“Our country deserves better than this” – Corbyn’s Brexit statement, Day One

Jeremy Corbyn

Below is the full text of Jeremy Corbyn’s statement on the first day of the five-day Brexit debate ahead of the meaningful vote.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. This is a seminal debate in the history of this House and for the future of our country. As a member of this House for 35 years, this debate and the decision we will take next week is one of the most important this House will have taken in all those years.

The deal before us would make our country worse off. Taken together, the Withdrawal Agreement and the Future Partnership represent a huge and damaging failure for Britain. The Prime Minister says this is a good deal and so confident is she of that that she refuses to publish the Government’s legal advice. However, the economic assessments tell us it is a bad deal.

These documents are the product of two years of botched negotiations in which the government spent more time arguing with itself than it did negotiating with the European Union. And it’s not only on Brexit where they have failed. The economy is weak, investment is poor, wage growth is weak, our public services are in crisis and local councils are collapsing.

More people are living in poverty, including half a million more children. Poverty is rising, homelessness is rising and household debt is rising too. Mr Speaker, it is against this backdrop that this Government has produced a botched deal that even breaches the Prime Minister’s own red lines.

Across this House it has united both Conservative remainers and Conservative leavers, with members of every opposition party in an extraordinary coalition against this bad deal.

Mr Speaker, it all could have been so different. Following the 2017 general election the Prime Minister could have attempted to build consensus, recognised the new arithmetic of Parliament and sought a deal that brought people together.

Instead just like her predecessor, who called a referendum without preparing for the eventuality of a Leave vote, the Prime Minister has seen these negotiations only as an exercise in the internal management of the Conservative Party. And she didn’t even manage that.

When the two previous Brexit Secretaries, who theoretically at least led the negotiations, say they cannot support the deal, how can she expect anyone else in this House or in the country to have faith in this deal?

Mr Speaker, no deal is not a real option and the government knows that because it has not seriously prepared for it. Eleven out of the twelve critical infrastructure projects that would need to be in place by the end of March 2019 to manage a no-deal Brexit are at risk of not being completed on time according to the National Audit Office.

Neither this House nor this Government will allow a ‘No deal’ scenario in March 2019 and neither would the EU, as they would be negatively impacted too and are not ready either. 

Mr Speaker, the government must publish its full legal advice, as voted for by this House on 13 November. This is undoubtedly one of the most important debates in this House and Hon and Rt Hon members should be in full possession of all the facts, as is the clear will of the House.

In 2007 the Prime Minister argued that this House should have seen the full legal advice in advance of the Iraq war. I agreed with her then. So why doesn’t she still agree with herself now? 

Mr Speaker, the Withdrawal Agreement is a leap in the dark. It takes us no closer to understanding what the future of our country post-Brexit would look like and neither does the Future Partnership, which I will come on to.

The Prime Minister states that the transition period ends in December 2020. Article 132 actually says that it can be extended for up to two years, to ‘31 December 2022’. The Business Secretary is already clear that it is likely to be extended until the end of 2022 and under this bad deal we would have to pay whatever the EU demands to extend it for those extra 2 years. 

Under this deal, in December 2020 we will be faced with a choice: either pay more and extend the transition period or fall into the backstop. At that point, the UK would be over a barrel. We would have left the EU, have no UK rebate and be forced to pay whatever was demanded.

Alternatively, Article 185 (the Northern Ireland protocol) the backstop, would apply. Not only would that mean Northern Ireland would be subject to significantly different regulations than the rest of the UK but the EU has a right of veto over the UK’s exit from the backstop arrangement.

Whether in a backstop or in an extended transition, the UK would have no say over the rules. We would have already given up our seat at the Council of ministers, our Commissioner, and our MEPs without having negotiated any alternative say in our future.

This Government is not taking back control. It is losing control. No wonder the Science Minister (Hon member for East Surrey) resigned, saying this deal will cost us “our voice, our vote and our veto”.

The last two years give us no confidence that this government can do a deal in under two years. So at some point before December 2020, the focus would then inevitably shift from negotiations on the future relationship to negotiations on an extension to the transition period, including negotiating what further payments we should make to the EU.

So we are over a barrel, either paying whatever is demanded or negotiating away fishing rights, making concessions on Gibraltar or who knows what else? This is a terrible failure of negotiation.

Should the backstop come into force, there is no time limit or end point. It locks Britain into a deal from which it cannot leave without the agreement of the EU. This is, I believe, the first time in UK history that we would have signed up to a Treaty that we could not leave of our own volition.

And in the backstop restrictions on state aid are hard-wired with an arbitration mechanism but no such guarantees exist for workers’ rights. New state aid rules could be brought in whether they were in Britain’s interests or not. The Attorney General made this clear yesterday.

In the backstop the regulatory frameworks dealt with by non-regression clauses “are non-enforceable by EU institutions or by arbitration arrangements” and would give the Government the power to tear up workers’ rights, environmental protections and consumer safeguards.

The backstop would apply separate regulatory rules to Northern Ireland. This is despite the fact that the current Prime Minister said this is something “no UK Prime Minister could ever agree to”. Another of her red lines, breached. In fact the list of EU measures that continue to apply to Northern Ireland only runs to 75 pages of the Agreement.

It is also clear that the Prime Minister’s red line regarding the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice has been torn up. Under the Prime Minister’s plan, by 2022 we will either be in a backstop or still in transition, where we will continue to contribute to the EU budget and follow the rules overseen by the European Court of Justice.

