As we approach our party conference, I am fearful we may expect scenes reminiscent of the bloodbath of the Maastricht debates of the early 1990s. I remember Major’s Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd citing the similarity of that debate to the Corn Laws under Peel, that split the party in two – between pro-protectionism and pro-free trade – and the roar in the Hall as he was shouted down. Here we go again.
This time the debate is Chequers or Canada – Canada defined as a SuperCanada/CETA+++ Free Trade Agreement, that suits not only Canada but our Commonwealth cousins New Zealand and Australia, who are now using Canada as the template for their deals with the EU. SuperCanada has become a Commonwealth deal.
But with the clock showing a few minutes to midnight, the Chequers option is facing a brick wall. A combination of strong party and Westminster opposition – with even former Brexit ministers David Davis and Steve Baker resolutely pledging to vote the deal down – and 80 MPs now willing to put country and principle first. Relying on Labour votes to drive a deal so resolutely unpopular in the Conservative party through risks ‘Corn Laws 2 – the Sequel’. More likely Labour will oppose the Chequers deal and it will fail, ushering in no deal.
The UK polling data is frightening: only 19 per cent Conservative voters (YouGov) think we are doing a good job at the negotiations. Add to this the 29 per cent of voters in 44 Conservative marginal seats would be less likely to support their local Conservative member if that member supported Chequers, and Chequers clearly risks handing Corbyn the keys to Number 10 on a silverplate – complete with a bouquet of red roses.
Then there’s the EU. Monsieur Barnier is very charming and polite in saying he likes ‘parts’ of the White Paper, presumably after desperate urging. It is not clear whether this is the content – or the binding, printing style or phraseology.
Comparing the key Brexit models: Chequers v Canada plus
|Control of borders||EU citizens will keep their current free movement rights until the end of the transition. The UK has yet to set out what it would have in its place afterwards.||The UK would have total freedom over immigration policy, at the price of more limited trading access to the EU market.|
|Solving the Irish question||The UK intends to avoid a hard border by aligning with all EU rules “necessary to provide for frictionless trade”.||The UK would be outside the customs union but would have a comprehensive free trade deal with the EU, limiting the need for checks through technology.|
|Control of rules||The UK would follow “a common rulebook”, requiring it to copy EU regulations on goods and agri-food. MPs would have to accept the “consequences” if they want to ignore certain rules||The UK would be able to change its rules much more, with smooth cross-border trade ensured by a system of “mutual recognition”|
|Free-trade greatness||The UK could in theory strike deals with countries outside of the EU. But lack of flexibility would limit its attractiveness.||The UK would leave the customs union and avoid any common rulebook, so there should be no curbs.|
|Control of laws||The European Court of Justice would no longer have “direct jurisdiction” over the UK, but British judges would have to pay “due regard” to its previous rulings||A Joint Committee, inspired by what the EU has in place with Canada and Korea, would make binding decisions to resolve issues|
But his original reaction was perhaps more reliable: with him saying that by allowing U.K. to “pick pieces” of the single market, such a deal “would be the end of the single market and the European project”, may not be “legally feasible”, and that he is “strongly opposed” to the proposal. Wishful reports he is being sidelined were met with firm denials in Germany and France.
So it is quite clear the core proposal in Chequers: that of a Facilitated Customs Arrangement and a EU ‘Common Rulebook’ (cunning language for signing up to EU laws with no say) are seen not just to meander over EU red lines but to stamp up and down on them with great force. Barnier fears this Chequers proposal will simply fall apart.
The EU regards the 4 freedoms and the sanctity of the Single Market as its Holy Grail – and does not like us messing with their scriptures. To separate goods laws (one core freedom) from services (another core freedom) is unacceptable, not to mention no free movement (a third) within the Single Market – like the EEA demands.
Nor does the EU want us either to continue to act as one of their customs borders, collecting duties and imposing tariffs and quotas like an agent. Inauspiciously there is a multibillion-pound battle going on with the EU suing our own customs authorities for allegedly failing to collect billions in Chinese duties. So they don’t even trust us not to turn a blind eye to fraud in their view.
