For six months before I was elected as the Member for North West Norfolk, I was part of the Brexit unit in No. 10, and prior to that, I advised the former right hon. Member for Aylesbury as he led part of the EU negotiations, including with member states, so I have been blessed with some experience of negotiations, although not as much as my hon. Friend Sir William Cash.
In considering the EU mandate and today’s debate, it is worth reflecting on the process thus far. Back in July, the consensus was that the backstop could not be changed—that the EU mandate was the mandate and the UK had to accept it. Indeed, in meetings I was in with Michel Barnier, he said, “No way—no way can the backstop be changed.” But with clarity on the changes that we needed, energetic negotiations and by marshalling political support for them, the backstop was indeed replaced and a new political declaration agreed that explicitly set a free trade agreement as the desired outcome. Importantly, both sides agreed to get the agreement done by the end of 2020, and we must now retain the clarity that got us to this position.
I welcome the European Scrutiny Committee’s call for transparency on the negotiations. In the past, the EU set out its position while ours could be rather obscure, but anyone can now go on gov.uk and read the detailed text that we have published and the typically straightforward and reasoned letter from my former colleague, David Frost. They set out our proposals on a level playing field to prevent distortions of trade and unfair competitive advantages—proposals that meet the commitments that we made in the political declaration. We also agree to non-regression on labour, the environment and other areas, but as a sovereign nation, we cannot accept the EU mandate on state aid, requiring dynamic alignment on rules over which we have no say. That would be unprecedented in a free trade agreement.
On fisheries, my constituents on the coast want to see us take back control of our waters, but the EU proposals are based on maintaining the same access as under the common fisheries policy. On security, the safety of all our citizens must be the first priority, with an approach that reflects the UK’s leading position as a source of data and intelligence. Now is the time for flexibility in the EU mandate, not the further delay that some have called for—although the Opposition spokesman, Paul Blomfield, was unwilling to answer whether those calling for delay include the Labour party.
Of course, covid-19 has required a huge amount of attention from the Government and member states, as well as the Commission, but with good will, it is eminently feasible to finalise an FTA. Extending the transition would simply prolong negotiations and extend uncertainty. If we learnt anything from the withdrawal agreement, it is that extensions remove the pressure to bring negotiations to a conclusion. I encourage my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster to pursue the communications to businesses, who know that changes are coming to customs arrangements, so that they can be properly prepared.
In conclusion, the Commission and member states, as we know, closely follow the debates in this Chamber. This House legislated to end the transition period this year. Government Members are united in delivering on the manifesto that people in North West Norfolk and across the country voted for at the general election. The terms of an agreement that reflect the reality that the UK has left the EU are clear, reasonable and public, so now is the time to work intensively to secure that FTA for the benefit of UK and EU citizens.