Thursday, 28 March 2019

Learn to Play

The Brexit saga continues but, as I write this, there is sadly nothing new to report, so I am going to give this column a welcome break from the EU debate and touch on something lighter. 
Last Saturday was “Learn to Play” day run by the Music for All charity which encourages people up and down the country to try a musical instrument and take a taster lesson. I was never much good at music at school but have always somewhat regretted not learning to play an instrument. Last week I visited Pool Academy and one of their students was playing a piece of music on the piano. She was incredibly talented and clearly had a natural vocation for music. I am always impressed by those who can play instruments as if it were a second nature. 
I think that learning to play the piano or another instrument is similar to learning a language. It can develop parts of the mind and is therefore an important element of a child’s learning and this fact is often overlooked in education. There is a problem that music departments in schools are often quite variable and usually depend on there being one individual who has a passion and is able to share that passion. I also think that the focus on academic subjects can sometimes squeeze out time for pursuits such as music. It is not just something that can be of benefit to young people. Although learning anything is obviously easier at a young age, for those in later life who have spare time and want to keep their brain active, learning to play an instrument can be a worthwhile and enjoyable new challenge. 
In our area, we are of course blessed with many talented town bands. The Camborne Youth Band under the leadership of Alan Pope have done incredibly well in recent years and have been invited to play at events in Belgium to commemorate the First World War. We also have many others who are regularly seen at events around our towns, especially at Christmas or the annual Remembrance Sunday parades. We have a wealth of choirs too which is another deep part of our Cornish heritage.
For those with an interest in Music, we are lucky in Camborne to have Trevada Music on Chapel Street which is the leading music store in Cornwall. I visited in Saturday and met Dan Higgins, their manager, who had a passion for his work. The range of music instruments they had on offer was extraordinary and I was surprised to hear that they also run regular lessons in a range of instruments. They had a busy day with many taster lessons offered on the piano, the guitar, trumpet and drums. While I was there one seven year old boy had decided to try every instrument he could to see what he liked the most. I think the drums won. 

Thursday, 21 March 2019

It’s time to deliver Brexit

The actions of Parliament last week were a blow to the credibility of our democracy. We have signalled to the world that we are too scared to leave the EU without its permission, and we are about to send our Prime Minister to Brussels on her hands and knees to beg for an extension. 
For those like me who voted to leave without a deal if necessary, it is no good sobbing over the fact that we lost a line-out and that those who want to thwart the referendum result are running away with the ball. We need to regroup and get back in the game.
We have been arguing about Brexit solidly for over three years now and our system cannot take another two years of this, especially if there is a long extension to article 50. What is needed now is a way to secure early closure on this debate and to expedite our departure from the EU. 
There is a simpler and swifter way to leave the EU. We should rely on our existing legal rights and obligations as a signatory to the European Economic Area (EEA) and switch to a relationship similar to Norway. The UK is a party to that agreement, and the Government took a conscious decision last year not to give twelve months notice to leave the EEA, as is required under article 127 of that agreement. 
First, we would agree to a stand-still arrangement with the EU for a transitional period of nine months, during which we would dynamically align all of our regulations, so that there would be no need for the EU to put in place border checks. 
We would then immediately apply to join the so called EFTA pillar of the EEA agreement. The UK invented the idea of EDTA in 1959 as an alternative to the EU. We could have friendship and cooperation but not get subsumed into the political structures of the EU. Initially we built an alliance of seven countries including Denmark, Sweden, Portugal and Austria but we abandoned them and caved in to those who thought we should join the EU. 
Returning to full EFTA membership would take six-nine months to complete but joining the necessary surveillance and court agreements to make the EEA operable could be agreed within three months. The standstill agreement on regulatory alignment would become a bridge to somewhere (i.e: EFTA) rather than an open-ended continuation of this exhausting debate. 
Under the EFTA approach we can settle this debate now rather than condemn our country to years more argument about Brexit. It removes the backstop, since article 127 of the EEA means we already have an existing legal right to terminate our membership of it with 12 months notice. We would avoid having to negotiate a “future partnership” with the EU, and fall back on the provisions of an existing treaty to which we are already a party. We would be out of the Customs Union and have an independent trade policy, but part of a ready-made comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU. We would have an independent agriculture and fisheries policy. There would be no need for a two year “implementation period”. Finally, it delivers on the referendum result, since the 1972 European Communities Act would be repealed on time. 
As parliament wrestles in these desperate last days for a way out of this maze, the so called Norway option looks increasingly attractive as a way to solve the political crisis quickly and deliver Brexit on time.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

