Before five days of debate on the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration on the Framework for the Future Relationship, the Brexit Secretary and Prime Minister’s Europe Adviser appeared in front of the Committee For Exiting The European Union.
I asked him about turning the political declaration into a binding international treaty, the Norway plus option and the need for the Prime Minister to have a plan b.
Stephen Kinnock: We have heard today that you are of the view that this vote is going to happen on 11 December. You are of course fighting your corner valiantly for that vote to be won by the Government. Let us just assume that some sort of miracle happens between now and 11 December and you do indeed win the vote. How long do you think it will take to turn this relatively open-ended and vague political declaration into a binding international treaty, assuming you can start on 30 March?
Stephen Barclay: Quite rightly, a number of Members of the Committee have paid tribute to the negotiating team for the work they have done in securing that political declaration. It is slightly at odds then to dismiss it simply as vague. The wording in there is subject to significant negotiation and that is an indicator of the force it will have, politically, in setting the framework. To the crux of your question, Mr Kinnock, on the timeframes, I would refer to part 5 of the political declaration. That gives a clear steer as to the aspiration.
I have just referred, in my answer to Mr Grant, to fishing and our aspiration to have a deal concluded by July 2020. As we look to the governance within Whitehall, and how we take this work forward, one of the issues will be to look at what the phasing of that work is. I share your desire, or I suspect your desire, to see momentum injected into that process. I am very keen to see that.
Stephen Kinnock: Just for you to know, we have had a diverse range of witnesses giving us evidence on this issue for quite some time. They have not been unanimous on many things, but one thing they have been absolutely unanimous on is that the idea of turning the political declaration into an international treaty by the end of the transition phase is a pipe dream. It is not going to happen, because you of course have the negotiation process and then ratification by 28 national Parliaments and regional Parliaments. You have also, in your evidence, placed great emphasis on the need for certainty and clarity. Would you not accept that, if the political declaration were amended to make a specific commitment to an off-the-shelf model, such as the Norway-plus model, that is the only way in which we would have a chance of having this negotiated and ratified well before the end of the transition phase? Would you accept that an off-the-shelf model like that gives precisely the certainty, clarity and stability the country is desperately crying out for in these uncertain times and that you indeed have been emphasising?
Stephen Barclay: I absolutely see the point you are driving at. My concern is that I do not think the Norway option respects the referendum result. I met the Norwegian Foreign Minister last week. The rule-taking element that applies in Norway would have a—
Stephen Kinnock: I am very happy to have a discussion about that but, just on this point, do you accept that off the shelf has a chance of getting done and dusted within the transition phase? A more open-ended thing like this has no chance whatsoever of being negotiated and ratified by December 2020. It is just not going to happen.
Stephen Barclay: No. One of the key achievements the Prime Minister has made has been shifting the dialogue from this binary off-the-shelf Norway or Canada debate into something that better reflects the shared values, the close working relationships, the 40 plus years of interrelationship with Europe, and that is the bespoke model. I have concerns with Norway, and I know colleagues across the House have raised the issue of Norway. The difficulty there is that you continue to make payments. You continue to have freedom of movement. Also, as someone who was the Minister for Financial Services, I think there are significant issues with taking rules, given the consequence for the financial services industry. If you look at, for example, Lloyd’s of London, if you look at building societies that have a distinct model, there are issues in terms of rule-taking, particularly in areas like financial services, that would be very unwelcome for the UK, much more so than they would be in the case of Norway.
Stephen Kinnock: If we then look at the other scenario, which seems more likely, which is that the motion will be rejected by the House on 11 December, do you agree it is the Prime Minister’s moral duty as a public servant to have a plan B in place? It is a moral issue.
Stephen Barclay: We have covered I think twice now the issue of plan B. Our commitment, as a Government, is to win the vote. That is what everyone is focused on in Government and that is what I will be working very hard on between now and the 11th.
Stephen Kinnock: If there is a compromise out there that provides the certainty that our economy and people so desperately need, and which is not perfect, since no solution is perfect, but provides that clarity that is so important for the commitments we are making, do you not think it is the Prime Minister’s duty to have that option ready to go as soon as she loses the vote on the 11th
Stephen Barclay: I respect the spirit in which the question is put. My concern is that that does not deliver on the referendum result for the reasons I have just alluded to, in terms of the concerns with Norway. We have a deal. European Union leaders have agreed it, after a very intense and difficult negotiation. The Prime Minister has secured that deal in the national interest. It delivers on the referendum result for people like me on the Brexiteer side who campaigned for changes in areas like having a skilled immigration approach. It delivers on that, on fishing and agriculture, on the list we can run through. It allows us to have an independent trade policy. There are significant wins in that deal. That is why I think it is the right deal and we need to make that case. It is for all members of Cabinet to make that case, but we need to make the case and secure the vote. That is our priority.
Stephen Kinnock: On the point of the referendum and the mandate, a narrow vote to leave could very well be taken as an instruction to move house but to stay in the same neighbourhood. Surely the instructions are to stay very close to Europe, to leave the political institutions, to leave the ever closer union, the political project, but to retain very close, strong and productive links through a well-established and well-understood framework. One could very easily interpret 52/48 in that way. It is the Prime Minister who chose to interpret it as leaving the single market and the customs union. We can have a long debate about what the referendum actually means. Is it not time, though, now to put that to one side and find a pragmatic solution that can command a cross-party majority in the House of Commons, in the national interest?
Stephen Barclay: I think that is exactly what has underscored the Prime Minister’s approach. If you look at the fact that this is a deal that enables us to have security relationships with Europe that no other third party will have, this is a reflection of the bespoke nature of the relationship. We are not part of Schengen. The previous narrative in terms of Schengen, which Olly will be very familiar with, is that if you are not part of Schengen you cannot be part of some of the security arrangements there. Actually, I firmly believe this is in our mutual interest. For some of the databases the UK puts more information on, as I understand it, than anyone else, so it is in both sides’ interests.
Both parties want to ensure, if there are passengers who are a concern to law enforcement, that we are picking up that passenger information and, if there are criminals moving between countries, that they are identified. The political declaration enables very close security co-operation. It enables the supply of goods to flow across the borders. It does so in a bespoke way that also delivers on the freedom of movement, on the vast sums of money being paid, on the desire for an independent trade agreement. That is the point where the binary choice of Norway or Canada does not deliver what the Prime Minister’s deal delivers.