15th November 2018
The Conservative Manifesto of May 2015 said we will legislate for “a straight in-out referendum on our membership of the European Union by the end of 2017”.
At that election, I was returned as the MP for Winchester & Chandler’s Ford with over 50% of the vote and the new majority Conservative Government subsequently legislated for that referendum and, after some nine months, passed into the law the European Union Referendum Act 2015.
Writing in April 2016, setting out why I intended to vote Remain in the EU referendum to come, I said it was “as silly to suggest staying in is a golden goose for the British people as it is to say leaving will lead us to a land of milk and honey.”
I have not changed that view.
Life inside the European Union was not perfect – it required many compromises and created a democratic deficit which drove calls for that to be addressed - and life outside the European Union will not be perfect either.
I campaigned passionately for Remain in the referendum campaign but I was on the losing side. I said the day after the result, as I said before it, that I would respect the outcome and I have done exactly that. It’s not about ‘changing your mind’ as my political enemies mischievously try to suggest, it’s about accepting the result.
At the (unexpected) General Election – in June 2017 – I was re-elected (again with more than 50% of the vote) on a manifesto which made it clear we would honour the national result which was, of course, 52% Leave and 48% Remain.
And to be clear, this was a NATIONAL referendum, not 650 individual referenda somehow added up to their sum of their parts by MPs voting – like delegates – respectively. It was just counted locally, as provided for in legislation, by District council areas NOT parliamentary constituency. If the 2015 legislation had decided to do it this way, I think it would have been an even bigger win for Leave given the large number of urban Labour constituencies who voted such.
And while we’re busting myths, the 2016 referendum WAS indeed advisory. Thanks to the helpful Gina Miller case, Parliament subsequently passed the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Act 2017 which, passed with a massive majority by MPs, gave legal effect to the referendum.
Much has been said since the referendum but, like the Prime Minister, I have consistently said we are not looking for an 'off the shelf' deal for our future relationship – a 'Hard Brexit' or 'Soft Brexit', Norwegian model or a Swiss model – but one that that works best for the whole of the UK.
The British Government has subsequently - through the Lancaster House speech, Florence declaration and ultimately the ‘Chequers’ proposals – negotiated with the EU for a withdrawal agreement to take effect on our legislated for exit date of March 28th 2019.
I have repeatedly made clear, in my column for the Hampshire Chronicle and in publications delivered to every home in the constituency that I will, in the end, “support a deal that respects the referendum result and puts practical reality for our economy and our country over theoretical dreamy ideology.”
I have not changed that view and it is this, alongside my promise not to forget the 48% who voted Remain, which guided me this week as the Government and the EU finally published the ‘Agreement on the withdrawal of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland from the European Union.’
As the agreement makes clear, this document should be considered alongside the outline ‘Political Declaration’ on our future relationship.
Last night, I was invited into Downing Street for a detailed briefing on the draft Withdrawal Agreement with the Prime Minister’s senior team and today I was in the House of Commons for the Prime Minister’s Statement – and over three hours of questions – for MP’s.
As my constituents would expect, I have not made any public comment before understanding the outline of this agreement and will spend the coming days studying the detailed (585 page) text.
It contains much I welcome and some compromises which were inevitable in a negotiation of such complexity.
The full legal text secures the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, and UK nationals living in the EU; something I and many of my constituents were understandably concerned about.
It agrees the terms of a time-limited implementation period and a fair financial settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing Member State, in accordance with our legal commitments and in the spirit of the UK’s continuing partnership with the EU.
Furthermore, it makes sensible provision for the winding up other aspects of our current membership in an orderly way, such as current legal cases and goods that have been placed on the market before our exit.
As set out, we have now finally agreed a way forward on the outstanding issue of the Northern Ireland backstop – or insurance policy – that guarantees no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland if our future relationship is not ready by 2021.
I am convinced that the agreement we have reached is the best that we can negotiate and know the Prime Minister would not have put it forward if she thought otherwise.
