European Free Trade Association — [Mike Gapes in the Chair]

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:08 am on 7th February 2018.

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Photo of Antoinette Sandbach Antoinette Sandbach Conservative, Eddisbury 10:08 am, 7th February 2018

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Gapes. Last week at DExEU questions, the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend Mr Baker, challenged me to table a debate on EFTA. I am grateful to my hon. Friend Stephen Hammond for having the considerable foresight to have already done so. I know that he and others have been at the forefront of the push to get EFTA onto the Government’s agenda. I listened carefully to his contribution and share most—in fact all—of his perspective. His timing could not have been better, because it is vital that we have an evidence-led debate on this subject and on the broader subject of the UK’s relationship with the EU.

The main focus of my remarks will be the transition and how best to manage our departure, should a deal not be achieved before Brexit day. At the end I will address EFTA membership in the longer term and how this can be in our national interest. I will be brief, because I have discussed this recently. If hon. Members wish to know my thoughts in more detail, they can check the Hansard record of the debate on 22 January.

The Government do not have much time left to strike a deal, as Michel Barnier reminded us all yesterday. The time is coming when the Government must make tough choices, and those need to be based on evidence rather than on ideology—particularly an ideology that can be seen at the fringes of our party. The Government are also delaying several key pieces of work that will prepare us for the world post being in the EU. The road haulage Bill has been delayed, and the immigration White Paper has been delayed and may not be published until the end of the year.

I have consistently called for Ministers to be given the time that they need to think through their decisions. This is, as others have said, one of the most complex tasks the country and its Administration have faced in decades, and the timeframe for making decisions should reflect that, but under the current arrangements, we will have to restructure our entire relationship with the world in just a couple of years. Roy Jenkins once compared Tony Blair’s approach to winning high office to that of a museum curator carrying a Ming vase across a polished marble floor. I cannot help but think that Ministers may sympathise with that image as they hold on to something as precious as the democratic choice of the public while having to deliver Brexit in a manner that does not harm the economy, wear away at the social fabric of this country or damage our standing abroad. To do that, I ask Ministers to make up their minds on all the best available options, and to respect the wishes of all our constituents, not just either the 52% or the 48%.

There are considerable merits of EFTA for a longer transition period. I support the Government’s ambition for a deep and enduring partnership with the EU. Given our shared history and geography, it would be wrong to adopt CETA wholesale. To propose an entirely new arrangement is ambitious, but I welcome that ambition. Our partnership must be deeper than the EU has with any other third party, and it must include a deal on services, which make up almost 80% of our economy and are therefore essential to our prosperity.

I am aware of the pressure that the Government are under to strike a deal soon, and this is where the first benefit of EFTA should become apparent. If we were able to expedite rejoining EFTA it would provide a soft landing should the Government fail to strike a deal before the deadline. Currently, failing to strike a deal would see us ejected from the EU with no alternative to WTO terms. EFTA should be that alternative. Last week’s Treasury estimates, which are the best data we have at this point, suggest that WTO terms would cost us 8% of GDP growth over the next 15 years.