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 Full text 
Wednesday, 16 January 2019 - Strasbourg Revised edition

The UK’s withdrawal from the EU (debate)

  Syed Kamall, on behalf of the ECR Group. – Mr President, Mr Barnier, Mr Timmermans and Minister. I would first of all like to start by thanking both Mr Barnier and Mr Timmermans for their measured speeches this morning. I thought they were very fair, and people can’t really have much to complain about.

Let me speak today, as someone who has observed the debate about the UK’s membership of the EU from both sides of the Channel over the last few years, as someone who has regularly spoken to individuals on both sides of the negotiating table and at times suggested solutions to unlock some of those difficult issues, and as the leader of the ECR Group, that not only tells you what we are against, but offers alternative solutions.

Since becoming an MEP, one of the things that has struck me about the UK-EU relationship has been the gap in perceptions between both sides of the Channel. Many in this House believe strongly in the post-war 1950s model of political integration, while for the last 40 years in the UK, the political class has often sold the EU more as a trade area, often neglecting to mention or downplaying the goal of political integration.

The fact that politics is often about perception is equally true when looking at the withdrawal agreement. On this side of the Channel, the EU has been very clear – while they would not seek to punish the UK for leaving, they say that being outside the EU cannot be seen to be as good as being inside the EU. You in the EU have taken a tough stance in negotiations, not only because it is a good thing for negotiators to do, but also to make sure that any deal acts as a disincentive to other countries that might be thinking of leaving.

Most people in this Parliament are happy that these negotiations or these objectives have been met, but have also stressed to me that compromises have been made along the way. Some worry that the backstop could give an unfair advantage to UK companies accessing the single market. Others are concerned that it may affect the ability of the EU to conclude future trade deals with other countries, and they tell me that they hope that a backstop is never needed – a sentiment often repeated by speakers here.

Let me tell you that in Westminster, opponents of this deal see it very differently. There is, once again, a gap in perceptions. They see a withdrawal agreement with legal obligations that they believe could bind them to a customs union forever. They refer to briefings from Commission officials who have told the press that the customs union will form the basis of the future relationship. They see the text on the future agreement as a list of aspirations, with no legal obligations to move towards a future trade relationship or future relationships quickly. They are concerned that while the EU treaties have an exit clause in terms of the infamous Article 50, under the backstop they worry about being trapped in a customs union, possibly forever. Many of them quote the song Hotel California – you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.

They also believe that the agreement shows a lack of respect for unionists in Northern Ireland, and they feel it does not take account of the views of both the unionist and the Irish nationalist communities, as required under the Good Friday Agreement. They also ask me why we need a backstop at all, given that the Irish Prime Minister said that there will be no hard border in the event of no deal. For those Westminster opponents, many of whom are normally loyal and considered moderate, no deal is better than this deal.

But of course there are other reasons for the results of last night’s vote. As the official opposition, the Labour Party will seize every opportunity to seek to defeat the government, and, as you see, they’ve already called for a vote of no confidence. But then there are other politicians who think that the public was smart enough to vote for them, yet somehow too stupid to understand what they were voting for in the referendum. These MPs aim to disrupt the process in the hope that they can reverse the referendum result.

So as a consequence, today we find ourselves in a critical phase of the process. The EU has been very patient while the ball has been in UK’s court, but I’m afraid you’re going to have to wait a little longer while the government faces the vote of confidence, which I expect it to win, and the Prime Minister holds cross-party discussions to find a realistic way forward that can win the support of Parliament. At this point, the EU will face a choice: you can do nothing, and prepare for no deal; you can gamble that Brexit could somehow be stopped, or you can attempt to address some of the concerns expressed. For example, you could convince British MPs that you have no intention of keeping the UK in the customs union forever and that the backstop, if ever applied, would only be temporary.

I understand that you see this as a lot to ask, given that you believe the UK has been offered a good deal, but just as in 2015 when a few tweaks to the renegotiation sought by David Cameron might have been enough to change the result of the referendum, it would be a great pity if no further efforts were made to try to reach an agreement that could help the British Prime Minister to forge a consensus at Westminster.

We must never forget that this should be about people, not politics. Whatever our views, we should remember that our decisions in the coming days and weeks will affect people’s jobs, the success of companies and the growth of our economies.

Monday’s letter from President Juncker and President Tusk hinted at more flexibility. Let us see, when the Prime Minister comes back, if we can turn that flexibility into concrete proposals to address the concerns that arose in the lead-up to last night’s vote. Only then can we stop looking back at the past, move on from the present negotiations and look to build a more honest relationship for the future.

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