10 October 2018

Open Europe held an event, “After Salzburg what next?”, on October 9 in the House of Commons, to discuss the next steps in Brexit negotiations after the Salzburg EU leaders informal summit, with:

  • Nick Boles, MP for Grantham and Stamford and promoter of the “Norway then Canada” Better Brexit plan;
  • Gisela Stuart, former MP for Birmingham Edgbaston, and co-Chair of Vote Leave’s Campaign Committee;
  • Henry Newman, Open Europe Director.

The debate was chaired by Juliet Samuel, columnist for the Daily Telegraph.

Listen to the event here. Below is an overview of the discussion.

What are the next steps in Brexit negotiations?

Given the possibility of a ‘no deal’ scenario if the UK and the EU fail to reach an agreement or if the deal is defeated in the House of Commons, Nick Boles suggested a plan B which would involve a Norway-style membership of the European Economic Area (EEA) as an interim before negotiating a Canada-style free trade agreement for the future relationship. Boles argued that this type of relationship is familiar and understood, and that it would allow the UK to leave EU institutions and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in March 2019, while giving it a strong position to open discussions for a ‘Canada +++’  trade deal.  He later said, in response to the question of whether it would be better to directly negotiate an FTA with the EU, that an interim period was necessary, but that EEA membership was preferable to the transition period proposed by the Government. Boles concluded,

The bespoke, tailor-made deal [the Government is seeking] is just not available…We need an alternative.

Gisela Stuart argued that the political and administrative establishment has been more preoccupied with economic well-being than with respecting the results of the referendum, adding, “A situation where MPs are in conflict with voters over Brexit is not good for anyone.” She also pointed out that the UK needs to be reminded that for the EU27, “Sorting out the relationship with the UK is important but it is not all-consuming.”  On a potential second Brexit referendum, she noted that there has been no big shift in polls and that a second vote would not do much to address the problems that led to people voting Leave initially. She urged MPs to

implement the will of the people…If not, parliamentary democracy will be deeply undermined.

The Government has been trying to find a solution for a future relationship lying somewhere between the Norway and Canada models, said Henry Newman, adding, “Everyone accepts that is where we have to land.” He said that the Chequers proposal was an attempt to find a ‘bespoke’ solution, but the EU pushed back against its economic elements at the Salzburg Summit, without offering sustainable alternatives. Meanwhile, the fundamental issue in negotiations is the Irish ‘backstop’, but it is ironic that due to the nature of Article 50 negotiations,

The biggest risk to a hardening of the [Irish] border comes from the inability to agree a protocol to stop the hardening of the border.

Newman concluded by saying that at this point, the Government needs to hold firm and stand by its Chequers plan, but also show greater flexibility where it is needed.

 

Is it credible for the Government to stick to its Chequers proposal at this point?

Nick Boles said the Government’s strategy of conflating withdrawal issues and the future relationship makes it difficult to find a common ground between what can be negotiated with the EU27 and what can be passed through Parliament.

Henry Newman responded that while Chequers is not a perfect plan, it is the only plan on the table right now, adding that the vote in the House of Commons will not be on a clear model for a future relationship, but on a vague political declaration which might refer to a UK-EU ‘free trade zone’.

Gisela Stuart argued that it is in the nature of EU negotiations to “always go down the wire” and agree on things at the last minute, suggesting that the UK should hold its position until the end. She reminded that it is in nobody’s interests to end up in a ‘no deal’ situation.

 

Would the Prime Minister’s negotiating strategy be different if she had a majority in Parliament?

According to Nick Boles, the main difference in case of a Conservative Party majority is that leaving without a deal would be a “more credible threat” as there would be less chances of Parliament voting against ‘no deal’.  Henry Newman argued that the hung parliament is the “single biggest factor shaping Brexit.”

 

Should Article 50 be extended to allow for more time in negotiations?

Gisela Stuart commented that while asking for more time might seem an attractive option, it is unclear whether it would help the state of negotiations. Moreover, European Parliament elections, held in May 2019, mark a clear deadline as they will be followed by a new European Parliament and Commission and a new multi-annual financial framework (MFF), all of which would contribute to prolonging negotiations unnecessarily.  Henry Newman explained that due to the nature of negotiations, the UK cannot begin discussions on future relations before leaving the EU, therefore extending Article 50 would not be helpful.

 

Where can the Prime Minister compromise on her Brexit proposal in order to make it acceptable for Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Eurosceptic MPs?

Nick Boles answered that it is difficult to see how the Chequers proposal can be modified in such a way to appeal to moderates across the House of Commons, particularly the MPs from the opposition needed to counterbalance the Conservative MPs who would oppose the deal.

According to Gisela Stuart, the main dividing line in the Labour Party will not be based so much on attitudes towards the EU, but on who wants a general election and who does not.

Henry Newman suggested that the Government could modify its proposals on customs, replacing the Facilitated Customs Arrangement (FCA) with a transition towards a more technologically-based solution which could make it more acceptable to both the EU and Conservative Eurosceptics.