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There has been much talk about the backstop and about the deal in general—so much talk that, if there is a single word that should be deleted from the English language at the earliest opportunity, it is “deal.” This is not about shopping around for a second-hand car or a better mobile phone tariff. It is about our relationship with our nearest neighbours. If there is one thing we probably could all agree on, it is that relationships between states in the modern world are complicated, very complicated. They cannot just be reduced to deal or no deal. Yet after two and a half years, that is how the argument is all too often presented.
Given that the political declaration is so vague and thin, let me try to characterise in stark terms where we have got to. Many have talked about cliff edges. To me it looks as though we have reached the edge and jumped. That is the withdrawal agreement bit. We will have a two-year transition period in which to sort out what happens before we hit the ground—it is quite a high cliff—and the political declaration is the rope by which we are dangling. But while we are dangling from that rope, the clock is ticking. We will hit the ground, and because that ground is the backstop from which we will have no exit, we will effectively have handed the scissors to the people at the top of the cliff. They might let us land gently, but they do not have to do so. Frankly, as negotiating positions go—with the clock ticking and with us heading towards somewhere we really do not want to be—this is really not a very good place.
There is also the simple fact of geography. We are part of Europe, just as Ireland is one island. Nothing can change either of those facts, so we will have a relationship. It is just a question of what kind it will be. And I have news for those who feel that they have had enough of all this Brexit stuff. Frankly, we are only just at the beginning of all these negotiations. The great irony is that the EU is actually the place where negotiations are done, so coming out will not end the need for reaching agreements with others or for following standards that much bigger trading partners will decide; it will just make it all harder.
“When a deal is reached, it may require us to accept the same blizzard of regulations that’s imposed by Brussels not just on member states, but on countries like Norway and Switzerland that need access to European markets. And, like them, it’s possible we would have no say over what those regulations contained, while still potentially paying an access fee.”
I would not have used that exact language, but I rather agree with the right hon. Gentleman, who is now the Home Secretary. It is no surprise that this proposed agreement, despite the hard work of officials over many months, cannot deliver what was promised by the leave campaign. It is no surprise because what was promised was just not deliverable. The political declaration is, unsurprisingly, just a wish list that kicks decisions down the road for future discussion while leaving a vacuum of uncertainty.
Moving specifically to today’s debate topic of immigration and free movement, I can tell the House that this has been a cause of intense distress and uncertainty in Cambridge since the referendum, not just for the thousands of non-UK EU nationals who are anxious about the future but for their friends, neighbours and workmates, who never expected to see their friends suddenly facing such divisions. In recent months, I have worked with my neighbour, Heidi Allen, and the business group Cambridge Ahead on surveying businesses, universities and research institutes across our constituencies. Their responses have been consistent in stating that a third-country-style immigration process for EEA nationals would add more bureaucracy, time and cost to their recruitment. That recruitment is essential, due to skills shortages in the UK labour force and the global market in research specialisms. The tier 2 visa system and the £30,000 salary cap are already not working for non-EEA migration, and extending them to EEA movement would be a major own goal for our country.
Detailed evidence has been submitted to our inquiry from the University of Cambridge, and I will quote part of it:
“The postdoctoral research community serves as the engine room for much of the research that underpins Cambridge’s world-leading reputation, and provides a source of the ideas, innovation, business generation and disruptive technology that enables the UK to compete as a high-tech economy. Any barriers or disincentives to such recruitment, such as visa costs, could therefore have a significant impact on the University’s research and education operations”.
It went on to state:
I want to underline the fact that the university believes that that would significantly harm the UK’s competitiveness.
We are having this debate in the absence of any policy direction from a Government who cannot even agree a White Paper, but I hope that the view from Cambridge goes some way to exposing the risks that we would be taking if we continued with a backward-looking, numbers-only focus approach to immigration as the nature of our relationship with the European Union changes. We should of course be celebrating the benefits of movement between countries, not cowering in fear. We are at the global forefront of research, science and medicine, and we should not be risking throwing that away.
The agreement gives us no certainty about future mobility, for research or for any other sector or individual. This is not just about those who are traditionally termed the highly skilled; we also need the cooks, cleaners, bus drivers and builders, because our policy should be based on the needs of our economy, not on fear of being part of a rapidly changing world.
The deal fails on other fronts, too. The Prime Minister has gone from high aims—aiming to be part of the European Medicines Agency and of the European Research Council’s programmes—to what we now have: a hope of some form of co-operation. With such weak, limited ambition, the future for research and innovation—the shining star in the UK economy—looks much less bright.
In conclusion, there is a very good deal on offer—the one we currently have as members of the European Union. However, if we are to remain, it must be remain and reform. The EU has to respond to the unhappiness expressed in so many countries across Europe. Business as usual just will not cut it. That is the debate we really should be having. It is inescapable that we live in Europe. But what kind of Europe do we want it to be? I do not think that the Government are capable of facilitating that kind of discussion with the public. The only way out of the impasse we appear to be heading for is an election or a people’s vote.