The following statement sets out my response to the Draft Withdrawal Agreement and Future Relationship Framework. This statement was updated on 22 November when the Future Relationship Framework was announced and then updated again on 11th December following the postponement of the Parliamentary vote.
The Withdrawal Agreement and Future Relationship Framework
I welcome the fact that a draft Withdrawal Agreement has been concluded, because for a while it looked like we may not be able to come to an agreement at all and I do not believe that leaving the EU without a deal would be good for the UK - or the EU.
On 22 November the draft agreement on our future relationship - outlining how trade, security and other issues will work - was also agreed in principle.
Together, these documents are the basis for our Brexit deal and parliament will vote on this deal in due course.
It is the governments intention that the EU and UK will then work at pace to turn the future relationship framework into formal legal agreements. This will include some preparatory work before we leave the EU including further work on developing alternative arrangements to the Northern Ireland backstop (more on this, below) and discussions to finalise the details will continue during the transition period.
The deal is not perfect but no deal was ever going to be. Deal-making is about compromise and I am comfortable with - rather than enthusiastic about - the deal because I believe it delivers on the referendum by taking back control of our money, borders and laws, while protecting jobs, security and the integrity of the United Kingdom. As with the referendum, opinion on the deal in my constituency is divided. But I do believe that the deal does deliver on the vast majority of things that people who voted Leave in the referendum said they wanted. I think it also provides clarity and comfort to those who voted Remain that we will continue to be strong friends and close trading partners with the EU.
Admittedly, I would like further changes to be made to improve elements of the deal - such as the 'backstop' provisions - but if, as seems likely, it is a binary choice between this deal and no deal, then I will support this deal in the Parliamentary vote.
And there is much to support in the deal and the tone for an 'ambitious, broad, deep and flexible partnership' with the EU is a positive one.
Crucially, what the deal the government proposes does all of the following:
- Ends free movement of people.
- Guarantees the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU.
- Creates a free trade area for goods with zero tariffs with the EU.
- Establishes ambitious and comprehensive arrangements for services - that go beyond World Trade Organization (WTO) commitments
- Gives us the freedom to sign trade deals around the world.
- Ends our monetary contributions to the EU. The agreed settlement of £39 billion allows us to meet existing obligations but we will no longer make payments towards the EU’s budget.
- Ends the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in the UK.
- Removes the UK from the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP).
- Establishes a comprehensive security partnership which includes close reciprocal law enforcement
I was particularly pleased to see these words in the Future Relationship document: "The future relationship... must ensure the sovereignty of the United Kingdom and the protection of its internal market while respecting the result of the 2016 referendum including with regard to the development of its independent trade policy and the ending of free movement of people."
These two items were amongst the top reasons given to me by people who wanted to leave the EU in the run up to the referendum. People also expressed frustration about the European Court telling us what to do on matters of domestic policy and with handing over billions of pounds each year to the EU. These too will cease with this deal.
I am also relieved that this deal will help put the minds at rest of the thousands of my constituents who are from the EU as it confirms their rights to stay here and also confirms the rights of the nearly 1 million UK citizens who currently reside in the EU.
The Northern Ireland ‘Backstop’
With regard to the so called ‘backstop’ there has been considerable confusion as to what this means and when it may come into force. Let’s be clear, both the EU - including the Republic of Ireland - and the UK want to avoid a hard Northern Ireland border so the ‘backstop’ is a back up plan (explicitly not a desired outcome) in case they cannot reach a long term trade agreement which does this (ie. avoids a hard border). The intention of both sides is to avoid defaulting into the backstop during the transition period, not to implement it.
Paragraph 19 of the future relationship document states: "The parties recall their determination to replace the backstop solution on Northern Ireland by a subsequent agreement that establishes alternative arrangements for ensuring the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing."
Northern Ireland presents a particular challenge because it shares a land border with an EU member (The Republic of Ireland) and is separated from the rest of the UK by the Irish Sea. This means it is difficult to negotiate an arrangement that does not either create a hard customs border (with physical checks) on the island of Ireland or necessitate increased checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
A backstop arrangement has therefore been put into place to act as a safety net if no solution to avoiding a hard border is found during the transition period. The backstop would mean greater regulatory alignment between the EU and Northern Ireland in order to ensure a soft border on the island of Ireland. It would also mean a temporary single custom territory between the whole of the UK and the EU until a point at which both agree that this arrangement is no longer necessary.
This arrangement would only come into effect if no solution is found during the transition period as part of the final negotiated deal. I am personally hopeful that a technological solution at the Irish border can be found that ensures that movement between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland is, in practice, frictionless but still meets customs requirements between the EU and the UK. This goal is also expresses in the future relationship document itself.