If MPs vote down the Brexit deal, the only option for a serious country is to leave without an agreement

EU institutions are designed to be insulated from democratic forces. They take the view that nothing that a national democracy might do can change the Treaty obligations that all member states are under. It is what makes them such a lumbering and inflexible organisation and one of the reasons why this negotiation has been so difficult. 
When any referendum in a Member State comes up with an inconvenient answer, the EU has a long history of expecting people to vote again until they give them the right answer. They have no qualms about humiliating a national government, as Greece learnt, even if in doing so they store up even bigger political problems for the future. 
This week Parliament will have an important decision to take. As I write this article we don’t know whether the Prime Minister agreement will pass. However, if it fails to get through, are we going to roll over like Greece did? Will we go back, cap in hand to ask for an extension, and then meekly accept whatever terms they attach to that extension, if it’s allowed at all? Or are we going to face them down, calmly get our coat and walk out the door? 
This is a deeply uncomfortable decision for Parliament to be confronted with, but there is only one viable option if we regard ourselves as a serious country. In the absence of an agreement, we have no alternative but to muster the courage to leave without one and then do all we can to mitigate any impacts of a departure without an agreement. Unless we are psychologically prepared to leave with no deal, we can never expect to get a good deal. In any event, “no deal” is a bit of a misnomer. A more accurate description would be “no deal, yet.” In many ways, the idea that you can get anywhere by negotiating with the EU while still a member has been tested to destruction. If it turns out that approach has now failed, then we should try a different one, get out first and talk afterwards. 
There is an approach that would mitigate the effects of any departure without a deal and provide time and space for talks to continue after we have left. We should unilaterally commit to dynamically align with all EU regulations across the piece, as if we were still a member of the EU, for a transitional period of nine months. That way, the EU would have no real reason to put up full border infrastructure or checks. We already know that they are not ready for us to leave. 
To leave the EU without an agreement would cause some short-term challenges but in all of the scenario planning I was involved in as a minister, the difference between a reasonable best-case scenario and a reasonable worse-case scenario really came down to one thing: how will the EU behave. If they act in a proportionate and pragmatic way, then the situation can be managed to mitigate the effects for both parties. 
I have always supported compromise to achieve reconciliation in our country over this issue, including being open to using our existing EEA membership as an exit mechanism. But if we fail to leave at all, we will be completely humiliated.

