David Davis writes for the Sunday Times outlining the alternative to the Government’s plan for Brexit


As published in The Sunday Times:
May has left our fingers in the EU mangle but there is a way to get free

When I arrived at Chequers a week ago it was plain that something was up. Social media was rife with anonymous comments supposedly emanating from Downing Street, saying that any cabinet minister who resigned would at once lose his or her ministerial car and have to get a taxi back to the station. Taxi phone numbers would be provided! There was a Basil Fawlty element to the whole silly business when it was reported that the taxi firm cited had gone out of business a year previously.

It was a crude pressure play, one that I was quite sure that our famously upright prime minister would have nothing to do with, so I ignored it. Nevertheless it augured a bad day when the cabinet decided by a majority of about three to one to make concessions to the EU that were so fundamental they risked undermining the whole Brexit process.

The origins of the decision were plain. The UK government had a position, outlined in speeches made by the prime minister at Lancaster House, Florence, Munich and Mansion House, that were built around the promises made in the referendum and the general election. These were: return of control of laws, borders and money to the United Kingdom parliament and exit from the single market and customs union. The entire Conservative Party had rallied around these speeches.

At Chequers the government blinked. It agreed to offer a “common rule book” for all goods, that meant we would follow the EU’s rules and laws. In theory, parliament would have control over the approval of these laws. In practice that would lead inevitably to the interference of the European Court, because the question would simply be: was the UK properly obeying EU law? In the event that parliament rejected a law it would risk triggering the Northern Irish backstop, dragging Northern Ireland back into the single market and customs union and creating a border within the UK, down the Irish Sea. This is a formidable sword of Damocles hanging over any decision to diverge. So parliamentary control would be more illusory than real.

At the same time, with the future customs arrangements, we would offer to collect the EU’s tariffs for it in a complex scheme that would almost certainly lead to the European Court seeking oversight of customs arrangements. None of this really amounts to taking back control.

What is more, it is likely that the EU, having achieved a break in the UK’s position, will simply pocket the concessions and ask for more. For that reason alone this is a very bad decision.

Now some are saying that those on the other side of the argument have no worked-out alternative. This is an astonishingly dishonest claim. For the past seven or eight weeks my erstwhile department had been working on a white paper based on the prime minister’s speeches. The individual chapters of the paper were being painstakingly agreed with individual departments of state before the whole paper was to be put to the cabinet — which, of course, it never was.

How does the original plan differ from what the government is now putting forward? Much of the white paper is the same, of course, since the government could not have created 100-plus pages in a few days unless it had cut and pasted the existing work. The key difference is over the question of regulation. The original, and still best, proposal is to allow the absolute right to diverge over regulations. Then if parliament chooses to alter these regulations, the difference is assessed to see whether it leads to an important change in outcome or effect. So the test would be: does the new regulation provide equal or better levels of safety, or emissions control, or animal welfare, or whatever it was that the regulation was aimed at? Not whether it was identical law. This is intrinsically a practical or scientific test that could be carried out by a joint committee or independent arbitration panel with no reference to the European Court.

In the event that we are found to be getting an unfair advantage, we could either change our decision or face a limited but appropriate restriction on market access. And vice versa for the EU.

All this would operate within a “mutual recognition of standards and inspection” regime to minimise the burden of bureaucracy. The commission does not like this much, but it has negotiated mutual recognition regimes with other countries in the past. And on the basis of my experience, most European countries are comfortable with this.

This would be real parliamentary sovereignty. It allows parliament to make informed decisions about what is in the best interests of the country in terms of sensible regulation, access to EU markets and access to global markets. We would have an incentive to have effective and efficient regulations rather than the clunky, costly and sometimes biased regulations of the EU.

No longer would we have to face regulations designed to disadvantage our manufacturers, as happened with James Dyson’s vacuum cleaners, or designed to protect continental industries. Be in no doubt: under the government’s proposal our fingers would still be caught in this mangle and the EU would use it ruthlessly to punish us for leaving and handicap our future competitiveness.

As President Trump’s intervention last week showed, the harmonisation of our regulations with the EU will radically reduce the sort of trade deal we could do with America, and many of our other prospective trading partners. It was noticeable in his diplomatic dance on Friday to be properly courteous to our prime minister, he did not actually withdraw any of his devastating critique from the day before. This should not surprise us. Even the government’s own white paper admitted to the problems this would create.

On the customs front we need to throw out the cumbersome and legally problematic future customs arrangements and put in place a streamlined modern customs system that simply uses all the best techniques from around the world to make customs simple, quick and convenient. This is eminently possible, but sometimes it seems Whitehall is stuck in the card index era when it comes to exercising our imagination on customs.

This is certainly true when it comes to Northern Ireland — held up as the great block on progress. So let us be clear. Under no circumstances will the UK install a hard border in Northern Ireland. That is a given. I find it hard to believe that the Republic of Ireland will either. People might be forgiven for wondering what the exact problem is.

What people also forget is that there is already a border there. VAT, excise duties and other taxes differ north and south of the border. The customs authorities manage this now by careful intelligence-led policing of goods movements, which is exactly how it will work in the future. Before the issue became heavily politicised, both the head of the UK customs and Irish customs said they could operate without any customs posts. And so they will.

EU concerns about Northern Ireland becoming a back door into the EU for third-country goods is easily manageable. Much is made of the nearly 300 crossing points on the border, but little of the fact that there are barely half a dozen ports. This means surveillance on goods from the rest of the world into Northern Ireland is comparatively easy.

Simply put, the answers to the customs and the NI issue are detailed and technical but rely on existing technology and sensible management, not on sweeping political solutions that imperil long-standing and sometimes delicate political arrangements.

This is hard work but the reward it will deliver is enormous. In all the agonising about exactly which technical answer we choose, we should never forget that the purpose of much of this is to liberate our businesses to make the most of the fast-growing global markets that will open up to us after we leave the EU. The commission itself recognises that 90% of the growth in world trade will come from outside the EU. Even if we had stayed in, 65% of our trade would have been with the rest of the world by the middle of the next decade. Now it will be even more.

At one level that is what some Europeans fear: that we will be able to exploit all our natural advantages. Our English language, our Commonwealth, our natural alliances, the benefits of our legal system, our scientific talents, our status as a global financial centre, our standing in the world as a UN security council member, our military, intelligence and development reach. That we will use all this to make a spectacular success of Brexit.

They are right and all we need is the freedom to do it.