European Union (Withdrawal) Act

Part of Business of the House (Today) – in the House of Commons at 4:14 pm on 12th March 2019.

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Photo of Hilary Benn Hilary Benn Chair, Committee on Exiting the European Union 4:14 pm, 12th March 2019

It is a pleasure to follow Nicky Morgan, although I have drawn a different conclusion about the choice we have to make this evening.

I am tempted to say, “Here we go again.” After the flurry of activity and effort—I pay tribute to Ministers who have been working hard over the past couple of months—some people may have had their minds changed by the documents produced last night, but it seems that many others have not.

The one thing I want to say on the documents is this: the withdrawal agreement remains in place, the backstop remains in place, there is no unilateral exit mechanism for the United Kingdom and there is no time limit. While it may be possible to suspend the backstop, in order to do that the United Kingdom has to persuade the arbitration panel that we have a case. If the arbitration panel is then to turn suspension into disapplication, we have to persuade it that the reason for the problem is that there is a lack of good faith on the part of the European Union.

It is pretty safe to say that the EU would say, “No, it’s not a lack of good faith; we just don’t think your alternative arrangements work. We think they would undermine the integrity of the single market and the customs union.” The moment it says that, that engages questions of the application of EU law, at which point the panel has to refer the matter to the Court of Justice of the European Union, whose judgment on these questions will be binding on everyone, including the United Kingdom.

Frankly, proving bad faith, in my view as a non-lawyer, is going to be pretty darn difficult, so we are left with paragraph 19 of the Attorney General’s letter to the Prime Minister today, which says that if we cannot reach agreement because of intractable differences,

“no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements” will exist.

If the deal is defeated tonight, tomorrow will be another day. I have little doubt that the House of Commons will vote against leaving the European Union with no deal—we can debate all those matters tomorrow. I still do not know how the Prime Minister is going to vote. Can I just offer her some advice? She used to say that no deal is better than a bad deal, but she now argues that her deal is in fact a good deal. Well, if it is in fact a good deal, it cannot be a bad deal, so, by definition, no deal is now worse than her deal. Therefore, if logic means anything, the Prime Minister ought to come through the Lobby with me and many others tomorrow to vote against no deal. No deal would be the worst possible outcome for the country.

If leaving with no deal is defeated, we will come on to the question of an extension, which will be the subject of Thursday’s debate. However, we have to use an extension for a purpose—that is very clear. For me, the purpose must be, first, to see whether it is possible for the House of Commons to reach agreement on an alternative way of leaving the European Union. Is there support for a customs union? Is there support for a Norway-style arrangement?