldova. In fact the EU has a whole suite of off-the-shelf models from which it has been inviting us to select for the last year.

The Government has declined to make that selection, partly because to choose is to divide your own followers, but also because selecting a point on the spectrum between “close and subordinate” and “distant but free” exposes the fundamental sacrifice of UK sovereignty in Northern Ireland.

The Government accepted early, and certainly by December 2017, that the decision as to what constituted a “hard border” in Ireland would be made by the EU and has spent the time since trying to pretend that this doesn’t oblige the UK as a whole to choose between maintaining its economic integrity and having an independent trade policy. That is the nub of the obfuscation and mistrust in which the Government has covered itself.

But behind the smoke, the Government, in agreement with the EU, has set a direction for the future relationship that resolves that choice at some mid-point between the two extremes. The special status of Northern Ireland, in the EU Customs Union and in large parts of the Single Market, will be set forever if we sign the Withdrawal Agreement. And to disguise the severance that creates in the economic integrity and sovereignty of the United Kingdom, Great Britain will enter some form of permanent Customs Union, shorn of any substantive ability to make trade deals and willingly subject to a broad array of EU law and regulation with no say.

This is not Brexit. Disruptive though it may be, we cannot go ahead from this point. We cannot sign the deal as it stands. The Irish backstop must go, or be rendered time-limited or terminable at the sole discretion of the British government. If the Attorney General cannot negotiate text (with the same legal status as the Withdrawal Agreement itself) that achieves one of those outcomes, then we need to take another path. That can only be fulfilling our obligations to British democracy and leaving with No Deal.

The post Why the Northern Irish backstop makes the draft Withdrawal Agreement unpalatable appeared first on BrexitCentral.

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