Brexit Response: Betrayal or Disaster?

Thank you to all constituents who have emailed me about the EU Withdrawal Bill this week, and the various Lords amendments that we debated for two days.

This is a very long answer, and if you want to know where I stand in a few words it’s this - let’s get the difficult job of leaving the EU properly done as sensibly as possible.

For those with appetite for much more detail here goes:

Broadly half of you mailed to urge me to support the Prime Minister and the government in delivering leaving the EU, in line with the vote of the Referendum and the vote result from our city. You who sent these messages often urged me not to betray the country’s decision and our democracy and to get on with it. All of you in this camp had no support for the Lords amendments and some wanted that (unelected) body disbanded. Above all you are worried about Betrayal.

The other half of you urged me to avoid the Disaster of Brexit, be true to myself, do the right thing and recognise that we should stay in the EEA, if not the Single Market and Customs Union. You want a continuation of current customs arrangements to resolve the Northern Ireland border issue and some wanted a second Referendum. You support some if not all of the Lords’ amendments. You urged me to support Parliament determining the final say on our negotiations with the EU. You are concerned with the Disaster of Leaving the EU.

You’ll understand, as I tweeted out (@richardgrahamUK) that it would be hard for me to satisfy both sides of this Betrayal v Disaster argument. But it is possible for me to have a consistent approach to the issue, the Bill and these votes. This is the background to my approach:

  • Parliament voted overwhelmingly for a Referendum in 2015. It’s worth noting that our former coalition government partner the Lib Dems had previously campaigned for a Referendum too
  • I voted Remain (as I laid out in an enews before the Referendum) because I thought the short term risks outweighed the longer term potential benefits
  • The government had written to every household that whatever the decision of the country it would be implemented: and I made it clear after the Referendum that I respected that commitment
  • Parliament voted overwhelmingly to trigger our withdrawal from the EU by triggering Article 50
  • Both my party and Labour campaigned in 2017 on honouring the pledge to leave the EU
  • The only question therefore is how we leave the EU: under what circumstances and arrangements
  • There are entirely legitimate different points of view on that big question
  • I believe the PM was right to highlight that delivering our leaving the EU meant taking back control of:
    • Our laws – so leaving the EU, and deciding which future European legislation to adopt or not
    • Court decisions – so leaving the European Court of Justice, which takes precedence over our Supreme Court on many issues
    • Immigration – so leaving the Single Market and its free movement at all times for all EU nationals
    • Trade Policy – so leaving the Customs Union and being able to have our own trade policy and agreements

I believe the Prime Minister has been right to be pragmatic about the timing of the implementation of these institutional changes, recognising that:

  • Both we and the EU will benefit from a period of transition when the current rules will continue for a short period after we have left the EU – just as our laws when passed often come into effect later
  • Past ECJ decisions will play a part in the decision of our court for a period of time, because our law is built on precedence and practice
  • The technology for future, smooth Customs arrangements after leaving the Customs Union will not be ready immediately, and that we will need a backstop agreement if they are not ready at the end of the transition
  • Peace and continuity on the Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland border are vital to fulfil our commitments to the Belfast Agreement and the United Kingdom must mean just that
  • We will want to participate in in many organisations that are of benefit to both us and the EU, whether related to aviation, nuclear energy, chemical, research, science, our universities and much more besides
  • Above all most individuals, organisations and businesses want minimum disruption and advance notice of change

The Withdrawal Bill was and is simple in concept. It brings into UK law all remaining EU laws that are not already on our statute books, so that at the moment of leaving the EU our laws are identical. But some Lords amendments went much further and tried to impose on the Commons a number of changes that would have meant (for example) the negotiating positions of the government would be decided by Parliament: and that Parliament could command the government to return to the negotiating table at the end of the negotiations.

A second amendment would have obliged the government to join the European Economic Area (EEA), which is like a watered down EU, with the same 4 freedoms as the Single Market – meaning that we would not have control of our immigration policy.

