19 December 2018

Open Europe’s Director Henry Newman gave evidence to the House of Commons Exiting the European Union select committee on December 19. He discussed the progress of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU alongside Dr. Kirsty Hughes, Director of the Scottish Centre of European Relations; Catherine Barnard, Professor of EU Law at Cambridge University; and Sam Lowe, Research Fellow, Centre for European Reform. You can view a recording of the proceedings here and read a transcript here.

On the issue of the Irish backstop and especially how and when it could be ended, Newman said, “There is a danger from the UK side to set an end date to the backstop… This would create a new negotiations cliff-edge.” He added that what is needed is greater clarity, as well as the implementation of “things that would not necessarily change the balance of how the backstop operates but would make a substantive difference on the UK side,” such as a role for Stormont institutions in Northern Ireland.

Later he suggested three main additions/modifications to the backstop protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement in order to give greater assurances to MPs in the House of Commons:

1. A greater role for Stormont institutions;
2. Greater clarity over the circumstances in which the EU would be able to impose customs tariffs on the UK under the protocol, and whether they would apply to customs traffic between Northern Ireland and Great Britain;
3. Greater clarity on the exit from the backstop, for example through interpretive declarations.


On the impact of a No Deal Brexit scenario, Newman explained that even though the UK could mitigate some effects in certain areas, overall there would be significant disruption. This would also be true for the EU27 and the impact on future UK-EU relations in the long-term would be detrimental.  He added,

Whatever the UK does with other trading partners in goods will be less important than having a treaty with its biggest trading partner, the EU.

Commenting on the possibility to extend Article 50 negotiations, Newman said, “It would require unanimity on the EU side” and the EU27 would agree to it “only for a General Election or a second Brexit referendum.” This would not be done to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, as the Labour party has suggested.

On a possible second Brexit referendum he added that we could “end up with campaigns chasing different unicorns. The Remain Campaign saying all No Deal money can be spent on tax cuts, the No Deal Campaign will make promises of the money of the so-called ‘Brexit bill’ being spent on domestic objectives, and Labour frontbenchers talking about the Labour Brexit deal which does not exist. This makes a second referendum profoundly problematic in all directions.” He also pointed out that if the UK would decide to cancel its withdrawal, it would remain in the EU under the terms set out before former Prime Minister David Cameron re-negotiated the terms of the UK’s EU membership.

Finally, Newman explained that at this stage in the Brexit process “there are two ways to leave [the EU]: with the Deal on the table (either with tweaks or without) or without a Deal,” adding,

Saying there are other options is not serious policy. There is dishonesty in public debate about the options available at this point.