Equally, I have no doubt that parts of it make some uncomfortable. But we should not forget that the European Commission is as well. It includes several significant concessions on the part of the EU towards the UK’s position; a question Leave voting constituents often ask for examples of.
The EU wanted the whole Withdrawal Agreement overseen by the European Union’s Court of Justice. Instead, we have a political Joint Committee and an independent arbitration panel, with the panel to ask the EU’s Court of Justice if it decides that it is a relevant point of EU law.
The EU said that we could not preserve the invisible border between Northern Ireland and Ireland without splitting the United Kingdom’s customs territory. This deal maintains the integrity of the United Kingdom’s customs territory: the EU’s initial proposal for a Northern Ireland-only customs ‘backstop to the backstop’ has been dropped and replaced by a new UK-wide solution that respects the constitutional integrity of our country.
The EU had said that no tariffs, quotas or checks on rules of origin to the EU market needed to be on the basis of deep level playing field commitments, existing access to waters, strong governance and probably financial contribution. This deal offers us those benefits as part of the backstop but without those heavy obligations and no commitment on payments at all.
Unlike our current customs arrangements, we will keep all our revenue from tariffs. And while, exceptionally, there would be tariffs on our fish and fish products unless we reach a fisheries agreement with the EU, under the backstop itself we immediately regain full control of our waters and become an independent coastal state once again.
Both sides have agreed to do everything necessary to ensure that the future relationship is ready on 1st January 2021 so the backstop is not needed. If the future relationship isn’t ready, we would have a choice between the backstop and extending the implementation period. And if we chose the backstop, the Withdrawal Agreement is explicit that it is temporary and includes a mechanism by which it can be terminated.
Whatever your view of what our future relationship should be with the EU, there is no escaping the need for a legally operative backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement. The EU have been consistent and clear on this through the process. Whether it is the proposals we have put forward in the White Paper, a version of a standard free trade agreement or membership of the European Economic Area, all involve a Northern Irish backstop.
The UK – and I firmly believe this is true across the political spectrum – has also been firm in its commitment to ensuring there is no return to a hard border. Therefore, while this backstop involves difficult compromises, I am certain that there is no way to achieve a Brexit deal that does not include this backstop.
Alongside the Withdrawal Agreement, the outline of the political declaration sets out the basis of our ambitious future partnership with the EU.
It will mean an end to free movement – once and for all, including if the temporary backstop needs to be used. A point on which both parties campaigned on at the last General Election.
It represents considerable movement on the EU’s part. The EU had said that the choice for the UK was binary: Norway or Canada. In this Outline Political Declaration they concede that there is a spectrum, with the extent of our commitments taken into account in deciding the question of checks and controls.
So we have agreed to create a free trade area for goods, combining deep regulatory and customs cooperation with zero tariffs, no fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all goods sectors. No other major advanced economy has such a relationship with the EU.
We have reached common ground on a close relationship on services and investment, including financial services (of great interest to many of my constituents); on cooperation on transport and energy; and on fisheries the provisions reflect the fact that the UK will become an independent coastal state once again.
The EU had said that we could not share capabilities as a non-Member State. The Outline Political Declaration grants us direct access to some and promises to enable many others, further commitments than they have made to any non-Member State.
Alongside all this we have reached agreement on key elements of our future security partnership to keep our people safe. There will be swift and effective extradition arrangements and we will continue data exchange on fingerprints, DNA, and vehicle records as well as passenger name records. On foreign, security and defence policy, we have agreed to co-operation on sanctions, participation in missions and operations, defence capability development and intelligence exchanges.
There is still further work to do, as the joint statement from us and the EU makes clear, in areas such as our trade in goods, respecting the development of the UK’s independent trade policy, and internal security, but we are now in a position to finalise the deal over the coming days. Nothing is agreed until everything is agreed, so although we have agreed the Withdrawal Agreement in principle that is subject to agreeing the full Political Declaration on the future relationship.
