In a meeting of the Future Relationship with the EU Committee Michael Gove told me that 47 civil servants have been taken off EU negotiations to deal with Covid-19. This is rightly so, tackling the virus must be the Government’s number one priority. But the re-deployment raises concerns over whether UK-EU team can do its job up against tight 1 July deadline.
Stephen Kinnock: Hello, Mr Gove. You have said a few times that deadlines concentrate minds. In normal circumstances, everyone would agree with you on that point. However, is the key point here not that we are not living in normal times? The Chair referred earlier to a statement made by the director general of the British International Freight Association; he said, “This is not an argument about leaving the EU. That is done and dusted. This is an argument about managing the transition process when not just the goalposts but the entire playing field has moved”. Do the Government not actually need to take account of the fact that the entire playing field has moved here and to act accordingly by seeking an extension to the transition period?
Michael Gove: Thank you very much for your question. May I first congratulate you, Stephen, on your promotion back to the Labour Front Bench? Congratulations; it is richly deserved.
On the broader point, you are right. A lot has changed. Manifestly, a lot has changed, but I would say several things. The first thing is that some of those arguing for an extension now—I exempt the groups that you quote—were voices that were arguing for extensions in the past of our negotiations or extensions of the transition period. There is a constituency that, even though things have changed, have not changed in their attachments to the principle of remaining under the EU’s legal order. I specifically exempt the organisations that you mention but it is important to recognise that there are some who take that view.
If we were to extend, it would involve us paying more money into the European Union at a time when that money could be spent on our National Health Service. It would involve us accepting not just the existing EU acquis but potentially new EU laws over which we would have no say, which could potentially constrain this country. Those EU laws would be shaped in the interests of the EU 27, rather than the UK as well.
Also, if we were to accept an extension, we would find that the incentive to come to an agreement, which currently exists on all sides, would dissipate and we would find that, once again, like with any missed deadline, the new deadline would stretch for quite some time. Again, with a deadline having once been extended, the principle that one side or the other might wish to extend it further and further and further would exist as well.
I appreciate the vital importance of making sure that we engage with the organisations that you mention energetically, but I am not convinced that extension is the right answer.
Stephen Kinnock: I just have one point there, though. The treaty that we have signed—the withdrawal agreement—is clear that an extension is possible for one or two years. You cannot extend indefinitely. That would not be within the terms of the treaty.
I just want to move on to a key point here, which is that a lot of this is not in our control. Of course, there is another key player on the other side of the Channel. We know that the talks between Barnier and Frost have been challenging. We also know that the key decisions in big issues like this are made by Prime Ministers, at the end of the day. The Germans take over the rotating chair of EU presidency on 1 July. Norbert Röttgen, the Chair of the Bundestag’s Committee on Foreign Affairs, has said, “To think that you could then add to this extraordinary situation a very disorderly exit, to me is not imaginable”. Do you have any evidence at all to suggest that the Prime Ministers of a continent that has been stricken by the worst crisis that we have seen since the Second World War are going to give any real time or priority to getting this future relationship deal done?
Michael Gove: I have met Norbert Röttgen. He is an immensely distinguished and thoughtful figure, so I am sorry not to agree with him on this occasion. Far be it from me to suggest what might be in the EU’s interest. EU member states and EU politicians will make those own judgments, but it is fair to say that, for the EU, there is much that they would wish to do on securing the future of the single currency and on helping their nations, as we wish to see, recover from COVID-19. That would mean that they would have a strong incentive in making sure that our negotiations did not run into the next year and beyond and occupy bandwidth and political space on their part. There is a strong incentive on the part of other EU member states to see matters concluded.
Again, I would not want to speak for them but I do see where that clear incentive is. It is reflected in some of the conversations, necessarily private, that we have with politicians within EU member states.
Stephen Kinnock: How many British civil servants have been redeployed from the future relationship talks to tackle the COVID 19 crisis?
Michael Gove: It is a significant number. I have the figures here but it is probably fair to say that it is just shy of 100.
Stephen Kinnock: 100 British civil servants have been redeployed to deal with COVID-19, away from the future relationship talks. Do you not think that that is having a massive impact on our capacity to complete these talks by 1 July?
Michael Gove: No. There are two particular task forces: Taskforce Europe and the transition task force. Their redeployment of some of the very best civil servants in the country is appropriate to the challenge that we face, but it is also the case, during the conduct of negotiations last week, that Taskforce Europe had its work supplemented by individuals from across Whitehall who were subject specialists in their areas. Taskforce Europe and the transition task force have had some of their top people, as it were, redeployed to COVID-19 but, at the same time, the teams have had all the help they need from departmental specialists, in areas such as fisheries and trade, to ensure that their work can continue.
Stephen Kinnock: I just have a final question. A lot of this really is about very difficult choices that Government have to make, and we completely understand that. What do you think is more important: sticking with an arbitrary deadline or taking decisions in the best interest of the health and safety and security of the British people? Do you not see that any disruption, even based on the deal that the Government want to get—a free trade agreement—will involve disruption, potentially including disruption to supply chains? Would it not be better to put the health, safety and security of the British people ahead of an arbitrary deadline?
Michael Gove: That is a very fair challenge. I agree with you that we should put the health, the safety and the security of the British people, and also the health and safety and security of our friends and partners in the European Union, front and centre of all decision-making. My belief is that, if we can conclude, which I believe we will, an agreement by December, that works in everyone’s interests. I respect the fact that there are others of good will who differ, but it seems to me that it is a legitimate difference rather than anything else.