Labour’s priority is avoiding the extreme and damaging “hard Brexit” that the Government is pursuing. I believe that the vast majority of the Lords amendments aim to do that, and that is why I will be supporting them.
I have always believed that it is a huge mistake for the UK to leave the EU and I hope that as public opinion changes, it will be possible to revisit the decision. In all circumstances, however, I am clear that our collective future prosperity requires the closest possible economic cooperation with our European partners.
Deciding to walk away from the customs union and single market, as this Government has proposed, puts jobs and prosperity at risk. Labour are clear that we must stay closely aligned with the single market, but it must be done in a way that is compatible with the other objectives including the negotiation of a new, comprehensive UK-EU customs union and the avoidance of a hard border on the island of Ireland.
I strongly believe that Parliament must be given a meaningful vote on the final terms of our exit from the EU. Parliament needs to have the ability to exercise its sovereignty and approve – or not – the deal that is currently being negotiated by the government. While I do not expect personally to support the negotiated deal, a “no deal” scenario would be a disaster – and we cannot afford for the ‘choice’ before the commons to be between a bad deal or no deal.
That is why I am supporting Amendment 19, referred to as the “meaningful vote” amendment. This is the most important amendment before the Commons as it makes clear that, should the Government’s proposed withdrawal deal be rejected, it would be for Parliament to say what happens next – not the Prime Minister.
Leaving the EU must not lead to any watering down of existing standards on the environment and I share concerns that the EU Withdrawal Bill does not fully provide for the transfer of environmental protections. I have therefore consistently supported amendments to this Bill designed to safeguard environmental standards.
Lord Krebs moved an amendment during the third reading of the EU Withdrawal Bill in the House of Lords which sought to ensure that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU does not result in a weakening of standards to protect our environment. I support this amendment (amendment 3). I remain concerned that EU-derived environmental protections and standards are at risk and I believe that additional steps must be taken to secure the future of our environment and the natural world. I will support amendments to this Bill, and other pieces of Brexit legislation, which seek to ensure that environmental standards are properly protected and are not watered down after we have left the EU.
Customs Union/Northern Ireland border
Two years on from the referendum, it is clear the Government has no plan for how it will protect jobs and the economy or guarantee no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. I am therefore supporting amendments that would put the negotiation of a customs union with the EU back on the negotiating table as a key objective and require the Government to secure full access to the single market. I also support an amendment that enshrines in law the commitment to preventing a hard border in Northern Ireland.
EEA negotiating objective
An additional amendment referred to as the “EEA amendment” stipulates that it should be a negotiating objective of the Government to continue to participate in the European Economic Area after Brexit. Labour believe we need to learn from existing agreements such as the EEA and negotiate our own more ambitious agreement which serves our economic interests and prevents a hard border in Northern Ireland.
The EEA was developed as a means to allow the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) states to take part in the EU Internal Market (i.e. Single Market). The EEA Agreement brings together the 28 EU member states and the three EFTA states (Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein) in an internal market governed by the same basic rules. It should be noted that participation in the EEA is different from the full participation in the EU internal market that we enjoy currently as an EU Member State. However, leaving aside the fact that continued participation in the EEA would require the UK to accept all new EU legislation, two other aspects of the EEA Agreement as it is currently constituted potentially pose problems for the type of final agreement that the UK needs to conclude with the EU.
Firstly, the EEA agreement excludes fisheries and agriculture. Regulatory alignment on the latter is essential to ensure no new hard border on the island of Ireland. As such participation in the EEA Agreement as a means of maintaining access to the EU Single Market could render it more difficult.
Secondly, it is not clear whether participation in the EEA is compatible with a new, comprehensive customs union between the UK and EU of the kind that Labour believes must be negotiated if we’re to protect jobs, the economy and, specifically, our manufacturing base. What we do know for a fact is that none of the participants in the EEA Agreement that are not EU Member States have a customs union agreement with the EU. Without a customs arrangement that ensures no tariffs, differences in cross-border VAT, customs checks, or rules of origins checks (and regulatory alignment in other areas currently facilitated by means of participating in the single market), infrastructure would have to be placed on the Irish border. In short, we must find a way of accessing the EU Single Market that is also compatible with a customs union of some kind. I am not confident that the EEA achieves this.
There is, of course, the option of trying to be a signatory to the EEA Agreement but to reform the agreement itself over time to incorporate agriculture and make it compatible with a customs union. However, there is good reason to believe such an agenda would meet with resistance among the EEA-EFTA members. Indeed, the Norwegian Prime Minister made clear that Norway does not wish to change the existing EEA rules and regulations. At that stage, we are to all intents and purposes seeking to negotiate a bespoke UK-EU agreement of the kind Labour has long recognised is the best means of securing the kind of deal our country needs.
Labour have long maintained that we want to achieve the closest possible relationship with the EU Single Market. However, for the above reasons, the EEA as it stands has not been our preferred means to achieve that end. That is why Labour articulated a new single market proposition as an amendment to the Lords EEA amendment. Our new amendment stipulates It shall be a negotiating objective of Her Majesty’s Government to ensure the United Kingdom has “full access to the internal market of the European Union, underpinned by shared institutions and regulations, with no new impediments to trade and common rights, standards and protections as a minimum”. This amendment retains the objective of maintaining full access to the internal market of the EU, but draws a distinction between that objective and the EEA which, as I’ve outlined above, has drawbacks.
We believe that a deal which ensures access to the EU Single Market on this basis is entirely possible, but it requires the Government to drop the red lines first set out in Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech, namely exit from the customs union, exit from the single market, and no participation in any EU agencies/programmes because of an unwillingness to countenance any European Court of Justice jurisdiction. The EU have also made clear that such a deal is feasible. They state that if the UK’s position on a customs union and the internal market “were to evolve, the Union will be prepared to reconsider its offer”. I hope the above explains why I believe that our new single market proposition is preferable to the Lords EEA amendment.
Consideration of future amendments
I continue to deliberate on the various amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill. A number of those amendments which are not accepted this week by the House of Commons are likely to come back for further discussion and votes over the coming weeks. There will also be opportunities to amend other Brexit Bills such as the Customs Bill and the Trade Bill when they come back before the Commons. During all these deliberations and votes, I will be aiming to support amendments that attempt to stop a “hard Brexit” and maintain as close a relationship as possible with the EU and our European neighbours.