The Telegraph: Escape from Brussels – it’s now or never

Tensions are rising ahead of this week’s crucial votes in the House of Commons. It’s make-or-break time for Brexit.

Negotiations with Brussels are stalled, with scant hope of a breakthrough. Geoffrey Cox looks and sounds the part, with his courtroom jowls and booming baritone. But the Attorney General won’t secure meaningful concessions on the Irish backstop before Tuesday’s vote on Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement – for the simple reason that Brussels has no interest in being flexible.

The eurocrats will go through the motions, of course. But they’ll conclude, “with regret”, it’s “unfortunately impossible” to include a simple break-clause in May’s heinous withdrawal agreement.

The UK, then, is set to remain locked in a one-sided treaty, paying £39bn we don’t legally owe for the European Court of Justice to hold sway as long as Brussels says so. Britain will have no voice, no vote and no veto over eurocrat diktat, which will determine not only domestic law, but our trade policy with the EU and the rest of the world – again, with Brussels deciding when this ghastly arrangement ends.

We are about to accept all these legally binding concessions in return not for a comprehensive UK-EU trade deal, but a vague, non-binding political agreement about our future relationship. As such, once May’s Brexit-in-name-only has happened, Britain will be negotiating its trading relationship with the EU from a position of maximum weakness.

With the UK locked in “vassal state” limbo, Brussels will extract endless concessions. Our fishing grounds, non-reciprocal market access, more money – the demands made of the world’s fifth largest economy before we can escape will be as visibly painful as possible. For Brussels wants not only economic advantage, but to encourager les autres EU states not to attempt to leave.

No matter that many independent customs experts have confirmed no infrastructure whatsoever is needed on the Irish land border after a proper Brexit – with Britain leaving the single market and customs union, as the electorate was promised.

No matter that the Withdrawal Agreement itself acknowledges “alternative arrangements” can be made – using derogations, trusted trader schemes and occasional behind-the-border checks to keep trading flowing freely over what is now, and will remain, an almost invisible land frontier. No matter that, seeing as there is no need whatsoever for customs posts on the UK/Irish border, or new cameras, it is impossible for such infrastructure to provoke renewed sectarian violence – as such infrastructure simply won’t exist.

The Irish backstop is nothing but technocratic chicanery. It is disgraceful the EU has picked at the wounds of Anglo-Irish history, threatening the precious progress of recent years in a cynical attempt to keep Britain in the customs union.

Yet it’s even more disgraceful a British government has allowed this to happen, accepting this backstop fiction, ignoring the repeated advice of the UK’s own border authorities, the World Trade Organisation and countless other border experts.

MPs committed to Brexit are described by broadcasters as “hard-line” or “ideological”. It’s wrong to describe in such pejorative terms politicians determined to observe the result of a nationwide referendum, while honouring pledges to “implement Brexit” made in subsequent election manifestoes.

Most such MPs have demonstrated they’ll accept May’s withdrawal agreement, despite the disadvantages outlined above, as long as the backstop is time-limited. That’s why, in late January, Sir Graham Brady’s amendment cleared the House of Commons. But without that concession, the Withdrawal Agreement is so disadvantageous to Britain as to be entirely unacceptable.

This column has acknowledged Brexit uncertainty is weighing on domestic investment, undermining UK growth. So I understand why, even though May’s Withdrawal Agreement was previously rejected by 230 votes, some Brexit supporters will now back it – “so we can move on”.

Yet, this view is profoundly mistaken. For one thing, May’s deal would open the door to years, as many as the EU wants, of additional painstaking negotiation. Far from drawing a line under the current chaos, this Withdrawal Agreement would see Brexit uncertainty stretch long into the future. The only way to make progress, from where we are now, is to leave on March 29 with no deal. For months, the public has endured a fully-blown propaganda campaign, demonising the idea of leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement. Countless MPs in our majority-Remainer Parliament claim we must “avoid the damage of no deal”, while actually wanting to undermine the UK’s bargaining position so we end up staying in the EU.

“Crashing out” will be bumpy, but far from disastrous. One-by-one, the ridiculous scare stories – “planes won’t fly, goods won’t flow” – have been countered by commercial agreements, business reality and common sense. When MPs reject Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement on Tuesday, they will then vote on whether or not to rule out no deal. And this second vote is by far the most important, as it could go either way.

If May herself backs no deal, several ministers will resign. Let them – and see how they get on at the next general election. For ruling out no deal is, and always has been, tantamount to blocking Brexit. Rendering the UK incapable of leaving on such terms means the eurocrats effectively decide if Brexit happens or not. It takes this historic decision away from the British people and hands it back to unelected officials.

The EU wants May’s deal to fail – which is why, despite Cox’s efforts, there won’t be any concessions. Brussels assumes the Commons will block no deal, leaving the UK scrambling to arrange an extension period, which could itself extend for years, the granting of which will involve even more concessions, while opening the door to a disastrous second referendum

That’s why, when her deal falls, May must finally honour the referendum result and implement Brexit regardless, leading her party through the division lobbies to uphold no deal. With Labour leavers, and the DUP, she might yet have the numbers. Escaping the Remainers’ trap poses risks, but the world is watching – and now is the time to be bold.

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