My decision to resign as a government minister yesterday was not an easy one. And given that, during the referendum, I had decided that on balance it was better to remain in the EU, my reason for resigning – that we would not be a sovereign nation if the draft Withdrawal Agreement was accepted – has surprised some.
Once the public had voted to leave, I was in no doubt that it was for Parliament to deliver on the result, irrespective of what MPs’ personal views were. I should add that I am not in favour of a second referendum. There was no mention of it during the referendum campaign and, frankly speaking, the vast majority of those who want one see this as another means of achieving what they failed to secure the first time around.
The Government’s route from referendum to the draft Withdrawal Agreement has been a difficult one and I confess, I have been deeply disappointed with the manner in which the UK Government has been treated by the EU. Instead of the negotiations being between two sides seeking a mutually advantageous deal, it has been a relatively one-sided affair with the EU more or less taking the lead from the start. They set the agenda and insisted that nothing could be discussed unless we agreed to a financial settlement, which we did agreeing at £39 billion.
Thereafter, the UK continued to make concessions but, significantly, none were given in return by the EU. These included the UK giving residency assurances to the three million EU citizens living in Britain as well as the unconditional offer to provide crucial security co-operation to other EU countries.
The Government’s intention no doubt, was that we would build up goodwill with the EU for a better deal in the future. It is, however, clear that we failed miserably in achieving this objective. In fact, the contrary is true, as was seen by the EU leaders’ cavalier treatment of Theresa May in Salzburg. European leaders do not generally treat other European leaders in this fashion. The fact is, having given the upper hand to the EU, they felt confident to behave in such an appalling manner.
In view of the way that the EU has dominated the discussions until now, it is to be expected that we now have a draft Withdrawal Agreement which is basically a halfway house, pleasing very few from either the Leave or Remain camps.
The agreement risks locking the UK in a customs arrangement indefinitely, bound by rules decided solely by the EU over which we have no say. Worse, we cannot leave this customs arrangement unilaterally.
In the meantime, Northern Ireland will be subject to a different relationship with the EU from the rest of the UK. As a former Northern Ireland minister, I fully appreciate the significance of not having a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. But that should not be at the expense of compromising the economic and constitutional integrity of the UK.
The referendum result tasked Parliament to deliver a sovereign, independent UK, freed from the shackles of the EU. No amount of words can alter the fact that the draft agreement does anything but. Indeed, given the EU’s past performance and their reluctance to see us leave, there is every possibility that the UK-EU trade deal that we seek will take years to conclude.
We should look to the future with confidence, not fear. I accept that there will be economic turbulence in the short term as we seek to pursue our own destiny, but that should not stop us from taking a path that will allow a sovereign UK to prosper on its own terms.
Considering the way the EU has treated the UK, in the event that there were to be another referendum, this time I would vote to leave. And unlike before, second time around, I would have no doubts as to how I should vote.