European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Part of Leaving the EU – in the House of Commons at 12:04 pm on 14th January 2019.

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Photo of Neil O'Brien Neil O'Brien Conservative, Harborough 12:04 pm, 14th January 2019

I spent eight years campaigning against European integration. I worked for the successful campaign against joining the euro and I ran the campaign for a referendum on the European constitution. If, during those eight years, I had been told that I could have this withdrawal agreement I would have jumped at the chance. This is a deal that means we take back control over immigration, we stop paying £10 billion a year into the EU, we no longer have to follow new EU laws, and, above all, we get out of the process of ever-closer union and we stop giving away more and more powers every year.

What is the alternative to this deal? I believe that if the withdrawal agreement is voted down tomorrow we will end up with no Brexit. A majority in this House will vote to keep us in the EU, as many people have argued for this evening either overtly or in a thinly disguised form. I do not like it, but that is what will happen if the deal is voted down.

Some people I respect are worried about the backstop. It seems to be something that our friends in Europe should be far more worried about using than we should. Under the backstop, we would be able to access the EU market with no taxes or tariffs, and unlike any other country in the world we would be able to do that without having to follow new EU laws. No wonder that, according to the Financial Times:

“EU diplomats are nervous because they fear Britain would have ‘one foot’
in Europe’s market, enjoying tariff-free access and no rules of origin, while ruthlessly undercutting the standards of the EU’s single market.”

In other words, the backstop would take us back to the idea of a basic common market and away from the political union that the EU has become.

The last two years of negotiations have been very painstaking, but the Prime Minister has delivered some clear successes. The EU originally said that the four freedoms could not be divided and there was no chance of accessing the EU market without having free movement. She has won on that. Spain originally said that it wanted to get back control of Gibraltar, but as the First Minister of Gibraltar told me in person this is a deal that protects Gibraltar absolutely. The EU then wanted to have a customs backstop only for Northern Ireland and to put a customs border down the Irish sea. Again, the Prime Minister has seen off that threat. Those are three good, big successes.

It is very striking to me that all the main national business groups in this country support the deal: the Federation of Small Businesses, the British Chambers of Commerce, the CBI, the EEF, the National Farmers Union and the Scottish Fishermen’s Federation are all backing it. The voice of business is clear: they want us to get on and back the deal. But there is more to the deal than keeping business moving, so let me finish with a bit of history.

I believe it was a mistake by Ted Heath to say there would be no loss of sovereignty when we joined the European Economic Community. In the 1980s, it was a mistake not to see the revolutionary consequences of the Single European Act, which Mrs Thatcher came to regret. In the ’90s and the ’00s, it was a mistake for successive Governments to push through the treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon without ever putting them to the people in a referendum. If we turn down this deal, it will be another historic mistake: a mistake for those of us who oppose European integration, because the trap will snap shut and the majority in this House who want to stop Brexit will do so and we will have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory; and in the longer term I think it will also be a mistake for those on the other side, too. Imagine the bitterness of a country where 52% of people feel that their wishes had been overridden. They will feel that this country is not really a democracy anymore.

It does not have to be like that. This is a good deal. It gives us full control over immigration; stops us paying in billions every year; gives us control over future laws; and gets us out of ever closer union. On the other hand, it keeps trade flowing and gives us a framework to keep co-operating with our friends in Europe on science, culture, security and the environment. The withdrawal agreement, or something like it, is the only thing that can unite and move this country forward. I support it in the strongest possible terms.