A Better Deal would solve the backstop problem

14th December 2018

I voted to remain in the EU referendum, but I believe the largest ever public mandate should be respected. Parliament should deliver what the people wanted and that is to leave the European Union. In so doing, it is important that we get the very best deal possible.

The current Withdrawal Agreement is clearly unsatisfactory, and that is why I resigned from my ministerial post in the Northern Ireland Office. The bedrock of dissent has been about the backstop.

It strikes at our nation’s soul and imperils our Union by treating Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK. If we signed up to it, we would be trapped under the thumb of the EU as its satellite, obeying its laws without a say, unless the EU and its members gave permission for us to leave.

The backstop would place the UK in a “single customs territory”, causing two fundamental problems for our post-Brexit trading relationships. 

First, it would stop us from being able to strike trade deals with non-EU countries, as it would bar us from controlling our tariffs and regulations. Without control in these areas, we would be useless to any prospective trading partner.

Second, with regard to the UK-EU trading relationship, the backstop would create a climate which lends itself to continued EU belligerence. The EU would have no incentive to make concessions in future trade negotiations. 

Once member states have the ability to wield the threat of plunging us into the backstop – and keeping us there indefinitely – we will have no alternative but to make concessions we don’t want to. The Spanish could use Gibraltar as a bargaining chip and the French could demand continued access by EU boats to UK fishing waters.  We can’t possibly let the backstop hold our future trade talks hostage in this way.

So we need a new approach – A Better Deal – and that what’s been published by a team of legal and customs experts. It is supported by remainers like me, by leavers such as David Davis and Dominic Raab and crucially, the DUP. It doesn’t throw out the Prime Minister’s plan. Indeed, it retains the vast majority of the draft Withdrawal Agreement, whilst identifying and removing the poison pills that have prevented it from finding cross-party support.

A Better Deal provides the Government with an alternative vision to present to Brussels.  It is likely to command support in Parliament, closely resembles the offer made by the EU itself last March and honours the referendum result.

Our proposal would restore – rather than destroy – the UK’s leverage for future trade talks with the EU. It safeguards the integrity of the United Kingdom, since it doesn’t treat Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK, and it would allow us to be a credible trade partner for third countries after 29th March 2019.

A Better Deal bins the divisive and ill-thought-through Northern Ireland Protocol and replaces it with an extendable backstop. The new backstop would allow us to control our own tariff schedules and regulations – so it’s not an inherently negative situation for the UK to be in. 

In fact, some may even argue that under our proposal the backstop becomes a “front stop” – and for that reason, no EU country could use it to cajole us into having to agree to a set of appalling terms from Brussels which would let British consumers and businesses down.

The new backstop would provide for tariff-free trade in goods; it would bring about regulatory cooperation between us and the EU as well as regulatory recognition based on “deemed equivalence” – making use of the unique fact that our regulations will be identical on day one of Brexit.

This new and reformed backstop include an agreement to deploy advanced customs and trade facilitation measures, including any specific measures necessary for the Northern Ireland/Ireland border, in addition to normal, free trade agreement-style level playing field provisions on labour, the environment, competition and state aid – unlike the hugely one-sided commitments in the Withdrawal Agreement.  And importantly, it will include a commitment by all parties not to place infrastructure on the border – nobody wants to see that.

Brussels wants to do a deal with us. They offered us a free trade deal back in March, and I suspect that the EU negotiators have been surprised at our inability to grab what is on offer. 

We have a chance to put our future prosperity in our hands as we become a great, self-governing, free trading nation once again. The proposals in A Better Deal will, I believe, meet with the approval of many of my colleagues in Parliament as well as the public. It stays loyal to the Belfast Agreement, avoids a hard border and allows us to leave the arrangement, should we wish to do so. The UK is crying out for a better deal.  Let’s make sure we deliver it.

First published on ConservativeHome website