Proposal would leave UK free to organise with other countries deals so vital to our economic future, writes Brian Monteith
If you ever had any doubts that the European Union leadership would kick a proverbial opponent when down then you only need to look at the treatment they are dishing out to the Prime Minister.
This column has not shirked from apportioning blame for the appalling negotiations on the UK’s poor strategy, tactics and communications. Nevertheless, the EU had an ally in Theresa May, a Remainer who, together with the British civil service and most especially HM Treasury, could be relied upon to see Brussels’ point of view on most issues. She foolishly adopted the EU’s timescale and agenda; she has conceded ECJ jurisdiction in many areas when she said there would be none; using Orwellian newspeak she has rebranded the Single Market as adopting “a common rule book for goods and agri-foods” and called the Customs Union a “UK-wide backstop” so we might stay in both without an exit.
Yet in December the EU humbled her over the withdrawal agreement by imposing a wholly unnecessary Irish backstop that she should have resisted, and having learned from that humiliating capitulation they now seek further concessions. Media reports suggest Brussels has torpedoed the latest variation of her Chequers-Minus Plan and are insisting that EU boats must continue to have access to the British fisheries after we have left the Common Fisheries Policy.
Whatever plan May is able to have accepted by the EU is only likely to get through parliament with the support of the Labour Party, but Corbyn and McDonnell would far rather reject it in the belief defeat would force her to go to the country and they might achieve a change in government.
Indeed, there are strong rumours circulating that the Conservative Party is being readied for a general election to offer the nation the PM’s “deal” or face a Corbyn government. I believe this is an empty threat designed to instil discipline in the ranks – for Tory MPs would have to approve a general election and these turkeys are not likely to vote for Christmas. More likely would be a leadership challenge and change of Prime Minister.
The mood in the House of Commons is febrile. The resignation of the Transport Minister, Jo Johnson, the Remain-supporting younger brother of Boris Johnson, only served to confirm how Theresa May has failed to satisfy any of the competing groups within the Conservative Party.
What then can be done, what alternatives are there?
The MP Nick Boles is pushing the idea that the UK should take up Norway’s arrangement by confirming membership of the European Economic Area so the UK is temporarily in the EU Single Market but outside the Common Fisheries Policy and the Common Agriculture Policy. We would then use that position to negotiate a free trade deal with the EU and then leave the EEA. This arrangement without a time limit would come at a price, however; there would be an annual transfer of funds to the EU running into billions, we would have next to no say in the rules our businesses would have to adopt, the European Court of Justice would still have significant jurisdiction over the UK and, troubling to many people, we would have to accept freedom of movement.
It is an arrangement not without criticism in Norway – especially from left-of-centre, for it was designed as a means to take Norway fully into the EU, not for nations seeking to leave. More importantly, the Norwegian prime minister has been as diplomatically polite as possible in pointing out that having a country join the EEA that only wishes to leave is not especially attractive. In truth we’re not wanted.
There is of course the proposal for having a second referendum, given support by Jo Johnson when he resigned and backed by Nick Clegg, Paddy Ashdown, John Major, Alastair Campbell and other notables including Nicola Sturgeon. What they all have in common is having advocated remaining in the EU and sworn, indeed warned, there would be only one vote, no matter which way we voted – they have gone back on their word.
In the 2010 general election the Liberal Democrats advocated an In-Out EU referendum but dropped the idea when they went into coalition; by 2015 they opposed a referendum, and when it happened they insisted it would be respected. Having lost it they want a re-run of the referendum they tried to stop.
A second referendum does not solve the UK’s problems; it is not clear if it should be on membership or on a deal – or both – and is complicated further because continued UK membership will not be under the current terms. We will lose our financial rebate worth billions, we shall be forced to accept immigrant quotas and once more be on the hook for Euro bail-outs that loom over the Eurozone economy. The EU army that two years ago was called a “myth” has become a reality, with President Macron saying it might even have to defend us against the United States.
With May’s “Chequers-minus-minus” likely to mean remaining in her rebranded Customs Union, Single Market and Common Fisheries Policy; a Norway-style deal where we would continue to be rule takers at a heavy price; a second referendum continuing to divide the country and lead to demands for a third-time-lucky if Leavers lost (although my money would be on a bigger Leave majority); the only alternative must be to live under World Trade Organisation rules that give us time to negotiate the trade deal that is already on the table for Great Britain, but not yet Northern Ireland.
With that in mind, Jacob Rees Mogg has come forward with a plan called “No Deal – Plus” which would mean spending time between now and the end of March on ironing out what problems might exist but sweetening the EU with an offer of two years’ net payments of £20bn.
His case is that much of the scaremongering can be dealt with by tying up similar administrative arrangements that already exist for other countries living under WTO rules.
It would also leave us free to then organise the trade deals with other countries that are so important for the UK’s economic future.
As legally the default position if the government’s deal – or any other compromise fails to be approved – No Deal is looking far more likely. Trying to make it a smoother transition makes a great deal of sense – but will political self-interest of vested interests get in the way?