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Uk’S Withdrawal from the European Union

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:33 pm on 13th March 2019.

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Photo of George Eustice George Eustice Conservative, Camborne and Redruth 5:33 pm, 13th March 2019

I have not spoken to the Chief Constable, but I have been involved in a lot of other negotiations on the DEFRA front.

On 22 March last year, when I was visiting Oslo for some fisheries negotiations, our then ambassador to Norway told me that she had had a busy week, because she had been placed on standby by the Foreign Office to deliver a letter by hand to the Norwegian Government giving 12 months’ notice of our intention to quit the EEA. In the end she was stood down, because of the transition agreement, and this country took a conscious decision not to give notice of an intention to quit the EEA.

That made me curious, because up until that point, and indeed since, the Government have always maintained that when we leave the EU our agreement under the EEA will automatically fall away. If that were true, and if it were the only possible interpretation of the EEA treaty, why was our ambassador armed with that letter to deliver to the Norwegian Government? After much probing, I established that there is indeed more than one interpretation that could be adopted, and the Foreign Office was concerned that, in the absence of giving that notice, we could be subject to challenge under the Vienna convention.

For me, that opened the prospect of a different approach: relying on our existing EEA membership, asserting our rights under that treaty, and simply applying to join the EFTA pillar of the EEA agreement. That arrangement means we would have had no customs union; control of our fisheries and agriculture policy; an independent trade policy; no need for an implementation period; no need for a backstop; and no need to worry about whether we have a codicil or a protocol, since we would be able to quit at any time, with 12 months’ notice in writing.

I have tremendous respect for my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin and was initially very encouraged when he picked up that idea and ran with it. However, as hon. Members who know him will know, he also has a tendency to overcomplicate things, so a simple and clean EEA model that could have given us an easy pathway out of this became Norway-plus, then the customs union 2.0, and then a backstop was added as well. The result is that it has alienated many Members on the Government side of the House who might otherwise have supported it.

In conclusion, my view is that, first, we need to unhitch the customs union and the backstop from any proposal based on our existing EEA membership. That might require us to be ready to leave without an agreement. Secondly, we can dynamically align our regulations over the next nine months. Finally, we can have the dynamic alignment as a bridge to a new arrangement in which we apply to join the EFTA pillar.