The Government is in a terrible mess over Brexit. There are bitter divisions in the Cabinet. Ministers can’t agree on what customs arrangements they want after we leave. There still isn’t an answer on how to keep an open trade border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. And two years on from the referendum, we haven’t even begun to discuss our future economic and security relationship with the EU. It’s no wonder that British businesses are losing confidence in the Government’s ability to manage this hugely difficult task while EU negotiators are simply scratching their heads in puzzlement. What we desperately need is leadership that is capable of making the right decisions in the national interest.
Why does this all matter so much? Because it’s about jobs, investment, communities and the future security of our economy, including for manufacturing and services in Yorkshire. Let’s take an example. Every day just over one thousand trucks arrive in the UK carrying components for our automotive industry. Most of them are deliveries which need to arrive bang on time to keep the production lines going. Any tariffs, extra paperwork, rules of origin checks or delay at, say, Dover as these lorries come off the ferries would be damaging and costly to the businesses involved. It simply wouldn’t make sense and that’s why we should remain in a customs union with the EU.
This week in Parliament we will be debating a number of amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill as we try to get the best deal for Britain, including one proposing the option of membership of the EEA/EFTA after we leave. The EEA is a group of countries – Iceland, Norway and Lichtenstein – which are in a very close relationship with the EU single market but are not part of the EU institutions. Nor are they subject to ever closer union or to common EU defence policies, for example.
It would not be be perfect – we’d need to include a customs union alongside it and changes to free movement – but it would solve the Northern Ireland problem, keep goods flowing freely, ensure common standards, protect employment and environmental rights and enable us to continue to co-operate in important areas like aviation, consumer safety and medicines. The Brexit Select Committee has said that should the negotiations on a deep and special partnership not prove successful, EFTA/EEA membership remains an alternative and would have the advantage of continuity of access for UK services. It would available off-the-shelf and could be negotiated relatively quickly.
As I see it, leaving the EU is like deciding to get off a ship in the middle of the ocean. Faced with the choice between jumping into the cold sea – a hard Brexit – and getting into something like the EEA lifeboat for now, I know which one I would choose at this stage. We need to be exploring all the options for getting the best deal we can and not closing them off.
The continuing uncertainty surrounding the Government’s approach to Brexit is damaging our economy and undermining future investment in jobs and prosperity in Yorkshire. And that’s why the most important vote this week is to ensure that Parliament gets to decide what should happen when we come to the end of this process. After all, if Government can’t do its job, then Parliament will have to do it instead.