As published in House Magazine:
The Prime Minister claims we face a choice between her Chequers proposals or leaving the EU on WTO terms. But there is another option, writes former Brexit Secretary David Davis
According to YouGov, 45% of leave voters said that regaining independence was the most important issue in the referendum. To the average Brexit voter, leaving means taking back control of our laws and our international trade policy. This means leaving the single market and the customs union, or anything that looks like them. Anything else would simply not deliver what the British people were promised during the referendum and, indeed, by both of the main party manifestos in 2017.
The prime minister’s Chequers plan falls far short of this.
The ‘common rulebook’ concedes far too much power to the EU. It ties us to the EU rules on goods and agri-foods for generations to come, with no say on how those rules are made or interpreted. ‘Common’ only in the sense that the EU will make the rules and the UK will obey them; obey them with no vote, no control and no choice. Far from taking back control of our laws, this plan abdicates what little control we have.
This is of real practical consequence. We are world leaders in a number of emerging industries – genomics and other life sciences, AI and IT to name but a few. Imagine being a world leader in an industry, but having its rules written in Brussels to our disadvantage.
The EU’s rulebook is overflowing with cumbersome and unnecessary regulations that are not fit for the UK economy. Indeed, it has been reported that an internal EU study found the UK could save £6bn by cutting just seven EU regulations on services. Imagine what we could achieve if we were unshackled from its rules on goods as well. This does not mean reducing standards, but introducing smarter, leaner regulation rather than the clunky EU equivalent.
The facilitated customs arrangement is also deeply problematic. It will be time consuming to establish and complex to implement. Moreover, if agreed, the EU would inevitably insist that it is overseen by the ECJ. It would be both impractical and undesirable. Some customs experts have told me that they think it can never be made to work.
Regaining control of international trade is also key to seizing the opportunities Brexit presents. By the middle of the next decade, two-thirds of our trade will be with the rest of the world. On Brexit day, we must be poised to take full advantage of this immediately. Canada, Australia, America and more are lining up to negotiate trade deals with the UK. We must be free from the EU’s costly tariffs and become a truly global Britain, leading the world in free trade.
The problem is Chequers will prevent us from achieving this. We would be unable to strike comprehensive trade deals with other countries. President Trump had this to say on the Chequers proposal: “If they do a deal like that, we would be dealing with the European Union instead of dealing with the UK, so it will probably kill the deal.” While other leaders have not been so forthcoming with their views, I suspect many of them share the same sentiment.
Crucially, it is not yet the last round of negotiations, where unpalatable compromises often have to be made. If these negotiations have revealed anything, it is the EU’s unwavering intransigence. They will seek more concessions and I fear this government will continue to give way.
The prime minister has conceded that more compromises may be made “in the national interest”. This opens the door to financial contributions, preferential immigration and jurisdiction of the ECJ. The final deal could well be indistinguishable from membership.
But it is not just a choice between Chequers and no-deal. There is still time for a third way.
Donald Tusk and Michel Barnier have both stated their openness to a comprehensive free trade agreement; what I have called ‘free trade plus’. An agreement of equal partners, based on zero tariffs, mutual recognition and security cooperation. This would allow us to seize the Brexit opportunities, mitigate the risks and keep faith with the referendum result.