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The EU Withdrawal Bill

13th June 2018

Over the last two days, the Commons has been considering Lords amendments to the Withdrawal Bill which aims to set out the legal framework for the UK once we leave the EU next year. In brief this (very complicated) Bill, adopts all of the EU laws into our own law book, as at the date of leaving. The government views this as purely a legal facilitating Bill and not one dealing with policy. For reasons I shall explain, the House of Lords disagreed with this and sent the Bill back to us with some 15 amendments. This note is aimed at giving you some idea of where I sit on what is a range of inter-connected and complicated issues. As you may appreciate, I am a member of the Brexit Select Committee so Brexit has been taking up most of my working time since the last Election.

To make perfectly clear to start this is nothing to do with staying in the EU. Despite campaigning as a Remainer in the referendum, I voted with a majority of MPs to leave the EU, in recognition of the referendum result, and leaving the EU is what we shall be doing next year. The debate now is focussed on procedural type issues, such as what happens if there is no deal and, in policy terms, there are two key issues, namely a) what will be the terms of our withdrawal and b) what will our future relationship be with the EU.

I recognise here that for the foreseeable future the EU will remain our largest trading partner by far and an ally with whom we share vital security interests. My guiding principle is that whilst we are not going to be ruled by Brussels, we will still want to maximise trading opportunities with the EU. Some say that the referendum gave an indication to Parliament on the true meaning of Brexit e.g. in relation to immigration or trade policy. But this is wholly incorrect, both in law and practice. It is for the Government and Parliament to make these decisions.

Since the referendum MPs have been trying to find a route that will keep a majority happy, within the country, business, Parliament, our own Parties and of course the other EU countries. This has proven to be difficult and progress has been painfully slow. In fact, given that we are meant to be signing the deal with the EU this November, only five months away, we are not in as good a position as we should be. For instance, government policy on future arrangements with the EU was meant to have been published in a White Paper weeks ago, but now we hear this is delayed until after the June EU meeting, when the deal is meant to be mainly negotiated.

Government attempts to reach a compromise on the Customs position were damaged by Brexiteer Cabinet members rubbishing the Prime Minister’s Customs Partnership proposal, on the same day that she presented it to Mr. Barnier in Brussels. Likewise, the Prime Minister’s sensible proposal for an Irish backstop arrangement was immediately attacked by Brexiteer demands for an end date, which rather undermined the whole concept of a backstop; again before it was even considered by Brussels.

Cabinet resignation threats, attacks on the Prime Minister and Remainer MPs, backbench leadership election threats – often carried out in the most public of fashions has led to an uncomfortable situation, whilst the need for sensible debate and decisions looms ever closer. Of course the Labour party hold an even less coherent position than the Government, with Mr. Corbyn seemingly unable to take a coherent view on EU negotiations for fear of upsetting his future nationalisation proposals.

In the event, I backed the Government against all of the Lords amendments. In some cases, the amendments were left wing inspired and in some cases I simply disagreed with them. For instance, the Lords amendment to bring back the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights was something I opposed as a shadow Minister when the last Labour Government first brought it in.

Other amendments, such as the decision to join the EEA were mistimed and need to be debated at a later date. Various concessions were made by the government; among them an important provision to recognise the Good Friday Agreement and preventing the construction of physical barriers in Ireland. You can see my arguments in the debate in full here.

Other amendments attempted to take the process, to some degree, out of the government’s hands and give it to Parliament in the event of the Withdrawal treaty being rejected. Given the unsightly mess of a process we are in, this proposal was tempting however the government has proposed a compromise that will give Parliament a vote over the eventual withdrawal treaty and further discussions are taking place to agree a way forward in the event that the withdrawal treaty is rejected by Parliament. From assurances given by the PM, I am confident of finding a solution.

This left me to consider the Lords amendment on a customs union. This did not say that we should join one, but only that the government should report on negotiations to agree one. I do personally believe that we are going to end up with some kind of customs union; although if this is called a customs union or partnership or arrangement, I do not really care. What I do care about is that British business should not have to pay EU tariffs, have their lorries backed up for miles at Dover or be inundated with extra forms. This is why I felt it important to put down a marker on this issue now. At the very least this shows that, if the government are not able to deliver on their (I believe generally sensible) negotiating proposals, that we do not then move to hard Brexit, but further towards a customs union approach. It also reflects the will of Parliament, where there is no desire for a hard Brexit which I believe would severely damage our economy. Happily, the government listened on this issue and a compromise clause was inserted that will have the government report on a customs arrangement with the EU.

Finally, on the Withdrawal Bill, it’s worth pointing out that after hundreds of amendments tabled and a huge amount of debate we are now very close, with only a single albeit important amendment still outstanding, to having an effective Bill that will facilitate Brexit.

I hope that you will now have some better understanding of what has been going on in Parliament on Brexit recently. The Prime Minister has been given the free negotiating hand she asked for and, now she must go to the EU June meeting and attempt to deliver the deal most of us wish to see. This will enable Parliament to reconsider its position on future trade issues once the Trade Bill comes back for consideration after the EU June meeting.

Jonathan Djanogly MP

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