Indeed the Foreign Secretary said on 25 November said only that the deal “largely ends the jurisdiction of the ECJ”. It is crystal clear that the Prime Minister’s claim that this plan means we take control over our laws, money and borders is utterly far-fetched. 

On the Future Partnership, Mr Speaker, let’s be clear, there isn’t a deal, there is a “Framework for the Future Partnership”. Our trading relationship with Europe is still to be negotiated and will take years. We still don’t know what our long-term relationship with Europe would look like and that’s why so many MPs across Parliament are not willing to vote for this ‘blindfold Brexit’ and take a leap in the dark about Britain’s future.

There was no mention of the Prime Minister’s favoured term “implementation period” anywhere in the 600 pages of the Withdrawal Agreement. And no wonder – there is precious little new to implement spelt out in either the Agreement or the Future Partnership.

The Agreement does call it a “transition period” but there is nothing to transition to. It is a bridge to nowhere. As the 26 page document says, it “can lead to a spectrum of different outcomes as well as checks and controls”. After two years of negotiations all the government has really agreed is a vague wish-list.

And, Mr Speaker, only 3 of its 26 pages deal with trade. This is not a trade deal. It’s not even close to a trade deal. The trade deal recently signed between the EU and Canada took 7 years to negotiate and ran to 1,600 pages.

In two and a half years, this government has agreed three pages of text on trade. It’s hardly an encouraging start. The former Brexit Secretary committed to a “detailed”, “precise” and “substantive” document. We had the right to expect one. What we did get contains no mention of the “frictionless trade” promised in the Chequers proposals or even trade “as frictionless as possible”.

There is no ambition to negotiate a new comprehensive customs union with a British say, that would protect jobs, trade and industry and so uncertainty continues for business.

That demand for a new comprehensive customs union is one that united both the CBI and the TUC because it protects manufacturing supply chains. The decision to rule out a new customs union and the lack of clarity in the deal risks business investment being deferred on an even greater scale, costing jobs and living standards. And many companies may decide the lack of certainty means they will explore their contingency plans to relocate abroad.

Both the First Ministers of Wales and Scotland have also made clear to the Prime Minister that they would support participation in a customs union to protect the economy and jobs. A commitment to a new and comprehensive customs union could, I believe, have found support in this House.

The lack of clarity around these proposals also means there is no guarantee of a strong deal with the Single Market to ensure continued access to European markets in services, merely a vague commitment to go beyond the baseline of the WTO.

And as both the Attorney General and the Environment Secretary have made clear in recent days, the commitments to workers’ rights, environmental protections and consumer safeguards are very far from secure.

The social Europe, that many people have supported and that was no part of why people voted to leave, is at risk from this deal. Mr Speaker, this deal fails to give so many economic sectors and public services clarity about our future relationship with several EU agencies and programmes.

Take the Galileo programme, to which the UK has so far contributed £1.2 billion but now we seem set to walk away from. Then there is the lack of clarity about whether we will continue to participate in the European Arrest Warrant, Europol and Eurojust.

The Chequers proposal argued for UK maintaining membership of the European Aviation Safety Agency and the European Medicines Agency, but the Future Partnership merely allows for “co-operation”.

We lack similar clarity about many others, including Horizon 2020 and Erasmus which has been so brilliant in providing students with opportunities to study in other countries.

And, Mr Speaker, there is no clarity about any future immigration system between the UK and the EU. And it now seems the Immigration White Paper we were promised in December 2017 won’t even appear in December 2018.

Following the Windrush scandal, many prospective migrants will have no confidence in this government to deliver a fair and efficient system and many EU nationals already here have no faith in this government to manage the process of settled status fairly or efficiently. These are people who have contributed to our country, to our economy and to our public services, especially our NHS and it is those people who are now so anxious.

Mr Speaker, to our negotiating partners in the EU, I say this: We understand why after two years of negotiations you want this resolved. But this Parliament represents the people of Britain and the deal negotiated by this Government is not good enough for the people of Britain. So, if Parliament votes down this deal, then re-opening negotiations cannot and should not be ruled out.

There is a deal that I believe can win the support of this House and bring the country together based on a new comprehensive and permanent customs union with a UK say, a strong single market deal, and real protection of workers’ rights and environmental and consumer safeguards. 

Mr Speaker, as I conclude I want to pay tribute to my Hon friend, the member for Holborn and St Pancras who has led on this issue for HM Opposition and who is now facing his third Brexit Secretary.

This is not the deal the country was promised and Parliament cannot and I believe will not accept it. The false choice between this bad deal and no deal will also be rejected. People around the country are anxious, businesses and workers are anxious about the industries they work in, the jobs they hold and about the stability of this country.

The responsibility for this state of anxiety lies solely with this government. Two years of botched negotiations have led us here today.

Members of this House have an important decision, one week today. To vote for this deal would be to damage our economy, to make our constituents poorer and to take a leap in the dark with the future of our country.

Don’t take my word for it, the Government published its own economic assessment which found the Chequers proposals would make our economy nearly 4 per cent smaller than it would otherwise be, knocking off £100 billion from our economy within 15 years. For those who like to break down those sorts of figures into weekly amounts, that’s nearly £2 billion a week less and that definitely was not on the side of a bus.

Mr Speaker, Labour will vote against this deal – a bad deal for Britain, a bad deal for our economy and a bad deal for our democracy. Our country deserves better than this.

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