It’s sweltering in Parliament – and tempers are running high over Brexit. But I’ve been trying to keep a cool head and figure out what’s best for Kent.
The EU has put two models of future relationship on the table. The first is a standard Free Trade Agreement, with Northern Ireland staying in the EU’s customs union and elements of the single market. This would leave Northern Ireland cut off from the rest of the UK and create a border in the Irish Sea. That’s not acceptable.
The second is essentially membership of the EEA and the Customs Union. This would mean continued free movement, we’d still be paying into the EU, we’d still have to follow EU law (but with very limited influence) and we wouldn’t be able to strike our own free trade deals. This would achieve very few of the ambitions of Brexit.
At Chequers last week, the Prime Minister set out an alternative approach. It’s an approach that is true to the referendum result and addresses some of the problems of Brexit, like disruption to manufacturing supply chains and checks at our borders. I’ve been warned by businesses that customs checks would be difficult to cope with, and if there are delays, we will bear the brunt of the queues in Kent.
The Prime Minster’s proposal ends free movement, ends the jurisdiction of the ECJ over the UK, ends huge payments to the EU every year, and gives us the freedom to make trade deals – but for goods (including food), we would be part of a free trade area with the EU. That would avoid the need for customs checks for products being shipped between the UK and the EU.
The Prime Minister’s plan does mean agreeing to common regulations on those products – the ‘Common Rule Book’ – but this is different from being signed up to all the EU’s rules and regulations. For instance, we would be free to have our own agriculture and fisheries policies, and set our own rules for services – our most important export market worth over £140 billion.
With such a close and passionately fought referendum campaign, it was always going to be tough to come up with a plan that suits everyone. But so far, I haven’t heard a credible alternative. Some people argue that we should walk away and fall back on World Trade Organisation (“WTO”) rules. This means trading with the EU on the same terms as non-EU countries – and paying the same tariffs. That would mean customs checks and disrupt the supply chains we have developed with the EU, on which many jobs and livelihoods depend. Of course, we do need to be prepared in case of ‘no deal’ – but I think we can do better.
So for me this plan is the best chance we have of bringing our divided country back together – it respects the referendum result by getting us out of the EU, but it also protects the aspirations and incomes of people whose jobs depend on trade with the EU.