There were farcical scenes in the House of Commons last night, as Conservative MPs elected on a promise to implement Boris Johnson’s ‘oven-ready’ Brexit deal began the process of breaching it, even if that means breaking international law.
Lewes MP Maria Caulfield’s vote to renege on the deal came as no surprise, since she had already written to constituents attempting to defend her position. But her email proved something of an own-goal, as experts and constituents took to social media to expose its misunderstandings and inaccuracies.
As David Henig says, almost everything that Caulfield claims in her email is wrong. Most importantly, she seems not to understand the central fact that when the UK is not in the EU’s customs union, there has to be a customs border somewhere between the UK and the EU. But let’s take her ‘questionable’ statements one by one:
“In the week ahead we have one of the most significant pieces of legislation starting to make its way through parliament since the General Election, in the form of the UK internal market bill (UKIM). This is the bill you will have read about in the media which says that the Government will be breaking the law by overturning the withdrawal deal we signed to leave the EU.”
This is not what “the media says” – the Northern Ireland (NI) minister said it in Parliament.
“However I want to make sure you are aware of some of the facts not being set out in the media.
“When the PM renegotiated Theresa Mays [sic] deal, he took out the dreaded backstop which kept Northern Ireland aligned with the EU and effectively broke up the United Kingdom.”
This is not true: Mrs May’s NI backstop kept the whole UK aligned with the EU (unless another solution was found to the Irish border problem).
“Instead outstanding issues around the NI situation were left aside to be later thrashed out by the Joint Committee set to oversee what is called the Northern Ireland Protocol.”
This is not true: instead, an alternative arrangement was set in the withdrawal agreement (WA).
“If in the event of a free trade agreement between us and the EU this Northern Ireland Protocol would not be needed.”
This is not true: the arrangements for NI in the WA were to apply whether or not there was a zero-tariff free trade agreement between the UK and the EU, because, even with such a free trade agreement, the UK would not be in the European single market or customs union and therefore there have to be regulatory and customs borders between the UK and the EU.
“However as time marches on it is increasingly likely that it will be needed. Disappointingly though the joint committee, which is made up of UK and EU representatives, cannot come to an agreement on NI. In the withdrawal agreement the UK agreed that NI would stay in the EU single market but remain in the UK customs union. However the EU won’t accept this now and say NI must be both within the EU single market and customs union.”
This is not true: the UK agreed that NI would remain in the single market and would also be within the EU common external trade policy. The agreement that NI would remain in the ‘customs territory’ of the UK was therefore little more than a nominal concession.
“This would effectively break up the UK and is is [sic] a step too far and so the PM wants to bring in the UK internal market bill to ensure that NI remains in the UK customs union in the event of a deal not being agreed with the EU. Without this trade between the rest of the UK and NI would be subject to export declarations and tariffs. Would we accept this between Manchester and Birmingham?”
The WA accepted that NI would be in the single market and would apply EU tariffs (except for goods agreed to be destined for final consumption in NI). These issues were widely discussed at the time, and the prime minister signed up for them, won a general election, and left the EU on the basis of a WA with the conditions to which he and Caulfield now object.
“If we accept this proposal from the EU it would not only lead to the break up of the union but it would also jeopardise the Good Friday Agreement and peace in Northern Ireland as the Unionist community could never accept this.”
Again, this was widely understood when the agreement was signed, and indeed the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) voted against the WA for this reason.
“While the UKIM legislation will change the withdrawal agreement so too would the EU proposal to take NI out of the UK customs union.”
Again, this is not true. Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement provided for NI to come out of the UK’s customs union and apply the EU’s common external trade policy except on GB goods destined for NI.
“On Monday the bill will get it’s [sic] second reading and during the rest of the week will be in committee stage where we will have several late night sittings thrashing this out. Preserving the Union is a red line for the Government.
“Ideally we won’t need this legislation as, for all sides, a free trade agreement would be the best outcome but this is an insurance policy in case that does not happen. We need the EU to also honour its commitment in the withdrawal agreement to allow Northern Ireland to stay in the UK customs market should a deal not be agreed.”
The WA agreed by Boris Johnson was not an insurance against the contingency of a free trade agreement not being achieved – it was agreed to apply in all circumstances. Even with a free trade agreement, the fact that the UK will not be in the EU customs union and single market means there must be border checks between the UK and the EU. The WA ensured that these checks would not be at the border between NI and the Irish Republic, and therefore requires border checks between GB and NI whether or not there is a free trade agreement between the UK and the EU.
After more than four years of debating Brexit, it is extremely concerning that an elected MP has such an inadequate grasp of the issues facing the country. Her constituents deserve better.
Many thanks to Alasdair Smith for his help with this article