I was clearly on the losing side in the vote on the Withdrawal Agreement from the EU. The Withdrawal Agreement was shot down by a clamour of conflicting voices. Our MPs knew that they did not like the Agreement but their reasons for disliking it were wildly different, based in many cases on ignorance both of the EU and how it works and of the terms of the agreement before them. How many of our 600 plus MPs had read the 585 pages on which they passed judgement? Some of those who voted against it thought it ‘bad’ because it kept the UK too close to the EU, some that it would place the UK too far from the EU. Some thought that it kept the UK subject to EU law, some that it meant that the UK would deviate from EU law on employment and the environment. Above all, a large number of MPs objected to those elements of the agreement implying permanent special arrangements for the Irish border. Many of them muddled up the terms of withdrawal with the future terms of the UK’s relationship with the EU. Close examination of the Hansard Records by future scholars searching to explain the vote will reveal a kaleidoscope of largely uninformed views. As a whole the House of Commons threw out what was on offer but made no constructive suggestions for alternatives. It is hardly surprising that the general population is losing trust in its elected representatives.
We must remind ourselves that not only did the people as a whole vote to leave the EU but the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to trigger Article 50 and then in a general election the major contenting parties all promised to respect the result of the referendum. Few voters opted for parties that promised to reverse the result. The first question the House of Commons must now address is ‘is the House still sure that it wants the UK to leave the EU?’ Then, after a week in Committee (perhaps of the Whole House supported by Select Committees working in tandem) the House should, section by section examine the Withdrawal proposal. It should vote on each section in turn so it is clear which parts of the agreement on withdrawal are acceptable or unacceptable just as it would in respect of any major item of legislation. Before voting all MPs should be required to read the terms of departure – all 585 pages so that they, avoiding accusations made against voters in 2016, can confirm that they were fully ‘informed’ before making a decision. While judgement as to what is best in the national interest may be based to some degree on sentiment that judgement should at least be based on an understanding of what is on offer. Once it is clear what the UK House of Commons does want in the withdrawal agreement the government can take its conclusions back to Brussels. For once the EU negotiators have a point when they complain that the UK does not seem to know what it wants.
The members of the House of Commons need to be reminded over and over again until they understand the point – once they accept that the UK will leave the EU two separate decisions have to be made. The first is the terms of the UK”s withdrawal. The second is the terms of the UK’s future relationship with the EU. These two decisions need to be clearly separated. As for the future relationship there is much loose talk of customs unions. There is need for precision here. There is a big difference between being a member of the EU’s customs union – an arrangement made internally a decade after the adoption of the Treaty of Rome – and being a member of ‘a’ customs union with the EU. Turkey has ‘a’ customs union with the EU which notably excludes agriculture and services. The UK could agree ‘a’ customs union with the EU covering manufactured products which represent almost all the intra EU trade – notably vehicles. That would satisfy the demands of big business and its unlikely new spokesman in Parliament, the leader of the Opposition. But ‘a’ customs union or any other trade deal with the EU can only be discussed with EU negotiators after the UK has left, and they have warned us off ‘cherry picking’. It is time for someone to bring logic and clarity into the heated atmosphere of uniformed declamation which has characterised the last few days of non-debate in Parliament.