As you have noticed, Mr Speaker, the questioner at least is clever, if I am not. There are three main reasons why an implementation period is in the interests of the United Kingdom and the European Union. First, it will allow the United Kingdom Government time to set up any new infrastructure or systems that might be needed to support our new arrangements. Secondly, it will allow European Union Governments to do the same. We should not forget that, while we are already planning for all scenarios, many EU Governments might not put plans in place until the deal is struck. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, it will avoid businesses in the United Kingdom and the European Union having to take any decisions before they know the shape of the final deal. I welcome President Tusk’s recommendation that talks on the implementation period should start immediately and should be agreed as soon as possible.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that answer. Does he agree that the implementation period must be finite and that it will not preclude us from engaging in third-party discussions with other countries that would like to do free trade deals with us?
Yes, I agree with my hon. Friend on both counts. It is important that it should be finite, for a number of reasons. If we tried to go for a very extended implementation period, we would run into all sorts of approval procedure problems involving mixed approvals and so on, which we would not if it was part of the withdrawal agreement. And yes, one of the things we want to achieve in the negotiation—we still have to do the negotiation—is the right to negotiate and sign free trade deals during the course of the implementation period. That does not mean that they would come into force at that point, but it would mean that we could sign them.
The Secretary of State told the Select Committee that it was the Government’s intention to conclude a free trade agreement with the EU by March 2019. Last Friday, however, the Environment Secretary told the “Today” programme that ironing out the details of a free trade agreement and moving towards a new relationship would take place during the transition period. Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that that is the Government’s new position?
The implementation period will be most valuable if companies know what the final outcome will be, because that will allow them to prepare for it. To that end, we will seek to conclude the substantive portion of the negotiation before then.
There is talk of a two-year implementation or transition period. What is there to prevent that from simply being a two-year extension of our membership of the European Union?
One reason is that, if we stayed in the European Union completely, we would still be subject to the duty of sincere co-operation, which is what constrains us from carrying out free trade negotiations. That is one reason, at least, why we would not do that.
Does the Secretary of State believe that the prospect of being granted an implementation or transition period by the European Union has been improved by the Secretary of State saying that the past six months of negotiations have led only to a “statement of intent” by the Government? Would he like to restate that, in fact, the Government are committed to delivering what they have secured in the past six months of negotiations with European Union?
As usual, the right hon. Gentleman takes a partial quote and tries to make something of it. I have said, in terms, that the withdrawal agreement will be a treaty, and treaties are binding on this country. That is what we intend. I also said, in the interview to which I think he is referring, that it is our intention, whatever happens, to protect the status of Northern Ireland, both in terms of its being within the United Kingdom and in terms of protecting the status of the border as being invisible as it is now. It would be very good if the right hon. Gentleman did not misrepresent what I have said.
I think it is unlikely that they will continue beyond the period of departure in March 2019. That is something that we have accepted from the beginning.
The timetable on that will be decided within the framework that is being discussed now between the First Secretary of State and Mr Mike Russell.