Withdrawal from the European Union (Negotiations)
Scottish Parliament debate
25 October 2017
Members of the Culture, Tourism, Europe and External Relations Committee went to Brussels last month and met Michel Barnier. The European Union’s chief negotiator made many important points and addressed some complex issues. However, one of his simplest points was also one of the most telling. When negotiations fail, that usually means going back to the status quo, but in the case of Brexit, no deal would mean something quite different. It would mean Britain becoming a third country, with no agreed trading relationship with our main trading partner. It is a simple point, but it is hugely important. No deal would not mean standing still; it would mean going backwards by 40 years.
Despite the opening comments from the Conservatives, it is clear that some ministers in the UK Government believe that the threat of walking away without a deal will concentrate minds and persuade EU leaders to make fewer demands and more concessions. There is no evidence of that, just as there is no evidence that there is a whole world out there of friendly countries just waiting to reach trade deals with the UK that are more generous than their trade deals with the EU.
Boris Johnson, for example, recently suggested that Commonwealth countries might provide an alternative field for British economic activity. Clearly, he did not know that New Zealand and Canada are already lining up with the United States, Brazil and Argentina to demand increased access to our markets for their produce once the UK is no longer covered by EU quotas for farm produce, under World Trade Organization rules. It is a pity that the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs was not a little bit better informed before he laid out such wonderful visions—or at least a bit more honest about just what trading under WTO rules will be like if there is no new deal with Europe.
Even more remarkable was the sight of the Chancellor of the Exchequer apparently being put in his place by the Prime Minister on preparing for an outcome with no deal. Philip Hammond told MPs that spending now on preparing for failure in the negotiations was likely to be “nugatory expenditure”—more commonly known as a waste of money. The very next day, Theresa May was keen to say that that money was already in place, and that her Government would be ready in the event that no deal could be agreed.
It is easy to see why the chancellor did not want to admit to planning expenditure to build giant lorry parks at Britain’s ports to allow our exports to get off the road while they wait to join the queue to go through customs before crossing the Channel or the North Sea. Hundreds of millions of pounds will be spent on trade policy—not on speeding it up or increasing it, but on slowing it down.
It is also easy to see why David Davis is so reluctant to publish the UK Government’s assessment of the impacts of a no-deal Brexit—or indeed any Brexit—on the nations and regions of the United Kingdom. This week’s LSE report on national and regional impact shows that economic output in Scotland could fall by almost £30 billion over five years in the absence of a positive agreement. As the Minister for UK Negotiations on Scotland’s Place in Europe said, Aberdeen is predicted to take the biggest hit in Britain after the City of London, with Edinburgh and Glasgow not far behind.
Mention has already been made of this week’s comments by David Mundell. So far, he has declined to tell us what the Government’s findings with regard to regional and sectoral impact are, but he concedes that “a degree of analysis” has been done in relation to Brexit, and yesterday he told the Scottish Affairs Committee that that analysis would be shared with the Scottish Government.
I understand that the same assurance was given by David Davis to my colleague Joanna Cherry at this morning’s meeting of the Westminster Committee on Exiting the European Union, but it is very difficult to get clarification of those commitments. I hope that, by working on a cross-party basis, we can persuade the Conservatives to make sure that that documentation comes to Scotland and is published.
I hope for the same. I also hope that Mr Russell will agree that, if that documentation comes to the Scottish Government, it will be of legitimate interest to the Scottish Parliament and, indeed, to the citizens whom we are here to represent.
Of course, the implications of no deal do not stop at trade. A failure to agree would also be devastating for the rights of citizens of other EU countries to stay here and of UK citizens to stay in other EU countries post-Brexit. That is the area in which Mrs May and Adam Tomkins want to tell us that we are closest to agreement. When Mr Tomkins talked about us being within “touching distance” of a deal, he might have been right, but as Daniel Johnson said, it is an area that should not have been subject to a bargaining process in the first place, and it is an area that is at as much risk as any other if the bargaining process is unsuccessful. Whatever progress might be achieved as part of a negotiated settlement will be abandoned if there is no deal, and that will be hugely damaging for our economy and our society, as well as deeply distressing for the individuals and families concerned.
Just as the UK Government is failing to make real progress in Brussels, there seems to be an equal lack of progress at Westminster. Today’s Conservative amendment states that the withdrawal bill is “likely to be amended” to address the devolution issues. It certainly should be, given the force of the many amendments to the withdrawal bill that have been tabled with cross-party support to ensure that powers over devolved areas are repatriated to the devolved Administrations and not the UK Government.
The failures and shortfalls of the withdrawal bill do not stop there. Last weekend, Keir Starmer called for action to improve the bill in six areas. He said that ministers need to act to remove obstacles to transitional arrangements—an issue that the Conservatives have raised this afternoon—based on the terms of membership of the single market and customs union beyond March 2019; to safeguard against law making by decree by reducing the sweeping powers that ministers want to have to amend retained laws without full parliamentary process; to guarantee continuation of workers’ rights, consumer rights and environmental standards; to protect the devolution settlement; to entrench fundamental rights; and to ensure that Parliament rather than Government has the final say on whether to approve the withdrawal agreement and on how to implement it.
In all those areas, we need a change of attitude and a change of approach from UK ministers before the withdrawal bill will be fit for purpose. We need a Government that wants a deal with Europe and that is willing to listen to others in the UK Parliament and in this and other Parliaments in order to safeguard democracy. Frankly, if Mrs May’s ministers are not up to that challenge, we also need a change of UK Government.