October EU Council
22 October 2018
The Prime Minister (Mrs Theresa May) Before I turn to the European Council, I am sure the whole House will join me in condemning the killing of Jamal Khashoggi in the strongest possible terms. We must get to the truth of what happened. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will make a statement shortly.
On the European Council, in addition to Brexit, there were important discussions on security and migration. First, at last Monday’s Foreign Ministers meeting, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary and his French counterpart secured agreement on a new EU sanctions regime on the use of chemical weapons. At this Council, Dutch Prime Minister Rutte and I argued that we should also accelerate work on further measures, including sanctions, to respond to and deter cyber-attacks. The attempted hacking of the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons in The Hague earlier this year was a stark example of the very real threats we face. We must impose costs on all those who seek to do us harm regardless of the means they use. This Council agreed to take that work forward.
Secondly, in marking Anti-Slavery Day, I welcomed the continued commitment of all EU leaders to work together to eliminate the barbaric crime of people trafficking. We reaffirmed our shared commitments to do more to tackle the challenges of migration upstream.
Following the Council, I met Premier Li of China, President Moon of South Korea and Prime Minister Lee of Singapore at the ASEM summit. Since 2010, our trade with Asia has grown by almost 50%, more than with any other continent in the world. I want to develop that even further. Indeed, the ability to develop our own new trade deals is one of the great opportunities of Brexit. At the ASEM summit, we discussed how the UK can build the most ambitious economic partnerships with all our Asian partners as we leave the European Union. We also agreed to deepen our co-operation across shared threats to our security.
Turning to Brexit, let me begin with the progress we have made on both the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on our future relationship. As I reported to the House last Monday, the shape of the deal across the vast majority of the withdrawal agreement is now clear. Since Salzburg, we have agreed the broad scope of provisions that set out the governance and dispute resolution arrangements for our withdrawal agreement, and we have developed a protocol relating to the UK sovereign base areas in Cyprus. Following discussions with Spain, and in close co-operation with the Government of Gibraltar, we have developed a protocol and a set of underlying memoranda relating to Gibraltar, heralding a new era in our relations. We also have broad agreement on the structure and scope of the future relationship, with important progress made on issues such as security, transport and services.
This progress in the last three weeks builds on the areas where we have already reached agreement: citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the implementation period; and, in Northern Ireland, agreement on the preservation of the particular rights of UK and Irish citizens, and on the special arrangements between us such as the common travel area, which has existed since before either the UK or Ireland ever became members of the European Economic Community.
Taking all of that together, 95% of the withdrawal agreement and its protocols are now settled. There is one real sticking point left, but a considerable one, which is how we guarantee that, in the unlikely event that our future relationship is not in place by the end of the implementation period, there is no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The commitment to avoiding a hard border is one that this House emphatically endorsed and enshrined in law in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. As I set out last week, the original backstop proposal from the EU was one we could not accept, as it would mean creating a customs border down the Irish sea and breaking up the integrity of our United Kingdom. I do not believe that any UK Prime Minister could ever accept this, and I certainly will not.
As I said in my Mansion House speech, we chose to leave and we have a responsibility to help find a solution, so earlier this year we put forward a counterproposal for a temporary UK-EU joint customs territory for the backstop. In a substantial shift in its position since Salzburg, the EU is now actively working with us on this proposal, but a number of issues remain.
The EU argues that it cannot give a legally binding commitment to a UK-wide customs arrangement in the withdrawal agreement, so its original proposal must remain a possibility. Furthermore, people are understandably worried that we could get stuck in a backstop that is designed to be only temporary. There are also concerns that Northern Ireland could be cut off from accessing its most important market, Great Britain.
During last week’s council I had good discussions with Presidents Juncker, Tusk and Macron, Chancellor Merkel and Taoiseach Varadkar, and others, about how to break this impasse. I believe there are four steps we need to take.
First, we must make the commitment to a temporary UK-EU joint customs territory legally binding so that the Northern Ireland-only proposal is no longer needed. This would protect relations not only north-south but, vitally, east-west. This is critical. The relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is an integral strand of the Belfast Good Friday agreement, so to protect that agreement we need to preserve the totality of relationships it sets out. Nothing we agree with the EU under article 50 should risk a return to a hard border or threaten the delicate constitutional and political arrangements underpinned by the Belfast Good Friday agreement.
