We must chuck the PM’s plan and go for a free trade deal.
Chequers is the only option other than no deal, according to the Prime Minister. Chequers could be altered by a future Prime Minister, according to the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. At the weekend Michael Gove said: “A future prime minister could always choose to alter the relationship between Britain and the European Union”.
There is a clear inconsistency in these two views. If Chequers could be changed later, why not simply short-circuit the process and agree something lasting? But that contradicts Theresa May’s firmly stated position.
The Prime Minister’s view that it must be her deal or no deal risks sounding rather high-handed but it is also incorrect. The EU has offered a comprehensive free trade deal for Great Britain and would offer it for Northern Ireland as well if the integrity of the single market could be guaranteed. Last week, the European Research Group, which I chair, explained how this could be done in accordance with the EU’s own rules.
These proposals were given further substance by the reports that the EU is considering compromise and technological solutions for its backstop proposal. This may extend to flows between Great Britain and Ireland, which has become important to them because of the volume of Irish trade that passes through the mainland, using it effectively as a bridge.
Logically, if such solutions can apply for one part of the UK they can apply to another. This would allow for a less bureaucratic answer to the Irish question than the one put forward by the ERG but our assumption was that we needed to meet an entirely uncompromising EU position.
In her recent Panorama interview, Mrs May’s response was that it is no good having a hard border away from the border. This is peculiar as it is already in existence. For excise, VAT and immigration, the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is not currently policed at crossing points but administratively, as companies make filings or carry out checks, while customs officers act to detect crime.
A momentary search of the internet shows examples of agricultural vehicles being inspected to ensure they have the correct diesel in them, green for the Republic, red for Northern Ireland.
This makes it clear that the opening claim is wrong. It is not either Chequers or the WTO; there is at least one other option but the Government is stubbornly refusing to embrace it because it has invested such pride in its own plan.
Unfortunately, the suggestion of changing Chequers later is even less credible than the “no alternative” propaganda. It has obviously set the cat among the pigeons in Brussels and for good reason. No one is going to want to make the Brexit negotiation a permanent feature of diplomatic life.
The EU would have no incentive to renew talks once we have left on the basis of an agreed international treaty. The money would have been paid, the system set up and the caravan would have moved on. It is no wonder that even the thought of starting again has led Brussels to demand a binding legal agreement. Michel Barnier’s deputy Sabine Weyand was quoted as saying: “We will need credible political promises from the UK.”
Even if the EU were willing to perpetuate this process, it is hard to believe there would be any political desire at home to keep negotiating. Opinion polls already show that most people want the matter concluded and many do not understand why it has taken so long.
Any party that desired to reheat the discussions would seem to be out of touch with reality or the mood of the nation. Once a deal is done it will survive for a generation because no one will want to reopen it and the other pressing issues of government will need to be dealt with.
There is only one chance to make the right Brexit choice and the Government still seems miles away from it. Chequers pleases nobody other than the Prime Minister herself. The idea of negotiating forever is so silly that only a very clever person would have come up with it. The answer remains to chuck Chequers and go for a free trade deal that is on offer and works with the ERG’s effective answer to the Irish question.
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