Directionless travel

Dianne Hayter on the government’s failure to engage Parliament on what appear to be deeply troubled negotiations with the EU

Public attention is understandably focused for now on Covid-19 and its impact on jobs, holidays, education, health, and the arts. Just below the surface, however, vital discussions are taking place in London about the UK’s future trade, security, and other relations with the EU. 

Despite the urgent need for an agreement, the noises creeping out of Downing Street are not hopeful. Not for constitutional reasons (it has to be signed off by the European Parliament and the 27 member states, as well as UK politicians), nor for the sake of business (which has to operate any new customs, form filling, tariffs, permissions etc), or indeed to help our citizens residing abroad (currently unsure of their rights after December).

Nowhere is this more important than for Northern Ireland. But we learnt yesterday that details of the protocol border operating model, which had been expected on Monday, is now some weeks off.

Ports around the UK – from Holyhead to Dover – have no certainty as to what will happen in 22 weeks’ time, with consumers unaware that supplies of fresh produce might at that point be interrupted and their health coverage affected when abroad.

As we have heard from both the EU and UK negotiating teams, major difficulties remain unresolved – particularly on fishing and state aid.  We know our government’s favoured light-touch regulatory approach would be opposed strongly by Brussels, with Michel Barnier reiterating there could be no economic partnership without “robust guarantees” on a level playing field for future trade. 

Yet every hint from the UK side is that Brussels has to do all the compromising. A rather unlikely route to progress, the absence of which will lead to our departure on WTO terms, with no agreement on tariff or quota-free trade, plus potentially devastating effects on parts of our manufacturing and food sectors.  Furthermore, as the LSE has pointed out, any such scenario would deliver a double shock across all sectors of our economy – including those relatively unscathed by the Covid crisis.

These talks are vitally important, with implications for our future. But despite the requirement for parliamentary approval prior to ratification, the government has chosen not to report back to MPs and Peers. Lead negotiator David Frost is in effect going about his business without any sense that the stance he takes will be accepted by the Commons.

I have therefore sought, and secured, an urgent question for the government in the Lords today, to ask whether a deal will be agreed before its much heralded September deadline. Curiously, no minister involved in the talks nor the Leader of the Lords (herself in Cabinet and therefore – one assumes – close to the action) will respond; and we will instead hear from the Department for Transport Whip. Perhaps that signals the direction of travel, the speed of progress, the rockiness of the road, the absence of a navigator or simply the lack of steam? Either way, it also feels inappropriate on such a vital subject.

Labour has long supported the government getting a good deal out of these talks. But the lack of transparency and openness suggests they are some way off achieving that.

Baroness Dianne Hayter is Shadow Deputy Leader of the Lords. She tweets @HayteratLords

Published 29th July 2020

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