The second step is to create an option to extend the implementation period as an alternative to the backstop. I have not committed to extending the implementation period. I do not want to extend the implementation period, and I do not believe that extending it will be necessary. I see any extension or being in any form of backstop as undesirable. By far the best outcome for the UK, for Ireland and for the EU is that our future relationship is agreed and in place by 1 January 2021. I have every confidence that it will be, and the European Union has said it will show equal commitment to this timetable, but the impasse we are trying to resolve is about the insurance policy if this does not happen.
What I am saying is that if, at the end of 2020, our future relationship is not quite ready, the proposal is that the UK would be able to make a sovereign choice between the UK-wide customs backstop or a short extension of the implementation period. There are some limited circumstances in which it could be argued that an extension to the implementation period might be preferable if we were certain it was for only a short time. For example, a short extension to the implementation period would mean only one set of changes for businesses at the point we move to the future relationship, but in any such scenario we would have to be out of the implementation period well before the end of this Parliament.
The third step is to ensure that, were we to need either of these insurance policies, whether the backstop or a short extension to the implementation period, we could not be kept in either arrangement indefinitely. We would not accept a position in which the UK, having negotiated in good faith an agreement that prevents a hard border in Northern Ireland, none the less finds itself locked into an alternative inferior arrangement against its will.
The fourth step is for the Government to deliver the commitments we have made to ensure full continued access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market. Northern Ireland’s businesses rely heavily on trade with their largest market, Great Britain, and we must protect this in any scenario.
Let us remember that all these steps are about insurance policies that no one in the UK or the EU wants or expects to use, so we cannot let this become the barrier to reaching the future partnership we all want to see. We have to explore every possible option to break the impasse, and that is what I am doing.
When I stood in Downing Street and addressed the nation for the first time, I pledged that the Government I lead will not be driven by the interests of the privileged few, but by those of ordinary working families. And that is what guides me every day in these negotiations. Before any decision, I ask: how do I best deliver the Brexit that the British people voted for? How do I best take back control of our money, borders and laws? How do I best protect jobs and make sure nothing gets in the way of our brilliant entrepreneurs and small businesses? How do I best protect the integrity of our precious United Kingdom and protect the historic progress we have made in Northern Ireland? If doing those things means I get difficult days in Brussels, so be it. [Interruption.]
The Brexit talks are not about my interests; they are about the national interest and the interests of the whole of the United Kingdom. Serving our national interest will demand that we hold our nerve through these last stages of the negotiations—the hardest part of all. It will mean not giving in to those who want to stop Brexit with a politicians’ vote: politicians telling the people that they got it wrong the first time and should try again. And it will mean focusing on the prize that lies before us: the great opportunities that we can open up for our country when we clear these final hurdles in the negotiations. That is what I am working to achieve, and I commend this statement to the House.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab) I thank the Prime Minister for the advance copy of her statement, and I am pleased she has condemned the horrific murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. But condemnation is not enough; what matters now is what action the Government are prepared to take. Will they now end arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
Moving on to Brexit, I hope our debate today will be conducted without some of the language reported in the press over the weekend. I have to say that every word on Brexit was anticipated: a mixture of failure, denial and delusion. The Conservative party has spent the past two years arguing with itself, instead of negotiating a sensible deal in the public interest. Even at this crucial point, they are still bickering among themselves. The Prime Minister says that 95% of the deal is done, but previously she had told us that
“nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
Which is it?
The Government’s Brexit negotiations have been a litany of missed deadlines and shambolic failure, and now they are begging for extra time. They promised that the interim agreement would be done by October 2017 and then by December 2017, but it was finally agreed in March 2018. The Prime Minister even missed the deadline for publishing her own Government’s White Paper on Brexit. She said it would be published by the end of June, but it arrived in mid-July, lacking any clarity on the key issues. Crucially, it arrived after the EU summit at which Britain’s proposals were supposed to have been tabled. And just last week, the Government missed their October deadline for agreeing to the terms of the exit deal with the EU—instead the Prime Minister went to Brussels to beg for an extension. The EU had already offered to convene a special summit in November to help the Prime Minister, but it now seems this has been withdrawn as she will not be ready by then either and so now December is being talked about. And the Prime Minister claims her extension of the transition period will be for only “a matter of months”. Is that three? Is that six? Is that 12? Is that 18? How many months is it? Who knows? Certainly the Prime Minister does not. But can the Prime Minister give one straight answer: what will it cost in extra payments to the EU per month during this extension? The Government are only proposing this extension because of their own incompetence.