If Chequers isn’t going to fly, then the expected November summit will mean no withdrawal agreement, no transition deal and both of us moving to the same relationship the EU has with China, the USA and India – a World Trade Deal (or ‘no deal’) as early as March next year. The Party Conference will be taking place five to six weeks out from that summit.
But we can rescue a deal in that timescale – as, despite denials, there is indeed a credible alternative plan, one that was our official policy only months ago. That is to revert back to Plan A (SuperCanada) with no loss of political face. An indication was the fact the gentlemanly Eurosceptic Mr Jacob Rees Mogg and gentlemanly Euro-gnthusiast Mr Barnier agreed so readily in their Brussels meeting that: Chequers is dead, long live SuperCanada!
So here’s conceivably how we might get a solution:
- Everyone – Eurosceptics, the EU and the U.K. Government – acknowledge how clever it was to propose Chequers 1, as it has fast illuminated our respective negotiating positions, shown UK business and industry that a closer position more akin to the Customs Union/EEA is not deliverable, clarified the EU red lines whilst allowing the EU negotiating guidelines to be made more flexible, unlocked a new EU/Irish willingness to find a sensible common sense solution on the Northern Ireland border issue (such as Mr Varadkar announcing that the EU had told him there was no need for a hard border as soon as Chequers was announced), and made it clear a deal can be struck quickly and successfully – but only along the lines of a SuperCanada/CETA+++ style trade deal, with Mr Barnier even astonishing Labour MPs on the Brexit Select Committee by his vehemence in rejecting Chequers and supporting Canada plus.
- The U.K. Government then announces that in light of the strength of the EU reaction and Westminster MP concerns against the Chequers proposal – as David Davis said it is merely a proposal not a deal – then the proposal is to be updated and improved – as many white papers in the negotiating process have been – into a ‘Chequers 2’ proposal. Much of Chequers 2 will remain the same other than for the trade deal section that everyone is finding so unpalatable (plus a few tweaks to the defence section).
- Chequers 2 will see our Government reverting back immediately to the original Brexit Department White Paper – version 9 I understand – which incorporates the SuperCanada proposal – as the basis of a deal.
- Chequers 2 means the Government can immediately inform President Tusk and Michel Barnier that the offer made on 7th March by Tusk and reiterated by Barnier on 2nd August is hereby accepted in principle as the basis of a future relationship for the purposes of the Withdrawal Agreement. This is an offer of 100 per cent tariff and quota-free access (one +, as Canada, Australia and New Zealand are not getting 100 per cent) and services (a second +). Deeper and more complex services (the third +) can be delivered for all via the WTO by pushing its Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) which covers 70 per cent services GDP in 50 countries, which the EU will have to follow.
- The EU will publicly rejoice, welcome and agree that the acceptance of the original offer President Tusk made is a breakthrough, and accept in principle to this now being the basis for an agreement at the proposed mid-November special EU Summit.
- Cue an outbreak of relief, joy, and celebration across Europe. The pound leaps, investment surges, the Prime Minister’s poll ratings shoot upwards. Westminster opposition parties reluctantly and gallantly declare their alternate plans for remaining in the Customs Union and Single Market are sadly no longer deliverable, and given the EU has now agreed this deal but could not agree Chequers, that in the interests of the country they will support or at least abstain on the Commons vote. (Alternatively, they will be defeated as Conservative rebels and Labour Eurosceptic rebels are ultimately likely to vote for the deal).
- Agree with the EU to work constructively together to resolve the Northern Ireland border issue by mid-November based on technological and creative solutions, as proposed in several UK papers (including my own) and referred to by Mr Barnier when addressing the Brexit Select Committee of MPs. Barnier helpfully said: “We need to see how and when and where these controls would take place. They could be dispersed. They could take place in different places, on board vessels, in ports outside Ireland, they could be done using technological means, they could be dispersed, as I said, or simplified in technological terms. Just to make that absolutely clear, we are not talking about a border. We are talking about controls.”
Then we can all gather in the pub, Leavers and Remainers together, to celebrate and ensure that the growth in the U.K. economy recently announced – is duly maintained, despite Brexit!
You can read the article as it appeared in the telegraph.co.uk here.