I could never support either of these propositions. There is a huge difference between government being accountable to Parliament – which is vital and the core of our parliamentary democracy – and Parliament dictating negotiating positions to the government. That has never happened in our history, and there is no constitutional precedent for this. Leaving the EU in a way that gives the EU control of our immigration policy is not a solution to anything. So why were the Lords trying to propose these changes?

I believe there were two main reasons:

  1. Mistrust of the government’s position: and concern that the government could return from negotiations with ‘no deal’ when a sensible one might have been achievable
  2. A lingering hope of some that by inserting this requirement, a vote in the Commons, supported by a motion in the Lords, could enable Parliament to oblige the government e.g. to change course and remain in the Single Market and Customs Union. Several peers made it quite clear this this was their aim.

What this reflects in turn is the fundamental feelings of the two sides: on the one hand that Brexit is a disaster, if not an absolute disaster, and must be avoided (or subverted) or watered down at all costs; and on the other that Parliament and/or the government might try to betray the Referendum result and prevent a real Brexit. This is for some a new Civil War (without muskets): or Disaster v Betrayal.

I’ve never seen it that way. For me, leaving the EU is a government obligation that must be carried through – in a way that avoids as many of the short term risks, and enables us to realise as many of the longer term potential benefits, as possible. I neither feel elated about joining the Promised Land or Depressed about the darkness ahead. I think the landscape will in fact be much the same – because we’re leaving the EU but not Europe –and it’s up to us what we make of it. The simple and very difficult task is coming out of the main institutions that I mentioned above, and finding new ways and structures of engaging with European partners on crucial issues – like security, defence, crime, energy, the environment, financial risk and a host of others.

No deal, as EU Michel Barnier told the Select Committee, would not be good for either side.

So we can avoid this risk, and I hope that for most people the outcome in our daily lives will mean maximum continuity not disruption. That’s what the government is trying to achieve, by being careful about not rushing into changes that could be disruptive.

Ultimately I don’t think the differences between Disaster and Betrayal are as great as some believe. We need compromises, since we do need to work together with the EU on many things: while making sure that the representatives of the people (your MPs and government) do have responsibility for our laws, immigration policy and trade – and that our own courts do have final authority on all their decisions.

You could summarise it like this: we were in the EU and had many opt outs - now we’ll be out and have many opt ins. But that won’t be easily achieved with an EU that doesn’t welcome change and has never seen a member leave. We have experience of constitutional arguments getting out of hand: our long and painful Civil War 375 years ago saw 10% of the population die, and personal, family and national scars are still with us today - in order to arrive at changes not long after which, in retrospect, do not seem that momentous. Compromise by both sides earlier could have avoided a bloody disaster.

It is absolutely not too late for Britain and the EU to avoid repeating those errors, and it was important this week that Parliament gave the government the flexibility to pursue arrangements which, while satisfying no-one completely, can deliver us leaving the EU, bringing back control of key areas and enabling us to continue working closely together in different structures. If we can achieve this it would be good for our city and our country and for Europe, where our historic role keeping the balance of power is still important.

That’s what I will continue to work for, as your MP, a member of the Leaving the EU Select committee and the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy for SE Asia. The voice of calm determination is not shouty or melodramatic. But I‘m absolutely sure it’s the only approach – and, with enough goodwill from the EU – can succeed in the mission, avoiding both Disaster and Betrayal. If things go well than by the end of this year we can move to start focusing on the opportunities.

Sorry I’ve gone on: and sorry in advance for those I’ve either upset or disappointed. As I said, this is not a subject on which I can satisfy everyone – and possibly no-one completely. But I hope many of you will agree that what this boils down to is where I started - let’s get the difficult job of leaving the EU properly done as sensibly as possible.

Best regards

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PS Yesterday afternoon I joined a high level presentation by the Home Office of its preparations for EU nationals to register here. They look good, simple and I’m sure will be welcomed by any constituents who are continental Europeans. There is more good work happening in the background than is appreciated by the media, and do spread the word that anyone who is living here or has lived here over the last five years will be fine.