We have had two and a half years watching the Tories’ failure to negotiate. Now even the Prime Minister does not have confidence that she can negotiate a deal by December 2020—that is another 14 months. What faith can anyone have that extending that deadline by “a matter of months” will help? Perhaps the Prime Minister can inform the House?
The Prime Minister also begged European leaders to come up with creative solutions. The country voted to leave, her Cabinet members said they would take back control, and now the Prime Minister is pleading with the EU to work out how to do it. It does not sound like taking back control; it sounds like a Government and a Prime Minister who are losing control.
The Government are terminally incompetent, hamstrung by their own divisions. The Prime Minister of Lithuania summed up the situation succinctly when he said:
“We do not know what they want, they do not know themselves what they really want—that is the problem.”
I am sure the whole House would love to hear the Government’s precise and detailed blueprint. Perhaps when she returns to the Dispatch Box, the Prime Minister could set out her plan. The whole country is waiting for a plan that works for Britain, not another fudge—kicking the can down the road to keep her party in power.
Much of the current impasse is due to the Northern Ireland border—hardly an issue that can have come as a surprise to the Government. There is a simple solution—a comprehensive customs union with the EU, a solution that would not only benefit Northern Ireland, but help to safeguard skilled jobs in every region and nation of Britain, and with no hard border in Ireland, no hard border down the Irish Sea and good for jobs in every region and nation. That is a deal that could command majority support in this House and the support of businesses and unions. It is Labour’s plan—a comprehensive customs union with a real say for Britain and with no race to the bottom on regulations, standards and rights. The alternative is not no deal: it is a workable plan.
The Government do not even trust their own Back Benchers to have a meaningful vote, with the Brexit Secretary submitting a letter that told us that we must choose between a disastrous no deal and the Government’s deal—a deal that does not yet exist and for which there is now no deadline.
Brexit was supposed to be about taking back control. That is what much of the Cabinet campaigned for, and where have we ended up? Parliament is being denied the chance to take back control and, because of the Government’s vacillation, five years on from the referendum we could still be paying into the EU but with no MEPs, no seat at the Council of Ministers, no Commissioners and no say for this country. Instead of taking back control, they are giving away our say and paying for the privilege. What an utter shambles! Having utterly failed to act in the public interest, will the Prime Minister do so now and make way for a Government that can and will?
The Prime Minister There was an awful lot in the right hon. Gentleman’s comments about process, but not much about substance, and what Labour actually wants to see. It is incumbent on all of us in public life to be careful about the language we use. There are passionate beliefs and views on this and other subjects, but whatever the subject we should all be careful about our language.
The right hon. Gentleman said a lot about process, as I said, and at one point he seemed to be asking us to set out our plan. I have to say to him that we set out our plan in the White Paper of more than 100 pages back in the summer. He talks about a future relationship of a customs union, but whatever future relationship we have, we do have to deal with the backstop issue. Without a backstop in the withdrawal agreement, there will be no withdrawal agreement. Without the withdrawal agreement, there will be no future relationship—nothing is agreed until everything is agreed—so it does not matter what future relationship we want, we still need to deal with this backstop issue.
The right hon. Gentleman’s position has been that no deal is not acceptable in any circumstances. That means accepting any deal that the European Union wants to give us, including a deal that would carve Northern Ireland out of the United Kingdom. Perhaps, though, his shadow Chancellor, who made the comment that he was longing for a United Ireland, might actually welcome that.
All I have to say to the right hon. Gentleman is that, throughout all this, all we have seen from the Labour party and from him is them playing politics with this issue. One minute, they want to accept the referendum, the next they want a second referendum. One minute, they want to say that free movement will end, the next they say that free movement is still on the table. One minute, they want to do trade deals, the next they want to be in a customs union that will stop them from doing trade deals. He is doing everything he can to frustrate Brexit and trigger a general election. He has voted against sufficient progress, he has tried to block the withdrawal Act, and he has vowed to oppose any deal that the Government bring back. I am looking and working for the right deal in the national interests of this country; he is putting politics ahead of the national interest.