John Stevenson: It is a pleasure to follow Paul Farrelly.
In many respects, this is the classic issue for MPs—what are their priorities? Are they based on their personal view, their constituency’s view, or the view of the party that they should perhaps be following? Then, ultimately, how do they make their decision in the national interest? Generally speaking, that issue does not really crop up, but we live in unusual circumstances. We have to acknowledge that parties are fundamentally split. MPs’ views can be very much at variance with those in their own constituency. The dilemma for each and every one of us is what we, as individual MPs, believe is in the national interest.
When I look back over the past two and a half years—I appreciate that hindsight is a wonderful thing—I see some key mistakes that have been made. There were the red lines that the Prime Minister set out. In many respects, when you go into a negotiation, you do not lay down what your views are before you enter into it. Then there was the early calling of the election when we actually had a working majority, and of course the triggering of article 50. Looking back, we should have prepared all the legislative requirements and Bills to get them passed before we even thought about triggering article 50. Indeed, we should also have had a national debate about exactly what our long-term relationship with the EU should be.
But at the end of the day, we are where we are, and the Government are suggesting that there are now three alternatives: no deal, remain/second referendum, or their own proposal. I fully accept that we voted in 2016 to leave EU institutions, and we definitely have to respect that, but the nature of our future relationship still has to be decided, and that is a decision for Parliament. Of the three options that the Government have effectively set out, I do not support a second referendum. It would be unnecessary and divisive, and I wonder what it would achieve. I cannot see how remaining in the EU would be sensible, because it would undoubtedly be a changed relationship with our EU partners. As for no deal, I find that equally unpalatable. It is not in our country’s interests. I think it would lead to a recession and make us a poorer country. It is not in the interests of our national economy and certainly not in the interests of my constituents.
The Government therefore have to argue that the only real option is to support their position—that is, the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. I, like many others, have concerns about the withdrawal agreement. I do not feel a need to go into those, because they have been well expressed by other Members. I also have concerns about the political declaration, many of which have been raised. We would have two years of negotiations before we even got a deal, if we did in fact get one. I question whether the unity of the EU would hold, because its members would have competing national interests. I wonder where we would end up with those negotiations. We have to await the decision of Parliament next Tuesday to know whether that is the course we will take.
I believe there is an alternative—a fourth option—that is acceptable to the EU and fully understood by all, and that is EFTA-EEA. Simply put, that would allow us to have an independent agricultural policy and an independent fisheries policy. We would not be part of the ECJ; the EFTA court would determine decisions. There would be no payments to the EU, and we would be a member of the single market. I have never quite understood why people are so hostile to membership of the single market. We are proposing to enter into a free trade agreement. What is a free trade agreement? It is an attempt to get rid of tariffs and regulatory differences between economies. I genuinely believe that staying in the single market is in this country’s interests. I accept that there is the issue of free movement, but we have the emergency brake under article 112 of the EEA agreement, and the reality is that more immigration comes from outwith the EU than within it, and we have absolute control over that.
I think that proposal would have widespread support from Members on both sides of the House. It would ensure that we were actually out of the EU—out of the political project and out of any sort of union—but back to the common market ideals of old, which the people of this country have always supported.
I remind the House that relationships change. The EU will change with our departure and will continue to change in other ways that we have not thought of. EFTA would also develop. The arrival of a large economy would change its dynamics, and it would become a much more significant player. The relationship between the EU and EFTA would change because of the arrival of a large economy, and EFTA’s importance would increase significantly.
I make those comments on EFTA to remind the House that there is a potential alternative should the Government lose the vote next week, and it is one that I would certainly support. On Tuesday, we will have to weigh up what we as individual MPs believe is in the national interest. I certainly believe that no deal and remain are not sensible alternatives. Whether the political declaration offers us a route to a sensible future relationship with the EU is a judgment that we will all have to make on Tuesday, but should the Government’s proposal be defeated, I believe there is a genuine and real alternative.