The Prime Minister said at the very start that withdrawing from EU membership after 40 years, and establishing a wholly new relationship that will endure for decades to come, would be complex and require hard work.
It has been a frustrating process. It has required difficult compromises from us and for the EU, but no agreement is ever reached without give and take on both sides. What has been agreed means that we are on the threshold of doing a deal that delivers on the result of the referendum.
We will take back control of our borders with an end to free movement, take back control of our money, and take back control of our laws. As we do so, we will protect people’s jobs, protect our security and protect our Union.
There has, of course, already been fierce criticism of some of the difficult decisions which have been made and several Ministerial resignations.
I do not shy away from that. There are no easy answers and there never were. I deplored the simplistic promises made by the Leave campaign in the 2016 referendum and the vision of utopia they said our exit would realise.
For me, this draft Agreement is where, for the likes of Boris Johnson, that fantasy meets reality. I think it is a bit rich for brexiteers, who promised the earth, to now walk away blaming the Prime Minister for failing to deliver their Alice in Wonderland view of the post-Brexit world.
As I said on the BBC this afternoon, live from College Green in Westminster after hearing the PM’s Statement and watching Jacob Rees-Mogg make his statement of no confidence in Mrs May, there is a battle for the soul taking place within my party at this time.
One view is from those who want shot of the EU - 'one leap and we're free' - like a divorced couple with no children who never speak again and it’s borne out of a desire for a no-deal ‘hard’ Brexit. I fundamentally and wholly disagree with this world view.
What’s more, the proponents of Brexit (inside Parliament, outside Parliament and across both parties) have had more than two years to set out their plan and have singularly failed to do so. It’s not good enough to simply tell us at the 11th hour what you don’t like or who you think would do any better with a divided country and the unchanging Parliamentary arithmetic.
The other view, shared by me and the vast majority of my sensible, moderate colleagues (including the Prime Minister) recognises that the 2016 referendum was a close run thing and, as a result, we have a country that is still very divided.
I strongly believe that no-one voted to be poorer in June 2016 or to turn our backs on our friends across the Channel (we’re leaving the political structures of the EU not to continent of Europe!) where our largest market resides.
We've been a member, for over forty years, of a club it took us eleven years to negotiate our way into so it’s only natural we would want to stay close.
This draft Agreement, recognises that and for me has the mantra do no harm at its heart. If we get behind a deal now we can get bring this country back together and seize the opportunities that lie ahead.
Of course I have constituents who email me every day to protest the fact we are leaving at all. I respectfully say to that view, I regret the result of June 2016 too but I respect it as I promised I would at the referendum and subsequent General Election.
I think the majority of the British people want us to get this done and to get on with addressing the many other issues they care about.
Issues such as creating more jobs, helping with the cost of living, funding and reforming our NHS (where I work of course) as well as providing first class schools so every child, regardless of where they live or how much their parents earn, can have a chance in life.
The country faces a stark set of choices: this deal or no deal. Voting against a deal would take us all back to square one and is neither in the UK or the EU interest. I have to say I don't, at this time anyway given the EU Withdrawal Act 2018 and the 29th March 2019 exit date it sets in statute, see how "no Brexit" is an option given the Parliamentary arithmetic.
We should remember also, this is the Withdrawal Agreement not the future relationship. We need this now to ensure an orderly exit from the EU in March 2019. Every MP must look themselves in the eye and ask whether they want to back that or play political games and make no deal possible.
This is the best deal that can be negotiated and I firmly believe that this withdrawal agreement puts the country on a path towards a good deal that puts practical reality for our economy and our country over theoretical dreamy ideology and is in the British national interest.
It is for this reason - and the imperative we avoid a no deal scenario - that I intend to support this Withdrawal Agreement when the House of Commons is asked to vote on it in the coming weeks.
In the event the House of Commons cannot resolve this, I think it is right to keep all options - and all course of action - on the table.
Steve Brine MP