4 October 2018

Open Europe held a fringe event at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham on October 2, to discuss UK-EU negotiations with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the Rt Hon Dominic Raab MP. The debate was introduced by Lord Wolfson, Open Europe Chairman, and moderated by Henry Newman, Open Europe Director. Below is an overview of the discussion.

You can rewatch the event on our Twitter page and listen to the recording here

The Government’s Chequers proposal is a substantial compromise

Questioned about the Chequers proposal for a future relationship with the EU, Dominic Raab said it could be a “seven-and-half or eight out of ten Brexit,” adding that there was a need to recognise the trade-offs being made in the proposal. Raab told Henry Newman that “there is no such thing as pure independence” but that it was possible for the UK to have “democratic control over our laws” and an internationalist outlook, while also recognising its interdependence with the EU.

After the European Council President Donald Tusk said at Salzburg that the UK’s economic proposals “would not work” due to the indivisibility of the Single Market in goods and services, questions remain over the future of Chequers as a viable option for the future relationship. Raab said that the EU’s arguments seem to come from their unwillingness to divide goods and services, rather than from an inability to do so (as previously argued in our blog).

He added,

We need to make clear with the EU what they will lose out [on if they reject the UK’s proposal]. Our offer is being portrayed from their point of view as an attempt to undercut the Single Market. I don’t know any other third country that offered to the EU to align on goods and agri-food, not to mention our commitments on the level playing field…If Chequers is off the table from the EU’s point of view, then there are many other benefits that are off the table as well. You cannot cherry pick.

The strategic imperatives in future negotiations

Raab stated that the Government’s priorities in negotiations were:

  1. Leaving the Customs Union.
  2. Reconciling the challenge around Northern Ireland.  He said, “Although it has been overblown for political purposes, this remains a substantive issue.”
  3. Avoiding friction at the border, due to the interdependent relationship with the EU, particularly in certain manufacturing sectors.

He added that reaching these goals were imperative for both sides, Moreover, the UK could be flexible on the details of the means of achieving these goals. Raab explained,

We would not ‘close the book’, we would listen to other ideas on how to deliver this strategic set of priorities.

Will the UK diverge from EU regulations in the long term?

Addressing some concerns about the UK gaining competitive advantage over the EU in the long term due to changes in regulations, Raab said, “I can’t promise you that Britain will not want to gain a competitive advantage” after Brexit. However, he said, the UK will compete “in accordance with global rules.” Raab said the UK recognises that there will be consequences if it decides to diverge from the EU’s ‘common rulebook’ on goods and agri-food, and that there are proportionate counter-measures that the EU could take.

He also argued that comparing Brexit and the Vote Leave campaign with other trends such as the election of Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán and the popularity of Marine Le Pen’s Front National is not acceptable. The Leave campaign “made sure the UK had a positive, outward looking and internationalist free trade approach,” Raab added.

The Northern Irish backstop needs to be time-limited

Raab reiterated the Government’s position that there is a need for a backstop to act as a bridge between the transition period and the future relationship in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. He added that the backstop “would need to be finite, time-limited and short. You wouldn’t get it through Parliament if it were open-ended,” also saying that the Government could agree to Northern Ireland-specific solutions for a limited period of time, but these would have to be “respectful of the existing devolution settlement” and “carry the consent of the communities in Northern Ireland.”

Asked if the Government would put up a hard border in the event of ‘no deal’, Raab replied, “No.”

He also warned that while the border issue is often viewed as a point to use to apply pressure on the UK,

I am not going to give into the politicisation of Northern Ireland.

There has been progress on the future security relationship

Raab explained there was broad agreement in the field of external security, with the EU having modified its position on giving the UK access to the Galileo satellite programme’s secure system.

On internal security, there is also agreement, but roadblocks remain when the EU adopts a more “dogmatic approach,” particularly in the areas linked to Schengen Area membership and freedom of movement. Raab warned,

Security is an area too important to allow dogmatic politics to trump.

‘No deal’ consequences can be mitigated

There are some risks in the event of failing to reach a Withdrawal Agreement, but most of them are manageable, said Raab. The outcome would be worse if the EU Commission takes a “totally obstructive” approach. If it does, Raab said he was not sure “that member states would wear it” and would refuse to collaborate with the UK to mitigate the worst effects of ‘no deal.’

In terms of tariffs, Raab said, “I’m not interested in engaging in some kind of tit-for-tat with the EU” and said it is unlikely that businesses would approve of the UK imposing tariffs unilaterally.

Asked during the Q&A session about the potential consequences of not imposing tariffs in terms of World Trade Organisation rules, Raab answered, “There is some flexibility within WTO rules, and we could find that the EU want to take a pragmatic approach and exercise the flexibility.”

Finally, the Brexit Secretary said we can expect a deal “in time for Christmas,” later emphasising the importance of reaching an agreement before mid-November in order to allow enough time for ratification on both sides.