I admit that the irony is not lost to me that the Minister who used the example of Gary Lineker making personal comments related to Brexit as a justification for a sweeping restriction on the right to freedom of expression is now the same Minister asking everyone- particularly those who, like Mr Lineker, supported Remain- to get on board with this deal. This ironic change in tone is all the more striking given the pending rebellion of several backbenchers of the party opposite. I hope that it is not lost on the Minister as well.
But to this deal that we have at hand. I say this new deal because, as the Minister remembers, this House has already voted on a different Brexit that this deal now seeks to overturn while also solving the problem of the future relationship. Entire swaths of both the Withdrawal Agreement and the promises made about the future of Britain have been rendered obsolete; yet one thing remains the same: the threat that if we don’t have this, we’ll have a hard Brexit.
One thing that makes this difficult, as the Minister herself has mentioned, is the changing red lines. Before, there seemed to be a desire to remain in the Single Market; however, that promise was quickly jettisoned by the Right Honourable Member for Maidenhead who, in 2017, vowed that we would not be a part of the Single Market. That promise was reiterated time and again
The Minister may remember that as she was a Junior Minister and later, a Minister in the Cabinet Office, when that promise was made.
But we should see where this leaves us.
First, the Minister is correct when she states that this deal would remove us from the Common Fisheries Policy and the Common Agricultural Policy. Pretty much any deal would have done that. But this deal does in fact pull us out of those programmes; it would be wrong of me to give credit where it's earned.
Second, that is about the only area in which the Minister is correct when analysing and presenting this deal.
We are joining the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), joining Switzerland, Norway, Iceland, and Liechtenstein. We are also joining, if the statements made to the press are believed, the European Economic Area (EEA)- the Single Market. However, contrary to the Minister’s statement, Switzerland is not a part of the EEA; rather, they have negotiated separate agreements that regulate that economic and political relationship. This is the path that we thought we were taking, this is the path we could have taken, but it is not the same as what we are doing now. We're accepting the Single Market through the EEA, as-is.
Access to the Single Market comes with benefits, but it also comes with costs, both direct and indirect.
As a part of EFTA, we absolutely have to pay dues to EFTA and to the EU and we have to contribute to certain Member States. EFTA members- which will include the UK- contribute to the economic and social development of countries that need it. Currently the beneficiary states include Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Estonia, Greece, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Malta, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia and Slovenia.
And as part of EFTA, we absolutely have to pay the EU directly for the operation and administration of programmes that we will be a part of. Some of these are optional, such as Erasmus. I note the Minister mentioned that the UK would continue to participate in Erasmus in a statement on Twitter; if this is to be true, we will have to contribute financially to the EU in order to participate in this program. Others are less optional; EFTA countries participate in a number of EU initiatives based on decisions by the overarching EEA Joint Committee, which oversees the implementation of the EEA.
Now, the Minister told this very House that there are no special provisions for the United Kingdom, so there are organisations that we will be participating in and, by extension, have to pay for. This includes the European Food Safety Authority. The European Banking Authority. The European Environment Agency. The European Medicines Agency. There are others, which I imagine will be shared by the Minister in due course.
Norway has to pay a fee of about £700 million each year to the EU; with our GDP being 7 times higher, we could expect our own bill to be something like £5 billion each year. Now I know the Minister will be able to give me a more accurate figure- and it may be less than this- but it is by no means a sum of zero.
The Minister has stated that we are no longer under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. Mr Speaker, that is also not entirely accurate.
With respect to the operation of the EEA and EFTA, we are subject to two institutions which are not quite the same as their EU counterparts, but which interact with them and take guidance from them: the EFTA Surveillance Authority, which oversees the implementation of EU laws relating to competition and the Single Market, and the EFTA Court which will decide on actions of this Surveillance Authority.
This EFTA Court must and does use ECJ case law in its decisions, particularly where that case law relates again to issues around competition and the Single Market. Both the EFTA Court and the ECJ have agreed and worked towards homogeneity in their decisions and approach given the need to have a strong foundation for the Single Market.
