Dealing with change

Dianne Hayter on the government’s Brexit plans and the need for greater accountability and transparency

Last week, EU and UK negotiators spent 40 hours working on the draft agreement on how exactly we will exit the transition period and enter a new relationship this December.

Despite both sides having produced draft treaties, only the EU’s is available – with Michel Barnier providing an extensive press briefing. In contrast, the UK simply issued a written comment, stating that only “limited progress was made in bridging the gaps” whilst the EU’s offer on the trade of goods “falls well short of recent precedent” in its free trade agreements with other countries.

A lack of openness that is not helped by the fact an official (David Frost) rather than a Minister is leading the talks, so our Chief Negotiator does not answer to Parliament.

This is no moot point without consequences. It matters because the talks are vital to the future of our country. And it matters because of the ongoing impact of Covid-19. The end of the transition period (when any agreement will kick in) is likely to be just as we are pulling out of the virus-created recession, restarting trade and manufacturing, implementing new agriculture and fishing regimes, launching data-sharing, criminal and civil jurisdiction cooperation arrangements, and ensuring EU and UK citizens are clear about their status and rights in relation to each other’s countries.

Many people have been particularly affected by the impact of the current crisis on job guarantees, social security, freedom of movement and access to health care. Now, more than ever, they deserve complete clarity over their future protections.

We have eight months to agree, legislate for and implement a whole gamut of arrangements. And it makes Mr Barnier’s complaints that the UK “refused to engage seriously on a number of fundamental issues”, “provide firm guarantees on fundamental rights and individual freedoms” or even maintain “agreed mechanisms of data protection” particularly worrying.

Moreover, his disappointment over the government’s failure to respect the Political Declaration’s objective of the “level playing field” needed for an ambitious trade deal echoes Labour’s concerns. Ministers are instead demanding market access without accepting that this means some alignment on standards and state aid.

It is essential for the UK’s economic, diplomatic, security and cultural interests that we leave the EU with a deal. More hopefully, a deal that promotes growth, safeguards the environment, protects workers and consumers, and helps re-establish our well-being.

Furthermore, we will need the details of that deal – and its emerging shape – in time for proper scrutiny by MPs and Peers, including the House of Lords’ new Treaties Committee, to ensure that the final ratification by Parliament is based on dialogue and input throughout the process.

For now, we want to know from Ministers whether they are genuinely prioritising a deal (as they insist) or just playing a dangerous game of chicken; and when they propose to submit other draft legal texts beyond that on trade.

The public expects the government to deliver a deal, even if that now happens after the coronavirus pandemic has subsided. It is vital therefore to know if the Prime Minister’s original Brexit blueprint has changed in light of current economic circumstances, and when he will come to Parliament to provide an update.

Baroness Dianne Hayter is Shadow Deputy Leader of the Labour Peers and the party’s spokesperson in the Lords on Brexit-related matters. She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 28th April 2020



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