If such a solution is found the backstop does not come into play and becomes irrelevant. The backstop is therefore not inevitable and it is not true to suggest that the Withdrawal Agreement permanently ties the UK into a single customs territory with the EU. The backstop is not the desired outcome nor, crucially, the intended outcome of either side. Every effort will be made to avoid it. It is especially not in the Republic of Ireland's interests for the backstop to exist as Northern Ireland would effectively be in a preferential economic position - and it would mean the UK remaining part of the customs union yet not paying into the EU coffers - ie precisely against the negotiating stance of the EU.
I think it is entirely valid to be concerned about the backstop and the proposed mechanism for exiting it, should it come into place. I have concerns myself and would have, in an ideal world, preferred to see an arrangement that allowed us to give unilateral notice of our intention to leave the backstop rather than by mutual agreement. I hope we can clarify this issue and give greater confidence to everyone during future discussions and negotiations.
But I would not want to throw the whole deal out and risk no deal on the misunderstanding that the backstop is inevitable or if it did come into place that it would be permanent. I have greater faith in our ability to find a technological solution - and have greater faith in the ability of the EU and UK to come to a reasonable future relationship arrangement than that. I recognise that other people have less faith and therefore are more concerned about the backstop.
It is important to note that many of the alternative models being proposed for leaving the EU do not adequately deal with the issue of the Northern Ireland border either - and it is likely that the EU would insist on similar backstop arrangement under many of these proposals.
Postponement of the Parliamentary vote
My constituents will have seen that the scheduled Parliamentary vote on the Withdrawal Agreement that was due to be held on Tuesday 11th December has been postponed. The Prime Minister was open and honest about why this happened. The debates in the House of Commons in the week leading up to the vote made clear that many MPs still retain deep concerns about the terms of the Northern Ireland backstop. In particular, the lack of a unilateral mechanism for leaving its arrangements has led many to declare that they will not be voting in favour of the Agreement. As stated above, I also have my own concerns about the backstop.
Having listened to the views of colleagues and the public, the Prime Minister could see that the deal in its current form may have been voted down in Parliament and therefore saw it in the best interests of the Brexit process to return to the EU to try and secure an agreement that Parliament would accept. I hope that the Prime Minister will achieve a compromise that Parliament finds acceptable but I respect her for listening to the concerns expressed by my colleagues and persevering with her substantial efforts to achieve the best deal for the UK.
The Transition Period and WTO terms
A number of my constituents have raised concerns about the transition period and have questioned why it is necessary to extend our alignment with EU rules and customs arrangements after 29 March 2019. I hope that the section above on the Northern Ireland backstop has gone some way in addressing why this is necessary. A full negotiated deal is something that will take time to finalise and prepare for implementation so it is sensible and necessary to ensure that we do not fall over a cliff edge at the end of the Article 50 period.
If we did not have a transition period, we would leave the EU on 29th March without agreed customs, trade and legal arrangements in place. This could potentially cause uncertainty, logistical challenges and confusion (despite considerable no deal scenario planning) and would mean reverting to the default World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs for many sectors. But WTO is not all encompassing. Vital sectors like aviation are not even covered by WTO rules and complex arrangements would be required to come into place at late notice to ensure such sectors could continue operating smoothly in the event of no deal. This may well be possible but would cause considerable problems for many industries and sectors. Some digital areas and aspects of the financial services sectors are likewise not covered by WTO terms. Furthermore, businesses in my constituency who I have been in contact with (who together employ more than 10,000 of my constituents) have expressed great concern about the possibility of leaving without a deal. They do not feel that they are prepared to leave on WTO terms. This is repeated at a national level where many leading employers have expressed grave concerns about leaving on WTO terms and are strongly lobbying MPs to vote for the deal proposed by Theresa May - or risk job losses. I take these concerns very seriously.
Therefore whilst I understand that many of my constituents want to leave the EU as quickly as possible or on WTO terms, I fully support the agreement of a transition period in this Withdrawal Agreement and am not supportive of leaving on WTO terms in March 2019.
Calls for a Second Referendum
I understand the strength of feeling on this matter as we saw during the march in London recently. I know that some people want to have a complete re-run of the initial referendum with an in and out option again; whereas others are looking for a referendum on the precise Brexit terms being negotiated by the government (with or without a remain option).
But I do not support calls for another referendum on Brexit at this time. I think it would have profound implications for our democracy. We can't keep going back asking the same or a similar question until we get a different answer. A second referendum is also likely to be incredibly divisive for the UK.
