Shanker A. Singham is CEO of Competere and lead author of Plan A Plus and A Better Deal.
As MPs prepare to return from their Christmas break and face the New Year, they will be acutely conscious that it is a year that will go down in history – the year the UK left the European Union.
This is the moment for the Government to come up with a new approach to the Brexit negotiations. We have laid before them Plan A Plus, which sets out the comprehensive framework for how to develop independent trade policy for all the UK’s many options, including the EU FTA.
We have even more recently suggested an Alternative Withdrawal Agreement which we believe would pass House of Commons (A Better Deal, launched with David Davis, Shailesh Vara, the former Northern Ireland minister who resigned over the Withdrawal Agreement and Arlene Foster, the DUP leader).
We explained that the Government should present this to the EU in the likely event that the current Withdrawal Agreement does not pass the Commons when it is brought back again in January. Not bringing a vote in December was a serious tactical error. Had the Prime Minister lost that vote by a significant amount, it would have strengthened her hand in Brussels not weakened it. Clearly, the EU will not deviate from what is a very good deal for them without a clear reason – , i.e: a deal cannot get through the Commons.
Our alternative to the Northern Ireland backstop recognises the reality that permanent arrangements on the Irish border are crucial and should be the starting point for any agreement. We have developed a comprehensive way in which the current border arrangements can be maintained without the need for physical infrastructure.
Ultimately, this would be set out in a chapter in a EU-UK Free Trade Agreement on customs and trade facilitation, together with special Irish facilitations, based on a basic FTA with zero tariffs for goods and no quantitative restrictions. Only if a comprehensive FTA with the EU is not reached at the end of the transition period would this part of that FTA would apply. But the intention of all parties would be an advanced FTA which incorporating these arrangements.
In other words, the backstop would eventually become a front stop. This is logical, because if the backstop as currently drafted is the only way to solve the border issue, then it will be the front stop. But of course the backstop, as currently drafted is not the only solution, and is indeed unnecessary, as the UK, EU and the Republic of Ireland have repeatedly conceded.
Faced with all this, the government should do the following:
It would then be crucial for the Government to do what it has so far seemed incapable of doing, which is to hold the offer on the table and not blink. Unrealisable statements from MPs that they will not allow No Deal merely give comfort to those in the EU who think that the UK can be beaten into accepting a bad deal.
Whether there is a deal or not is, of course, not in the gift of Parliament. It depends on what the EU does, and how intransigent it is prepared to be. No Deal would be very bad for a number of EU member states, in particular for the Republic of Ireland itself. Irish beef farmers currently supply 70 per cent or so of the UK’s beef, and if those exports had to compete with exports from all over the world, they would not survive. Yet, this is where we seem to be heading – an impasse which has been caused principally by the backstop, pushed by the Irish government.
To be clear, exiting the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement is not an ideal outcome. But even No Deal is better than accepting the current Withdrawal Agreement which would locks the UK into all the preconditions of a very bad deal with the EU. Becoming a third country should not hold the terrors that our own Government has suggested, provided we prepare and undertake the unilateral measures that are necessary in this eventuality.
The Government must also communicate to the public and to the private sector what measures it is undertaking. The more the EU sees that the UK is seriously preparing for this eventuality, the better our negotiating leverage is, and the more likely we will be to agree a better deal with them.
As the dust settles on a tumultuous 2018, let us keep our eyes on the prize and not forget the tremendous gains possible if we embrace the opportunities that Brexit offers. A G7 nation adopting independent trade and regulatory policy for the first time in 45 years is a major global event, and we should expect that it will be difficult, particularly given how enmeshed we have become in the European system. However, what is difficult is not impossible. We must not give up. The prize is worth fighting for.