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Briefings For Brexit

The Briefings for Brexit editors and several regular contributors explain that while holding strong misgivings about the Boris Johnson Withdrawal Agreement they nontheless feel that the Conservatives must be supported in the general election to ensure that we actually leave the EU.

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Several of our readers have written to Briefings for Brexit either asking for advice on how they should judge the deal with the EU proposed by Boris Johnson, or in some cases expressing either strongly negative (‘sell-out’ etc) or strongly positive views (‘how could any Brexiteer oppose …’).

Although BfB is an information site without any party allegiance or even a wholly common view on the nature of Brexit or its desirable future consequences, we feel we should restate the position we as editors and regular contributors to BfB have taken—which has been expressed in several of our recent postings, and which we summarize here.

All the signatories to this statement were strong and consistent critics of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration agreed by Theresa May.  Now, we agree with the view taken by Martin Howe, who has been from the beginning one of the staunchest and most clear-sighted commentators on Brexit. That is, that while the Johnson deal has many shortcomings, it is better than the one proposed by Theresa May, and that it gives us a feasible stepping-stone to an acceptable future relationship with the EU in politics, security, and trade.

The shortcomings are clear enough.  Much of the May deal remains in the text of the Withdrawal Agreement.  We are still paying a huge ransom of dubious legality.  We have an unnecessary ‘transition period’ during which we remain in many respects subordinate to the EU.  Perhaps worst of all, we would impose a customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.  In theory, a clean break on WTO terms would be better.

Nevertheless, Johnson’s deal is a distinct improvement on the May deal; and we can only imagine how much better the government would have been able to negotiate if it had not had its hands tied by a Remainer House of Commons and the deplorable and arguably unconstitutional Benn Act. We reject the self-serving Remainer argument that was the Benn Act which forced Johnson to undertake sincere negotiations with the EU. Remainer intransigence is responsible for the handicaps the country is now labouring under.  In these circumstances, we judge that the government has reached probably as good a deal as was reasonably possible.  Moreover, it is in crucial respects better than the May deal.

First, the Irish Backstop is no longer there. This required the UK to remain in the Customs Union and much of the Single Market—an open-ended limit on British freedom of action, continuing as long as the EU saw fit.  This was a disastrous negotiating position for any British government.  The Johnson deal accepts instead a customs border in the Irish Sea, which must imperatively be made as short as possible in duration.  Moreover, the government should urgently clarify how these arrangements will work in practice and ensure that they minimise friction in Northern Ireland’s vital trade with Great Britain.

Second, May’s Political Declaration, which committed the British government to work towards permanent membership of the EU customs union—and hence gave the EU control of our global trading policy—now instead aims at a Free Trade Agreement, which most Brexiteers have always advocated. Because of this, the Withdrawal Agreement’s controversial clause 184, on using ‘best endeavours’ to deliver the Political Declaration, now works in the UK’s favour. Other less desirable elements of the Political Declaration do not trap the UK forever. It is not legally binding. Even in Northern Ireland the continuance of the Irish Sea border arrangements depends on democratic agreement of the NI Assembly.

Brexit Party concerns about the Withdrawal Agreement, while understandable, are based on misunderstandings about the nature of standard free-trade agreements. As Shanker Singham has recently argued, free-trade agreements typically incorporate ‘level-playing-field’ sections on regulatory standards. Countries, and trade-blocks, are unwilling to open their markets to competitors with lower safety, labour, or environmental standards. The Political Declaration’s points about regulatory standards will thus need to be addressed if the UK wants an FTA.

However, the present Withdrawal Agreement does not tie the UK into the EU’s state-aid rules, or its labour-market, competition or environmental regulations. The UK will have flexibility to set its own policies in its own interests, including in Northern Ireland. Also, the UK will now have the freedom to negotiate its own trade agreements across the globe, and these will include Northern Ireland.

It is not correct, as some in the Brexit Party believe, that para 102 of the Political Declaration obliges the UK to co-operate in EU defence and foreign-policy initiatives. BfB contributors who were most concerned about the wording of Theresa May’s WA on defence accept that the revised Political Declaration gives the UK all the discretion it needs.  We have recently published a detailed explanation by Professor Gwythian Prins, updating previous defence and security analysis, and showing why the Johnson text offers a narrow but viable pathway to protect both national security and our key Five Eyes alliance, and why Nigel Farage’s representation of it is mistaken.

We believe—and the government too appears to believe—that an equal free trading relationship with the EU is in the interests of both sides.  We are quite clear in our view that a more integrated relationship than this, whether in trade, politics, movement of peoples or national security, is both unnecessary and undesirable.

The long-term future relationship between the UK and the EU will have to be negotiated over the coming months.  A successful outcome depends not only on the terms of the ‘deal’ now concluded, but on the future political strength and resolve of the government that will be formed after the December general election.  For that reason, whatever our previous party loyalties or our differing views on a range of policies, we firmly believe that it is vital for Boris Johnson to be given a workable majority to enable him to negotiate effectively with the EU.

Any other outcome would be a disaster for our country at many levels: in its relationship with the EU, in its broader global policy, in its economic and defence policies, and perhaps most of all, in its ability to end the present period of bitter dissension and restore some consensus in the country and trust in its institutions. Consequently, whatever our individual views concerning persons or parties, we believe that the Johnson government and its deal with the EU must be supported at the ballot box on December 12th.

For Briefings for Brexit:

Sir Richard Aikens, lawyer

Baroness Deech, lawyer and peer

‘Caroline Bell’, civil servant

Graham Gudgin, economist and co-editor, BfB

Gwythian Prins, international relations and security specialist

Robert Tombs, historian and co-editor, BfB

‘Harry Western’, private-sector economist

Richard Tuck Political Scientist


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