Uk’S Withdrawal from the EU

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:21 pm on 27th February 2019.

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Photo of Keir Starmer Keir Starmer Shadow Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union 3:21 pm, 27th February 2019

I am grateful for that intervention. I will deal with it. I will come to the background and the amendment we have tabled, and I will answer that intervention. If I do not, I will take another intervention to ensure that I do.

There is, it seems, an expectation that between now and 12 March there will be a change to the deal, and I do not think that that is going to happen. Why? Because there has been no progress at all since the vote was pulled on 10 December. That is 79 days ago. That was when the Prime Minister said, “I’m going to seek changes. I know what the House wants.” No progress has been made since the meaningful vote was lost on 15 January, 43 days ago, and no progress has been made since the Brady amendment of 28 January, 30 days ago.

For all the talk of discussion here and in Brussels, the stark truth is that not one word of the withdrawal agreement or political declaration has changed since it was signed off on 25 November last year—not one word. That is 94 days—three months—ago. The expectation that all of that will change in the next 14 days seems extremely unlikely, and it is not going to be fulfilled. When the Prime Minister went off to do that, I said she was building an expectation that she would not be able to fulfil, and I fear that that is what we are heading for.

The deal today is the same as it was three months ago, and it is that basic deal that will be put before us again on 12 March. It may have some warm words around it, and the Attorney General may be asked to say what those warm words mean, but the withdrawal agreement will be exactly the same in two weeks as it is now. We have to face up to that and stop deluding ourselves that it will change in the next 14 days. There are serious consequences if the deal does not go through because it is precisely the same, which is why there has been such questioning this morning about what happens next.

The deal has not changed because the Government have made three central demands. First, they have asked for a unilateral exit to the backstop. That has been roundly rejected every time it has been asked for, and the deal was signed off 94 days ago. Secondly, they have asked for a time limit to the backstop. That has been roundly rejected every time it has been asked for, and it was on the table 94 days ago. The only other ask is that the backstop be replaced by alternative arrangements. The EU’s response to that to the Government has been, “Well, what are you proposing? What are these alternatives, so that we can discuss them?” Nothing has been forthcoming.

We learned from the Prime Minister’s statement and the Minister for the Cabinet Office that a joint workstream will be considered by the EU and UK, which will be an “important strand”. I do not doubt that a joint workstream on alternative arrangements is a good idea. I do not doubt that any country would seek to streamline any checks at the border whatever the arrangements, irrespective of Brexit. That workstream will apparently work until the end of next year. The announcement that that workstream is in existence is hardly a breakthrough. The idea that the deal that was so roundly rejected is now going to go through because there is a workstream on alternative measures seems to me unlikely, and that is why we have to get real about what is actually going to happen in two weeks’ time, and it is why we predict that we will be left with exactly the same deal.

On the alternative arrangements, the Minister for the Cabinet Office says that those words are used elsewhere in the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. That is true, but they are used only in two respects with two different meanings. One is that the alternative arrangements are the future relationship. That is one meaning provided in those documents, but that is not relevant to this discussion because if the future relationship is ready, there is no question of a backstop. We all know that.

The only other way in which alternative arrangements are actually used in the documents is in relation to the technology at the border making all the difference. We have been searching for that for some time. I do not doubt there will be advances in technology, but the reason the backstop was put in is that the assessment back in November was that there was no prospect of that technology being ready by the time the backstop would be needed, and therefore we needed the backstop. That was the conclusion.

Since I have been in this role, I seem to have spent quite a lot of my time standing on borders looking at lorries and people going across borders. I went to the main Sweden-Norway border to see what a border looks like where a country is in the EEA, and therefore has single market alignment and free movement, but is not in a customs union. It is a hard stop—with infrastructure, with security, with paperwork—and when it works well, each stop takes 13 minutes. Those two countries are not operating the least efficient system that they can; they think they are operating the most efficient system that they can. I do not doubt it can be improved on, but I doubt that this workstream in the next few months is going to make the progress that many people in this House think is going to happen.