By pulling the vote at the 11th hour, the Government has acknowledged that the backstop proposal is completely unacceptable. But rather than simply seeking “reassurances” on this issue, the Government needs to consider more boldly possible alternative arrangements that might command Parliament’s support. 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 Clecat, the professional customs body. It recommends 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, I know that a willingness exists on the EU side to explore these possibilities more fully. The meeting also confirmed that Mr Tusk’s offer is still on the table. 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 exit on World Trade Organisation (WTO) terms. This is no cause for alarm, and those doubting this should look to the UK’s booming exports.
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.
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?
It is true that the EU has trade deals with around 70 countries, which the UK will have to substitute. This process has already begun and no country has signalled an unwillingness to cooperate. But remember that many of these agreements are very small.
Though not an optimal arrangement, there is thus nothing to fear from 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, the way ahead.
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