We must keep faith with our promise to voters that we would leave the EU now

We must keep faith with our promise to voters that we would leave the EU now

Tying the UK to the EU’s single market and customs union with Labour votes would devastate trust in the Government and in politics more broadly. 58% of the population, who expected control of the UK’s law making to be returned to the UK when we leave the EU according to an Ipsos-MORI poll this week, would find their politicians had failed to deliver it.

Conservative voters would find their Government which stood on a General Election manifesto of leaving the single market and customs union had connived with the man they had demonised to deliver the exact opposite. Labour voters would question why their representatives had gone against their manifesto to help a government to which they are normally opposed.

The course of European politics over recent years has shown that such loss of trust in mainstream parties has allowed other types of politics to replace them. I want the Conservative Party to be a broad church and to have a constructive and balanced relationship with the EU and its European member states, but also to be a party that is trusted and successful. That is why I have been so keen to point out the dangers of the Government’s current course which in my belief really risks its reputation in these matters, and to get us pointed in the right direction.

It is worth therefore drilling into the detail of what is meant, and what are the practical and technical consequences, of the well worn phrases we have heard so much in rhetorical debate over the last three years, especially in advance seemingly of yet more votes on them.

Just as the EEA “single market” agreement was conceived as an ante-room for European community membership for the EFTA countries, Turkey’s “customs union” with the EU was established as part of its pre-accession integration process.

Comment on the EU’s regulations in the EEA’s case, and the EU’s tariffs and preferential trade access to their market in Turkey’s case, may be allowed, but they have no practical way to avoid adopting the rules in these matters which in the end the EU makes for them.

The EU and EEA countries have no appetite to reform these processes in a liberalising direction to accommodate the UK’s wishes were it to have similar arrangements, or indeed to make a special case of the UK. Free movement of people, and rules made by others even if inappropriate, for example for our world leading financial centre in the City of London, would not be things we could resist.

Yet at least in extremis the EEA countries and Turkey could leave those arrangements with notice. The UK would not be allowed to leave such arrangements without falling into a “backstop” for Northern Ireland or the whole UK however, because these arrangements for the UK would not be allowed by the EU without signing up to the permanent Northern Ireland backstop element of the Withdrawal Agreement. EU officials would have achieved their aim of making Northern Ireland the “price” for the UK leaving the EU, even in name only.

EEA and customs union arrangements in any case moreover do not make for “frictionless trade”. The CBI mantra about them which sounds nice and which Remain supporting Cabinet ministers have allowed to be drilled into their heads, is misleading. EEA and or customs union still require border formalities of export declarations, and in the customs union case additional physical movement certificates to prove origin or duty paid on all consignments.

The UK if it implements the Withdrawal Agreement will have agreed that in the “backstop” these physical movement certificates to administer its customs union would be required on every transaction between Great Britain and the EU, and Great Britain and Northern Ireland – perhaps 200 million a year.

In contrast, a free trade agreement such as that offered the UK by Donald Tusk last March, and an agreement to ease administrative processes for trade such as that suggested in our Alternative Arrangements Working Group, could be at least as effectively “frictionless”, would be a normal balanced relationship between jurisdictions with independence of action, and would not prejudice the constitutional integrity of our union or stability of relations in the island of Ireland.

Let’s therefore not do something the people of the UK on both sides of politics would regard as a defeat, the likes of which had never been seen in peace time.

Let’s instead offer a balanced, independent relationship of free trade, cooperation and respect for each other’s citizens, with standstill arrangements to allow more time for each side to prepare should the EU want them, but be prepared to negotiate this from outside the EU.

Dedicated civil servants on both sides of the Channel have in fact applied huge resource to readiness and most businesses have made their plans and prepared, as the Bank of England highlighted this week. We should redouble our efforts to help people transition quickly to new processes, especially those whom the messages have not reached, and support them through any short term disruption.  

But we must keep faith with those we promised we would leave the EU now. The future opportunities of the freedom we will gain by doing so are real. But we must seize them now, when countries around the world are lining up to help with them, and not let them slip out if our hands.