I speak to the amendment that stands in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends. At times, although not so much in this debate, there has been a sadness of tone in these debates, but I wish to recognise how well the Prime Minister has handled herself during these testing times and commend her for that.
Part of the problem is the way we have approached these negotiations from the start. Some saw Brexit as a problem to be managed, but it should have been an opportunity to be seized. I believe that that opportunity is still there. We have the prospect of trade deals around the world, and we do prefer constructive trade deals to WTO terms—of course we do. We also have the opportunity of introducing an immigration system that no longer discriminates against the rest of the world outside Europe—we currently have to sign up to such a system as members of the EU. We could have a fair immigration system, roll back the ECJ and take control of our finances.
Those opportunities are still there, but the problem is that we have descended into the situation, partly because of an unnecessary general election, whereby we have encouraged EU intransigence. Concessions have been offered and they have been pocketed with nothing in return, and we now find ourselves, via this agreement, in the position that Mervyn King, the former Governor of the Bank of England, correctly described as sacrificing
“the benefits of remaining without obtaining the benefits of leaving.”
That is where we find ourselves at the moment.
The withdrawal agreement is in two parts—the transition period and the backstop. Let me make it clear that there are elements of the transition part that I find difficult to stomach. We know about the bits about the money and the ECJ, but, in essence, the transition period itself is like staying in the EU; it is a question of staying on for those extra 18 months while we try to negotiate a trade deal. It is a transition period—there is a definite end.
What I have a problem with is the backstop. We have to be clear that we have to be pragmatic; we are where we are. After 40 to 45 years of integration, one is not going to leap from imperfection to perfection in one bound—it will take a series of steps, so we have to be pragmatic. As a keen Brexiteer, I am prepared to swallow the transition period, because one hopes we will negotiate a free trade deal of some sort that will be mutually beneficial, and this is a transition period, with a definite end. I can stomach that, but what I find more difficult to stomach is a backstop in which we could be permanently entrapped, in suspended animation, being able to leave only at the behest of the EU. That is like entering a contract of employment that gives only the employer the right to terminate the contract. Nobody would enter that with their eyes wide open—it is completely wrong. During that period of suspended animation we would not be able to form trade deals, and the precious Union with Northern Ireland would be affected. Having served in the Province in the 1980s, I, too, have seen people die for that Union. That precious Union would be put at risk. Meanwhile we would be an EU taker.
We should take it with a pinch of salt when the Government say, “Ah, but it would be uncomfortable for the EU and therefore it would not be permanent.” Not only would it be uncomfortable for us as well, but the EU has a long track record of cutting its nose off to spite its face in order to achieve political objectives. So I do not buy the argument that we would automatically find ourselves out of the backstop because the EU would find it uncomfortable. Situations such as this make the alternatives more attractive.
In summary, my amendment would give the UK a unilateral right to exit the backstop. It does reflect reality and I hope that the Government will go a long way towards giving this issue of unilaterally getting out of the backstop serious consideration.