I was told it straight in Brussels: the EU’s only alternative to the backstop is a customs union

I was told it straight in Brussels: the EU’s only alternative to the backstop is a customs union

Michel Barnier hinted at it on Friday night, but the Irish delegation told me straight in Brussels on Thursday: they will never agree a subsequent agreement or variation to the Withdrawal Agreement which replaces the backstop that is not a customs union. Whether that is for the whole UK, or Northern Ireland on its own with a full customs border in the Irish Sea, is up to us, according to Barnier. As Patsy in Absolutely Fabulous might have said: “Cheers. Thanks a lot”.

From our International Trade Select Committee meetings in Brussels last week, in particular with the UK and Irish delegations, a crystal clear picture emerged of where we are in the negotiations and what lies ahead if Parliament is so foolish as to approve the Government’s capitulation to the EU in the Withdrawal Agreement. It would absolutely not be taking back control of our money, borders and laws.

The only reason the EU would prefer the backstop to end is that it does not give them enough control. They want us to adopt all EU rules in social and employment law, for example, and to give them access to our fisheries – as well as placing our defence and security within the EU structures.

But no other agreement than a customs union will be granted to us by the EU, meaning they will also control our trading conditions and trading relations with third countries, both in terms of the levels of import tariffs we need to charge, which disadvantage our citizens and businesses, and access to other markets. And they could further encourage products for our market to be shipped through Rotterdam so that the EU either keeps the revenue from tariffs on our imports or gives third countries free access to UK markets without them having to offer it to us in return.

Moreover, the customs procedure required by the Withdrawal Agreement, for every single commercial consignment between Great Britain and the EU, and each one crossing a new internal border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland imposed under the backstop, was again admitted to be unworkable and needing to be changed because of its friction and inefficiency.

Not only does it create an obligation for antiquated “wet ink stamps” on physical certificates for 200 million consignments per annum to be provided and processed by UK customs officers and businesses, with much more cost and delay at and behind borders than the cheap and efficient normal electronic declaration procedures for customs; but it does not obviate the need for export and rule of origin declarations which proponents of a customs union wrongly think avoids them.

To cap it off, it was admitted that in order to make changes to this which the UK Government admits are necessary, the process that would have to be used would be a decision on any superseding law or regulation made by the Joint Committee, as established by the Withdrawal Agreement. Any change to these anti-trade measures would need – yes, you guessed it – the EU’s permission. That is in fact the permanent structure for our future relationship that is set up by the Withdrawal Agreement: a secretive decision-making body not subject to UK democratic scrutiny in which the EU has veto power and therefore full control.

I hesitate to use analogies when it comes to Brexit, as most are imperfect and inappropriate, but it seems to me that a decision to leave is not best implemented by giving power to a person who does not want you to leave, over conditions for your future interaction with them and others on a permanent basis. As we might advise someone in a somewhat coercive, controlling relationship, it is almost always best instead to make a clean break.

In this case we know that the groundwork has been put in place to manage a clean break in a way that is not damaging to either party. I am not someone who thinks the EU is a bad person, and this is evidence. A nine- to twelve-month transition has effectively been arranged by way of unilateral actions in respect of aviation, haulage permits, aerospace and vehicle certifications, agricultural product access, electricity interconnects, insurance recognition and a raft of other areas. And under the “Malthouse Compromise” proposals we would continue to offer constructive cooperation, money, citizens’ rights and zero tariff free trade. So there is in fact no such thing as “no deal” by not agreeing the dubious terms of the proposed Withdrawal Agreement.

There was a Commons majority for the Brady amendment requiring replacement of the backstop. The EU took offence that the Prime Minister whipped for it, perhaps realising that the terms she had been offered, some at her own ill-advised instigation, were unacceptable. But that is where the sustainable majority in the Commons is: for a normal, balanced relationship between parties who wish to be friends. So submissive and confused by the EU the Government may have been, that it failed to act on Parliament’s clear instruction to table Malthouse alternatives. However they are practical and available, not at all fanciful or futuristic (as some have tried to paint them) and do not “involve a significant number of derogations from EU law” as the Prime Minister perhaps mistakenly claimed.

Instead of this cycle of suspicion, aggression and talking past each other, the parties should seize the chance to talk about the practicalities in an informed and rational way so as to achieve a good negotiated agreement whether inside or outside the Article 50 notice period for leaving the EU. The “Malthouse Compromise” sets out a framework and coherent strategy to find mutual interest in which to get it done. We would be fools not to insist that this is the way forward rather than the inappropriate Withdrawal Agreement, which does not create a stable or satisfactory solution, notwithstanding that many have obviously put a lot of effort into trying to make that work, in both the UK and EU delegations.