And if a dispute were to arise between the UK and an EU member, that dispute may very well find its way to the ECJ if the issue relates to EU rules. So to say we are totally free of the ECJ is partially- but not entirely- accurate.
Even on the issues of an independent trade policy is an issue where there is an asterisk, where there is a “but” which requires more. We can negotiate agreements with other countries, yes, since EFTA is merely a trade arrangement rather than a political entity.
But those agreements can’t jeopardize the Single Market. Rules about product standards, about competition; we are locked in to decisions that are made by the EU.
Indeed, by accepting the Single Market, we are still at the mercy of EU decisions relating to the operation of the Single Market. The rules are made by the EU, and then adapted by the EEA; the EFTA Surveillance Authority will be there to make sure we adapt those rules into our own legislation.
EFTA countries, which the UK will become, get an informal say in the early stages, but we have no way of using our weight to stop new regulations from being made that affect us and that we will have to follow eventually.
I note that one of the important rallying cries of those who campaigned for and those that voted for Brexit is omitted by the Minister’s speech. I speak of the issue of “taking back our borders.”
In her press conference on this new Brexit, the Minister said that we would be free to regulate immigration from non-EEA countries; in this statement, the issue is avoided entirely.
And that is because, Mr Speaker, under the EEA agreement, freedom of movement still applies for EEA countries. EEA also requires our social security regime with other EEA countries so that it is open and accessible by eligible migrants. We lose our ability to control migration from the EU, completely and wholly, particularly compared to the deal that this House voted on just one year ago.
Prior to the referendum, net migration from the EU topped 200,000 people annually. That number fell following- no doubt those who were waiting to see what the relationship would be like now. Our new arrangement presented by the Government hangs a welcome sign to those that have waited… and those who will be allowed in by nature of our participation in the EEA.
Another area omitted is the status of Northern Ireland.
While we will have some issues resolved by joining the SIngle Market, that will not resolve everything. The EEA is not a customs union, which means our shipments to the EU through Northern Ireland are subject to customs checks. That’d be the same if we were sending goods across the Channel to France or through the North Sea. Paperwork needs to be verified, products inspected to make sure that we do not become a route for smuggling.
The Minister has promoted this deal as allowing us to eliminate the Northern Ireland Protocol. We can’t… not if we want to avoid some way of having a harder border than we do now.
The message that we must pass this or risk a no-deal Brexit is a message that we hear, loud and clear. And this deal is better than a no-deal Brexit.
It gives us certainty where we would have none otherwise.
It gives us a reliable mechanism that, as the Minister says rightly, we used to be a part of.
And it takes away a continued “seat-of-your pants” negotiating style that this Government seems to be using in this case.
But let’s also be clear that this is a political decision as well. This Government is seeking to change the deal and hold it over the heads of this country in the same way that the last deal was last year.
This Government is looking now to appear as though it’s holding an olive branch out to those they have happily demonised in order to stave off a crippling rebellion in their ranks. A rebellion that may include the current Minister for Public Services and Social Affairs, who called the last deal “Brexit In Name Only,” and who preferred a no-deal Brexit to the last deal that this House voted on.
The cost of a no-deal Brexit has been made clear, so I don’t need to repeat that. Unlike the current Minister for Public Services and Social Affairs, I would not prefer a no-deal Brexit to this current deal, given the major impacts that would be felt across every sector of our economy, across every community in the United Kingdom, by every family that is looking to this House for leadership.
We would rather see something like this to provide Britain with a measure of stability than see this Government try to navigate no-deal.
But hopefully, this Government can actually be clear on what they’re delivering too. Because there is a lot of work that needs to be done.
Ashton Edwards MP
MP for Kensington (2017-) | Labour
Shadow Foreign Secretary (2020-)
Shadow Health and Social Affairs Secretary (2020-)
Shadow Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Secretary (2019-)
Shadow Health, Education and Social Care Secretary (2019-2020)