On Monday, along with 15 of my colleagues on the Exiting the European Union Select Committee, I went to Brussels and I found it an enlightening experience. No, I did not convert to Remain, I am still a steadfast Brexiteer, but after a day in Brussels meeting with Martin Selmayr and Guy Verhofstadt it enabled me to better understand some of the confusion faced by the European Union and the messages the UK are sending out.
I had never met Mr Selmayr before, he seems like a very pleasant man - much easier to engage with than Michel Barnier that’s for sure! He seemed to have a good sense humour and I rather cheekily said that I understand that his reputation is that of a ‘Bull in a China shop’ and ‘If so, we will get along just fine!’. Selmayr was very professional, knew his brief and was well prepared for our visit. He knew each our voting records on the Withdrawal Agreement, on how we voted individually on the recent amendments and even what some of us had said on social media, my name may have been mentioned…
This personal interest in each of our voting records was a new development; when we had previously interviewed both Barnier and Verhofstadt they had never taken such a keen interest. My view is that it highlighted that their minds are very much more focused as we approach the 29th March deadline. This was further evidenced by him stating that no deal would be damaging for both the UK and the EU, and an orderly withdrawal is they only way forward. And that they have been working on no deal damage limitation measures since the end of 2017. This honest rhetoric about the impact on No-Deal on the EU is contrary to the recent articles or possibly speculation that we have heard about him trying to punish the UK for leaving the EU. The threat of No-Deal is possibly focusing his mind.
Mr Selmayr asked if I personally would support the Withdrawal agreement if they provided more guarantees, and he referred to the recent Tusk/Junker letter as a solution. I replied, as did another of my Brexiteer colleagues that if the letter was to be legally binding, then why won't they include it in the Withdrawal agreement. And if they dropped the backstop entirely then they would get much more support in Parliament.
I asked Martin Selmayr whether the Prime Minister had ever asked for the backstop to be removed. He stated that he wasn't aware of her asking for this and she had certainly not asked him. He also stated that there has been no request to reopen negations by the British Government.
Mr Selmayr said that the EU remains unsure about what the UK wants and to be fair I can understand his point. I stated then at the meeting that the Brexit Committee and the House of Commons remain biased and not representative of the referendum result or of the public opinion. This meeting further evidenced this and added to the mixed messages by colleagues who were discussing; an extension of Article 50, a Norway Style model, some who supported the Withdrawal Agreement, some stating a desire to remain in the Customs Union, some supporting no deal, whilst some supporting the need to remove the backstop. I stated that if anything, recent polling shows that Public Opinion is hardening towards a No-Deal.
When asked about the Backstop, and what is the likelihood of the backstop being:
a. Removed completely from the deal? Or b. A strict and fixed time limit being in place if the backstop comes into play? Selmayr avoided fully answering the question stating he will not play with people’s lives this way. When further pushed on the Backstop, there was still no clear answer, except they are ready to look at the political declaration and not the Withdrawal Agreement.
In the afternoon session Mr Verhofstadt echoed some of the same lines as Selmayr. Who said that he was aware of the Malthouse Compromise, but he reiterated that the Irish backstop would not be removed and he considered the Withdrawal Agreement to already being a compromise. He did say that he was willing to look again at the non-legally binding Political Declaration, which some of the remain supporting colleagues were open to this idea and discussed achieving a ‘Softer’ Brexit. However, the problem for many Brexiteers like myself remains the Withdrawal Agreement and the inclusion of the backstop. I remain adamant that the backstop goes against the referendum result as it could mean the UK having to follow EU rules for an indefinite time without having any say over them. A redline that many of my colleagues will not accept.
The decision last week by the Prime Minister to appoint three Brexiteers to the Alternative Arrangements Working Group was a good one, however, I do fear that possible solutions to the Brexit impasse will be ignored, much like they were back in May 2018 when the “maximum facilitation” option was being discussed. From a Conservative and Brexiteer perspective, the Malthouse Compromise is not perfect, I still have concerns, as I do not welcome extending the transition period for a further year to allow for preparations, however I would compromise on that, rather than extending Article 50. The Malthouse Compromise does seem like the only option currently available which will galvanise enough Tory votes to get an amended version of the deal through. If this cannot be achieved then I expect the PM will try and extend Article 50, something which I am vehemently opposed, and I believe the British public are against.
I went to Brussels with lots of questions, and return in the knowledge that the European Union is right to be confused, I am confused as to how we ended up here. A huge majority of my colleagues—544 MPs—voted in favour of the European Union Referendum Bill, 17.4 million people voted to leave the EU and 494 MPs voted to trigger article 50. The decision to leave the European Union and its institutions was clear.
However, I remain no clearer as to what happens next regarding Brexit. But let’s look at what do we know. Brexiteers voted to take back control of our laws and the Irish backstop jeopardises this; the PM’s deal remains a bad deal and we will not accept a bad deal for our country. The EU is saying it won’t budge on the backstop and it looks like the Prime Minister is determined to get a deal no matter the cost.
A deal is preferable, however, this cannot be a bad deal that put limits on our ability to trade freely outside of the EU. We cannot continue to kick the can down the never ending Brexit road. It has been over 950 days since the EU referendum and it will be over 1,000 come the end of March. I say no to extending article 50, no to remaining in the EU’s institutions and no to any bad deal for our country which is what we will get unless we leave on time. This is what the people voted for, now let’s deliver and give the country Brexit on March 29th.