George Freeman asks the Prime Minister about the risk of the draft Withdrawal Agreement undermining the integrity of the United Kingdom

21st November 2018

Speaking in Prime Minister’s Questions, George Freeman seeks reassurance from the PM that the draft Withdrawal Agreement does not contain a trap in which the price of our retaining a United Kingdom is that we never diverge from EU rules.

Unlike the Leader of the Opposition, I and other colleagues have read the draft withdrawal agreement and the many briefings. It is clear to me that the Prime Minister and her Cabinet have laudably tried to reconcile the demand for continuity of market access today with freedom to diverge tomorrow. Is not the truth of the backstop as drafted that if—and as—we were to exercise our regulatory freedom, whether in agri-food or data protection, we would allow the EU to harden the border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland? Can the Prime Minister reassure me, and seek reassurance in Brussels today, that the draft does not contain a trap, whereby if we dare to diverge, we will undermine our Union?

As my hon. Friend will know, and as I set out earlier, if it is necessary to have an interim arrangement to provide the guarantee in relation to the border of Northern Ireland, there are a number of ways in which that can be achieved—the backstop, as identified in the protocol, the extension of the implementation period, or alternative arrangements—and work is being done on them.

The backstop is intended to be a temporary arrangement, and for that limited period of time. If my hon. Friend just casts his mind to a practical thought about what could happen, if we were in the situation where the backstop had to be in place for a matter of months, for example, it would be right for the United Kingdom to give the commitment that we would not be looking to diverge from regulations during that period and that we would ensure that we kept that free access for the goods from Northern Ireland coming into Great Britain, as we have committed in the withdrawal agreement—in the text that is set out—and as we had committed previously. That will of course be a decision for us, here. What is important is that we have a means of ensuring that the backstop remains temporary. The best means of doing that is what we are doing at the moment: negotiating the future relationship, which will ensure that the backstop, if it is ever used, remains temporary, and preferably is never used at all.