Real choice facing us: an interim deal that truly protects the national interest, or a WTO Brexit that will have a catastrophic impact

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Parliament have finally been able to debate the triggering of Article 50 after the Government brought forward the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. After a long wait in the Chamber for what was a popular debate I made the following contribution:

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), who made an interesting speech. [Laughter.]

I am a passionate supporter of the European Union, with both my heart and my head. I am married to a Dane, and both my daughters were born in Brussels. I have lived, worked and studied in a number of European countries, and I have first-hand experience of how inspiring and productive international political co-operation and economic solidarity can be. I campaigned passionately for remain, and I am in no doubt that the result of the referendum will eventually weaken our economy, erode our sovereignty, and diminish our place in the world; but I am, above all else, a democrat. The debate in this country was had. The votes were cast, the ballots were counted, and my side of the argument lost. The rules are the rules, and any attempt to frustrate the process will serve only to corrode our democracy further, and to cause deep and lasting damage to our institutions.

The Brexit process will have two phases, as stipulated in section 1 of article 50. The first will be withdrawal. That will be done through the triggering of article 50, a process limited in scope to the detailed terms of the divorce, and to the specific mechanics of disentangling Britain from the European Union. Then comes phase 2, the process through which we establish our post-Brexit relationship with the EU27 as a non-EU member state. That will be conducted through article 218. This second phase will take several years and will require ratification by 38 parliamentary Chambers, from Brussels to Berlin, from Warsaw to Wallonia. It is the article 218 process that will address the core questions that have come to dominate our politics for the last year or so, namely free movement of labour and the status of our relationship with the single market and the customs union. So, in spite of all the sound and fury we have heard today, the success or failure of Brexit will in fact depend on the terms of the article 218 package, not on the details of what is agreed under article 50.

In her Lancaster House speech, the Prime Minister claimed that it would be possible to negotiate both the article 50 deal and the article 218 deal by the spring of 2019. This was a deeply irresponsible and deluded claim; it is absolutely absurd to believe that the 38 Parliaments across the continent will be ready, willing or able to ratify such a complex, politically sensitive and comprehensive package in two years. It is therefore high time that this Government levelled with the British people.


Sir Gerald Howarth: Why was it, then, that Michel Barnier, the EU commissioner charged with Brexit negotiations, said he wanted the negotiations finished within 18 months, and then six months for the ratification process to take place? Was he not telling the truth?


Stephen Kinnock: Michel Barnier was referring to the article 50 process; the article 218 process, which will define our future end-state relationship with the EU, is a completely different matter. It is worth noting as well that Michel Barnier has quoted a figure of €60 billion as the cost of leaving the EU.

It is therefore time that the Government levelled with the British people. The very best we can hope for is an acceptable article 50 exit deal, alongside an interim transitional package that avoids the disastrous cliff edge of resorting to WTO rules. And what is the most likely form of this interim deal? It is quite clearly the European economic area. The EU will not be minded to do a bespoke interim deal for the United Kingdom. Why should it when the EEA is a ready-made, off-the-shelf solution? It is therefore beyond doubt in my opinion that our EU partners will simply insist that we transfer to the EEA while the article 218 process runs in parallel.

We do not know how long this holding pattern would last, but what we do know is that the EEA, as a halfway house, would be infinitely preferable to the train crash option of a WTO Brexit. A WTO Brexit would mean crippling tariffs, job losses, the decline of our automotive and steel industries, the hobbling of our financial services industry and the probable demise of our entire manufacturing sector. The British people will not stand for that. The Government have a mandate for us to leave the European Union, and this House has an obligation to enable that mandate to be fulfilled, but there is no mandate for this Government to use Brexit as an excuse for wrecking our economy, slashing the minimum wage and sparking a bonfire of workers’ rights, environmental safeguards and hard earned-social protections.

Tomorrow marks the end of the phoney war. Since 23 June, we have had endless debates about process, but once article 50 has been triggered the focus will at long last move to substance. Once article 50 has been invoked the real choice facing this Government, this House and this country will become clear: will we choose an interim deal that truly protects the national interest, or will we tumble head first into a WTO Brexit that will have a catastrophic impact on our economy, our communities and our place in the world?

We know that the currently dominant nationalist wing of the Conservative party will hate the idea of an interim deal, as it will inevitably be based on the EEA model, but surely this country has had its fill of Prime Ministers who place personal ambition and party management ahead of the national interest. I therefore urge this Government to learn from the mistakes of the past and to commit unequivocally to basing their approach to Brexit on securing the safe haven of an interim deal. The alternative would result in the warping of our country into a European version of the Cayman Islands, and that is an alternative that we cannot and will not accept.