Saturday, 9 March 2019

How the Foreign Office kept open an EEA parachute

On the 22nd of March last year, I was in Oslo Meeting Norwegian Ministers about fisheries. Our then Ambassador to Norway explained to me that she had had a busy week. The Foreign Office had placed her on stand-by to hand deliver a letter to the Norwegiangovernment giving 12 months notice of our intention to leave the EEA, as required under article 127 of that agreement. In the event, the so called "implementation period" was agreed on the 19th of March so she was stood down. The letter was never delivered and the UK government took a conscious decision not to leave the EEA.
This made me curious. From the very beginning, the official line from the government had been that "it believed" we did not need to give notice to leave the EEA. It was argued that, although the UK was a direct signatory to the EEA agreement, it was essentially an agreement between the EU and the EFTA states. The most fashionable legal interpretation had been that our membership of the EEA automatically fell away once we left the EU. However, if that were really true and if that were the only possible legal interpretation, why was our Ambassador armed with a letter and on stand-by to hand deliver it to the Norwegian government.
After much probing of government lawyers, what I finally established is that there is more than one possible interpretation as to whether we need to give notice to leave the EEA. In fact, a more accurate interpretation is that we remain bound by the EEA agreement as a signatory to it but that if we leave the EU but don't simultaneously join the EFTA pillar, the agreement would become inoperable. 
Foreign Office lawyers thought that, if no "implementation period" was agreed, the Cabinet might quickly resolve to leave with no deal at all. If that happened, they had established that we should give notice under article 127 before the 29th March, otherwise we would be exposed to a potential challenge from other parties under the Vienna Convention. Someone in the Foreign Office, probably at official level, also had the foresight to recognise that a future government might want to retain the option of adopting a different legal interpretation should the political facts require it. So a decision was taken not to give notice and the letter was scrapped, using the advent of an "implementation period" as the excuse.
If the PM's agreement fails, I am personally for no deal. However, as we stare into the abyss of this current political crisis, we need to be ready to make a political choice about the legal interpretation we choose to adopt. It is not just about lawyers with their lever arch files. What if an alternative arrangement simply consisted of asserting our existing rights as an EEA member and agreeing with the other parties that we will transfer from the EU to the EFTA pillar? We would leave on time, there would be no backstop, no customs union, no problems at the border and no more Groundhog Day of Brexit debate.

Wednesday, 6 March 2019

George Eustice resigns from the government

Last week, it was with tremendous sadness that I resigned from the government following the decision by Parliament to allow the postponement of our exit from the EU. Since Parliament is now in direct control of events, I wanted to be free to participate in the critical debate that will take place in the weeks ahead and I feel that the only place to do so is on the backbenches. 
I have worked in Defra for over 5 years, and I can truly say that it has been an honour to work alongside so many talented individuals. Defra has phenomenal expertise and, more than any other government department, has embraced the opportunities posed by our exit from the EU. I have particularly welcomed the chance to craft two new Bills on farming and fisheries, which are the first for half a century, as we have prepared the ground to restore self-government in this country. 
Whilst I have resigned from the government, I will be voting for the Withdrawal Agreement when it returns to the House. Although I campaigned to leave, I have always supported compromise to achieve a reconciliation in our country, and that is why I very much hope that the Attorney General succeeds in securing final changes to the deal. Leaving the EU would represent an historic change and it is natural that some people will feel apprehensive. I have made clear in this column before that there is an opportunity to use our existing membership of the EEA as an exit mechanism for a smoother exit. 
I supported the Prime Minister’s approach outlined at Chequers when others did not, and I stuck with the government through a series of rather undignified retreats. However, the developments of the past few weeks will lead to a sequence of events culminating in the EU dictating the terms of any extension requested and the final humiliation of our country. Evidently the Prime Minister has been terribly undermined by those in Parliament who refuse to respect the referendum result. She has shown great tenacity and resilience over the past year, but what our country needs from all its political leaders at this critical juncture is courage, and we are about to find out whether Parliament has it. 
In my role as a Defra Minister, I have enjoyed good relations with the European Commission and with Ministers from other member states. However, I do not believe that the Commission has behaved honourably during these negotiations.  They have deliberately made progress slow and difficult. They have stated in terms that they will refuse to even hold substantive negotiations on a future partnership until after we leave. If the position of Parliament is now that we will refuse to leave without an agreement, then we are somewhat stuck. This is uncomfortable for everyone, but we cannot negotiate a successful Brexit unless we are prepared to walk out the door. 
We must therefore have the courage, if necessary, to reclaim our freedom first and talk afterwards.  We must be ready to face down the European Union here and now.  The absence of an agreement poses risks and costs for them too. We already know that in the event of "no deal" the EU will seek an informal transition period for nine months in many areas and settlement talks could continue within this window. 
I will continue to do what I can from the back benches to try to salvage this sorry situation and I hope that, when the moment comes, Parliament will not let our country down.