The 585-page withdrawal agreement, and the accompanying 26-page political declaration that sets out both sides’ aspirations for the future UK-EU relationship, is the product of over two years of often intense negotiations.
Having read both documents in their entirety, I am clear that there is no way that I can possibly support what amounts to a very bad deal for all of those living in Greenwich and Woolwich and across the rest of the UK.
The withdrawal agreement treaty is complex, technical and legalistic. It largely covers the three key priority exit issues – citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the status of Northern Ireland – as well as the ‘standstill’ transition period that will last until 31 December 2020.
The issue that had for so long been the main sticking point in the talks, namely the complex issue of the Irish border, has been resolved by means of agreement on an additional protocol to the agreement.
The protocol in question, a backstop in all but name, would come into force in the event that the future relationship (or undefined alternative arrangements) were not agreed by the end of the transition period. It would see the establishment of a single customs territory between the UK and the EU. This UK-wide customs territory would:
- cover all goods except fishery products;
- involve corresponding level playing field commitments and appropriate enforcement mechanisms to ensure fair competition; and
- facilitate full single market alignment for Northern Ireland but not for the rest of Great Britain – meaning regulatory (non-customs) checks on some types of goods (e.g. agricultural products) in the Irish Sea.
The Prime Minister has been at pains to reassure MPs that the backstop will never be used. But given the kind of tailored free trade agreement that the government would be seeking, there is every chance that it will be. And because the arrangements under the protocol are not time-limited, it could be in place for a considerable period of time. Perhaps most worryingly, exit can only be secured by agreement of a joint UK-EU committee. In other words, there is no unilateral means of escape.
I am in no way opposed to the principle of a backstop but I’m also clear that the protocol that the Government has agreed would:
- lead to significant barriers to trade between Great Britain and the EU;
- introduce barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland;
- create a ‘customs arrangement’ that lacks proper governance and where the UK has no say and influence over its tariffs and quotas;
- weaken protections for the environment and for workers; create a new constitutional status for Northern Ireland that does not have the support of likely parties in power sharing and which nationalists in Scotland will seek to exploit in order to undermine the Union; and
- hand the EU considerable leverage after exit day by allowing Member States to use the threat of it coming into force on 1 January 2021 to extract concessions in other areas not explicitly covered by the withdrawal agreement e.g. access to fish in UK waters.
That is why Labour have proposed a future economic relationship based on a new, comprehensive customs union and a means of participating in the Single Market that would ensure no hard border on the island of Ireland and, as such, would guarantee that the backstop is never used.
However, the draft protocol is not the only part of the 585-page draft withdrawal agreement that is of concern. The following are just some of the other issues of concern to me:
- The outline political declaration runs to just 26 pages and only 10 of those relate to the future economic relationship. Detail is lacking on every aspect – from what our involvement will be in EU agencies that help keep us safe, like Europol, to whether we will play any part in the European Medicines Agency, which regulates medicines across the continent. The unacceptably vague and imprecise nature of the document not only heightens the risk that the backstop will come into force but leaves the door wide open to a hard Brexit of the kind I have always made clear I would vigorously oppose.
- The small amount of detail set out in the outline political declaration makes clear that our future relationship with the EU will be premised on new barriers to trade (not the “frictionless trade” that Tory Ministers promised).
- The political declaration largely ignores our services sector, which is absolutely critical to London and accounts for 80% of overall UK economy.
- The deal means we could leave arrangements such as EUROPOL and cross border arrest warrants in 2020, leaving our borders vulnerable.
- The level-playing field measures in the backstop provide inadequate protection for workers and for the environment. For example, the workers’ rights provisions amount to a basic ‘non-regression’ clause. As the trade union law firm Thompsons points out: “non-regression clauses can only be applied if there is a demonstrable reduction in the general level of overall worker protection” and therefore provide little or no protection in individual cases or for individual protections. Moreover, the non-regression clause in the draft agreement would obviously not ensure that the UK keeps pace with any enhancement in rights, protections and standards implemented by the EU in the years ahead.
- The draft agreement makes clear that the transition will initially last until the end of 31 December 2020. However, the UK can apply for a one off extension until the end of 31 December in a currently unspecified year. The amount the UK will have to pay into the EU budget during an extended transition is not yet set but it will be set by the Joint Committee who will also have to approve any extension. The UK will therefore have little bargaining power if it wants or needs to extend the transition period.
For all of the above reasons and more, the deal as it stands is deeply flawed and it does not meet the six tests Labour that set out in February 2017 – tests based on the commitments made by Theresa May and senior members of her Cabinet in advance of the triggering of Article 50 – as the basis upon which we would judge the deal.
As such, I intend to vote against the deal in the meaningful vote on Tuesday 11 December and all Labour MPs will be asked to do the same. I am clear that, however people voted in 2016, no one voted for the deal that the Government have struck.