From a personal perspective, I voted in favour of having an in/out referendum on our membership of the EU soon after being elected in 2015. There was an overwhelming demand for this amongst my constituents - as evidenced by the fact that in the end 59% of them voted Leave. I said throughout the referendum campaign that I would respect the result - whether remain or leave - and take it as an instruction and vote in Parliament accordingly. If I had made a different commitment, I may act differently. It is also important to remember that the government sent a leaflet to every home in the country before the referendum where it made a clear commitment to implement the result - whether leave or remain.
MPs voted 494 to 122 in favour of invoking Article 50 in 2017 and it would not be right for us to try and frustrate the process now. Now that a Withdrawal Agreement has been agreed I believe Parliament must vote on the adoption of the Agreement and I am not convinced that a second referendum could even be arranged in time to satisfy the Brexit timetable - even if it was desired.
The next few weeks will be a challenging time for parliament and the country. To hold a second referendum on whether we remain or leave the EU, or hold another election would be a distraction. That is not to say that a public vote on our future relationship with the EU is never again possible. I suspect that within a generation there will be another referendum on whether or not we join/rejoin whatever form the EU evolves into over the next few years - and suspect different political parties may propose alternative arrangements with the EU in future election manifestos.
But for the reasons I have outlined above, I am not supportive of another referendum now.
I believe there is a time and a place for idealism in politics, but now is not it. We need to be practical and realistic and deal with the world as it is, not as we would desire it to be. So we need to be conscious of the timetables that have been agreed to relating to our withdrawal from the EU and we need to be aware of the attitudes and constraints of those whom we are negotiating with.
The choices therefore are not as wide and varied as some would ideally wish. The suggestion that we should start again with the negotiations is not a realistic one. The clear choice at the moment is between this deal and no deal. As I have repeatedly stated, I personally believe no deal is not a desirable outcome, so I want a deal. This is also the overwhelming view of the largest employers in my constituency.
I am aware that some of my constituents are keen on the so called Canada +++ model or for an EFTA/ EEA model. Like all deals that have been proposed at various points over the last few years, they have their merits and their flaws, but the vote is on the government's deal versus no deal; not on any and all alternative options.
This governments deal is the only deal on the table and I believe it is a reasonable outcome. If there are creative and practical ways in which we can improve the deal - as discussions on the future relationship continue - then, of course, I will welcome such moves.
The Prime Minister
The Prime Minister has faced one of the greatest challenges of statecraft and negotiation in our country’s history. To have come back with a deal that moves this process forward in a mutually beneficial manner is an achievement for which she has not been given enough credit. She has worked tirelessly for over two years in an unenviable position and come away with a 585-page document that can now unlock the process towards a final negotiated deal.
It would be foolish to undermine her now and risk leaving with no deal at all. Time is short until March 29th 2019 and the Prime Minister is best placed to see this process through. Theresa May is a dedicated public servant who has shown great resilience and determination under extremely difficult circumstances. To enter into a leadership contest now would be self indulgent of the Conservative party and would not alter the position of the EU.
Moreover in the chamber of the House of Commons I asked the Prime Minister directly if this deal was the best available and if it was in the best long term interests of my children. She turned around and said yes - and it may sound old fashioned, but I believe when the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom looks you in the eyes and makes a commitment like that, it means something.
I will therefore continue to support the Prime Minister and hope to see a sensible deal passed in Parliament in time for our exit from the EU.
I am aware that this statement will not satisfy some of my constituents who have very firm views on Brexit. I have received communications from constituents telling me to: back the deal, scrap the deal, back the Prime Minister, sack the Prime Minister, hold another referendum, don't hold another referendum, default to no deal, avoid no deal at all costs - and many more diverse and opposite views. I am afraid I will have to disappoint some of my constituents no matter what decisions I make. But I do take every opinion and view seriously and thank everyone who has taken the time to contact me both recently and over the last few years on this pivotal issue for the future of our country.
Nigel Huddleston MP – November 2018
To read the full text of the Withdrawal Agreement, see: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/759019/25_November_Agreement_on_the_withdrawal_of_the_United_Kingdom_of_Great_Britain_and_Northern_Ireland_from_the_European_Union_and_the_European_Atomic_Energy_Community.pdf
To read the political declaration on the framework for a future partnership, see: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/759021/25_November_Political_Declaration_setting_out_the_framework_for_the_future_relationship_between_the_European_Union_and_the_United_Kingdom__.pdf
To read the Prime Minister’s 40 Reasons to Back the Brexit Deal, see: https://www.gov.uk/government/news/40-reasons-to-back-the-brexit-deal
For detailed information and other documents, see the Government’s The Brexit Deal Explained website at https://brexitdealexplained.campaign.gov.uk/
For an objective assessment of the deal you can check out various news site, including the BBC's fact check site, here: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-46237012