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Exit Negotiations

Volume 637: debated on Thursday 15 March 2018

Before I answer, may I take this opportunity to express my condolences to the family of Warren Hawksley, an erstwhile colleague of ours? He was a Maastricht rebel and a great friend of mine; he was very highly principled and very energetic—sometimes too energetic—in pursuit of his views, but, as I say, I express my condolences to his family.

Our immediate goal is to agree a strictly time-limited implementation period by the March European Council next week. This is crucial to helping us build a bridge from where we are to where we want to be on our exit. We have also been working hard to codify the joint report into legal text. We are confident that both of these aims are within reach. Finally, the March European Council is expected to issue the negotiating guidelines to the Commission to negotiate the future partnership. We are seeking to ensure that those guidelines are as broad and open as possible to allow the most constructive negotiation to deliver the close relationship we are aiming for.

Does the right hon. Gentleman foresee a scenario in which the deal negotiated is so mind-bogglingly positive that all the other European Union states want that kind of relationship as well, and the European Union itself implodes? Or does he accept that membership is the best possible relationship we can have with the European Union, so any new settlement will be disadvantageous compared with what we have now?

Those who made a decision on the last part of the hon. Gentleman’s question were the British people—17.5 million of them—and they decided that that was not the case. Let me respond to the first part of his question, however, because he does have a serious point. Certainly in the institutions of the European Union, and in some member states, there are concerns that if we are too successful that will be tempting to others. I do not believe that that is a real fear, because we have unique circumstances—the English language, our historic traditions, our world network, our island status, our law—that other countries do not have. That is no fault of their own; they just do not have those advantages. That is what will allow us to make the best of this situation.

I am aware that some in the right hon. Gentleman’s party have accused others in that party of fantasy politics. Does he believe that any transition period can be based on World Trade Organisation principles?

It is fascinating to have a lecture from the SNP on fantasy politics. We are proposing a transition period based on existing arrangements and rules, so that the British people and companies—and, indeed, European people and companies—have only one transition to make.

It was disappointing to see the aggressive line in last week’s EU document on maintaining full access to our fishing waters. Will the Secretary of State assure me that the Department is being robust on behalf of my Northumbrian fishermen in any negotiations, to ensure that we regain control of our fishing waters before deciding whom to allow to fish in them?

My hon. Friend is right, and it was a very odd linkage to make. The simple truth is that when we leave the European Union we will be an independent coastal state, and as a result we will control our own waters. As stated in DEFRA questions last week, we will continue negotiations with neighbouring states about catch—because fish move—quotas, and all the rest of it. However, we will control our own destiny.

The UK is party to around 40 trade agreements negotiated by the EU, but at least two of those countries have indicated that they will seek concessions from the United Kingdom in return for rolling over those agreements during the transition period. Will the Secretary of State assure UK exporters that they will be able to continue to trade with those countries on the same basis as now and with the exact same benefits, and that we will not end up in a situation where those countries will have preferential access to our market, while UK businesses lose the same access to their markets?

The right hon. Gentleman’s stance is fascinating, because the customs union proposal that the Labour party recently came up with induces exactly the risk that people will have access to our markets without our necessarily having complementary access to theirs. Indeed, that was the view espoused by the shadow Secretary of State for International Trade not long ago.

I wish my right hon. Friend every success in the negotiations which, as he said, will reach an important stage next week. Will he confirm that it remains the Government’s position that no deal is better than a bad deal, and that all necessary resources—financial and otherwise—will continue to be deployed with an eye to such an eventuality?

Yes, and interestingly my right hon. Friend’s question links to that asked by the hon. Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) about whether some people on the continent think that letting us get a good deal would be a bad thing for the future of the European Union. Were people to turn that into a punishment deal, plainly no deal would be better than that. We are, of course, allocating the necessary resources, as the Chancellor has said.

The Secretary of State backs a 21-month transition period. Given that the Government’s own impact assessment points to every sector and region of the UK being damaged by Brexit, what discussions has he had with different sectors about the extra damage that a short, 21-month transition period could inflict on jobs here? Which sectors or companies have told him that a 21-month transition period is acceptable—the CBI, for example, which called for a three-year transition period, or the EEF, which called for at least two years?

The first thing I would say is that there is no official Government document that makes that forecast. There is work in progress, but that is not an official Government forecast—indeed, we do not believe it. The simple truth is that, first off, the most important priority is to establish an implementation period as soon as possible, so that companies can have certainty. That is the view of the CBI, the British Chambers of Commerce, the Institute of Directors and pretty much every other business group there is.