Stephen Kinnock: Thank you very much, Minister. We know that the withdrawal agreement was rejected three times, which then gave rise to the cross-party talks. The cross-party talks—very serious talks—went on for a period of around six weeks and from them a number of commitments and, if you like, concessions were announced by the Prime Minister, reflecting what Labour had been asking for, which was more clarity about the future relationship—on the customs union, on dynamic alignment, on environmental and consumer rights and so on. As you know, that was branded as the withdrawal agreement Bill, but that new package was never published. Do you think that that withdrawal agreement Bill should now be published by the Government, as it would be a helpful stepping stone, if you like, for finding the basis for a deal?
Michael Gove: The more informed the debate is, the better. Having sat in on some of those talks, I know that there was a sincere attempt by many in them to find common ground. I think that some of the people who were involved in those talks are no longer in government, so I think out of politeness, before making plain everything that may or may not have been discussed, I would have to make sure that conversations were had with those who were involved in those talks who are no longer in government, because I would not want them to feel that there was any discourtesy to them. I should stress that, as you know, this was an attempt to find compromise. Following on from the point that I made to Stephen, there were some aspects of what we were proposing in those talks that made me deeply uncomfortable, but I felt it was important to try to see if we could find a way through. People will form their own judgment about the good faith of the individuals involved and about the merits of the package that came up, and I would not want to try to influence people on that, but if we can help this Committee and Parliament know as much information as possible so they can come to an appropriate judgment, that is something I would like to do.
Stephen Kinnock: Thank you very much; that is very helpful. Perhaps we may be able to follow up on that, Chair—that is something we can discuss.
I want to move on to how the negotiations would work with the European Union in the event of a no deal. The legal basis would of course shift from article 50 to article 218. On 31 August, Michel Barnier wrote, “In case of ‘no-deal’, all the UK’s financial and other obligations from its past EU membership will continue to exist, as well as obviously the international obligations it has to protect the Good Friday Agreement, in all its dimensions.” The message from the European Union is clear that even in the event of a no deal, the divorce items under the withdrawal agreement and article 50 are still in play and no discussions, no mini-deals, no FTA talk and no future relationship talk can possibly take place until those items are agreed. Do you agree with that analysis?
Michael Gove: I absolutely agree that that is the position that Michel Barnier has taken, and that he is faithfully reflecting the mandate that the Council has given him. I will say just a little bit extra for clarity—please cut me off if I am going into too much unnecessary detail. The EU has made it clear that it regards three things as central before we can move on to a future economic partnership. The first is citizens. I believe that everything we have done in domestic legislation will mean that EU citizens in the UK have all their rights, and that those are guaranteed—you can probe that in a second, if you want. The second thing is financial obligations. The financial obligations that were agreed as part of the withdrawal agreement are dependent on that withdrawal agreement existing. In the absence of a withdrawal agreement, I think people agree that there would be obligations that the UK has to the EU, but the precise nature of them—the size of them—is open to debate. The third area is maintaining the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The backstop that exists in the current withdrawal agreement was a sincere attempt to resolve some of those issues, but there are other ways in which those issues can be fairly resolved as well. The broad analysis that you have is a fair one, but of course the negotiating mandate that the Council gives the Commission can always change. You are also right to say that the article 218 process requires a degree of acceptance by individual member state Parliaments of anything that is agreed, which the article 50 process does not.
Stephen Kinnock: Thank you. Just one final question. Focusing specifically on the Northern Ireland piece in all of that, the European Union has made it clear that everything has to be done to protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. If we leave without a deal, it would be done under an article 218 process, but, by definition, would take much longer because it would surely fall under the category of a “mixed agreement”, and would therefore require ratification by 28 member state Parliaments. In the meantime, what measures could be put in place to discuss alternative arrangements? You would not be doing that in a transition period under article 50; you would be doing that in a third country. We would be a third country at that point, so how would we manage that process?
Michael Gove: You are absolutely right. It is the case that, in the event of a no-deal exit, there are particular challenges that are more acute in Northern Ireland than elsewhere. Again, I do not want to apportion blame in any way, but we have said that, in order to ensure that the spirit and the letter of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement are abided by, we will maintain a common travel area. The only checks that we would impose would not be at the border but would be absolutely mandated by international law. At the moment, we don’t know—this is not a criticism, just an observation—the precise requirements that the Commission would have of Ireland as a member state. We would like to have more conversations, both with the Commission and with the Republic of Ireland, about what one might do in the event of no deal, before we then move to whatever a new agreement might be. Unless I am misunderstanding your question, it is the case that there are additional challenges posed—absolutely.