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The Withdrawal Deal – a monument to the second best

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Geraint Talfan Davies

Geraint Talfan Davies – Chair, Wales For Europe • Cymru Dros Ewrop

This is a government in freefall over a friendless plan. Five ministerial resignations, including that of the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, in the time it took me to write these paragraphs.

It has taken two and a half years not to complete our negotiations with the EU, but just to get them started. The agreement’s 585 pages merely set out draft terms of the divorce, terms not yet accepted by us – neither by a full Cabinet, nor a Parliament nor a people – or by 27 other governments. 

Even this doorstep document does not specify the shape of a new relationship, although a meagre seven pages do express some hopes. Brexit still resembles a leap in the dark, the very dark. So many cans have been kicked down the road that someone should be fined for littering the place.

In the next weeks, government whips will face the unenviable task of persuading doubters that this monument to the second best will have to be voted through in order to avoid a disastrous fall over the cliff edge. Project fear if ever there was one.

It is a palpably false choice, designed to frighten the children. A fantasy. There is no way that any responsible government or Parliament would allow us simply to crash out of Europe. It would be a disaster not only for us but also for other European countries and countless industries. Not least it would be a disaster for Ireland, north and south.

If this deal is voted down – as it should be and will be – it will simply entail taking more time, more talking, more time, too, to consider the sensible suggestion of consulting the British people anew.

European negotiators have long been used to ‘stopping the clock’ when difficult deadlines loom. The thought that they would contemplate severe economic pain and dislocation for themselves as well as for us rather than endure the inconvenience of extending the Article 50 deadline is plainly ludicrous. That’s not how Europe has worked.

What is proposed satisfies no one, as the distinct stances of the brothers Johnson last week illustrate so vividly. Despite the prodigious efforts of negotiators no circles have been squared. Nothing in this obese document would improve our national situation. Not even the government can pretend that it implies any economic gain.

Despite all the talk of acting in the national interest, Mrs. May has not been able to give us a single example of economic benefits that will flow Brexit, or of any way in which the UK’s effective influence in Europe and the wider world is enhanced.

The raft of compromises that she has had to make speaks volumes about the power of a single country of 65 million as against that of an economic and political bloc that that, at 500 million, represents one of the three most powerful in the world.

The impossibility of concocting a no-cost Brexit plan is simply an indication that Europe’s founding fathers were right. They succeeded in their noble aim of making war unthinkable by seeking to weave our economies so closely together that they would become inextricable.

The eventual sheer difficulty of disengagement is just what was intended. That was the brilliance of their vision of Europe and the source of its durability. Not compulsion but enlightened self-interest.

Whether it’s the manufacture of cars or pharmaceuticals, trade in goods and services, airline safety, the environment, university research, the mutual recognition of qualifications, the process of disengagement is just too disruptive. It doesn’t make sense for anyone.

The quid pro quo is that we have had a place at top table, helping to shape Europe, making sure it works for us – of course – but coming to accommodations that, on balance suit us all. Not a loss of sovereignty, but a massive gain in effective influence.

I have a lot of sympathy with people who want all this stop. I, too, would like to get on with the rest of life – there is no shortage of other pressing problems for the world to fix. But believe me, there will be years more of this to go if we just press on. 

Those who think that if this withdrawal deal is passed we can finally expunge Brexit from our newspapers and television bulletins had better think again.

Believe it or not, the fastest way of gaining respite from Brexit is to stay where we are, as members of the European Union. If we did that we could put the 585 unnecessary pages in the bin, bring to an end the expensive contracts for the 10,000 extra civil servants we had to take on to deal with the Brexit mess, release Kent and Anglesey from the threat of becoming lorry parks, lift the threat to our businesses and farmers and universities, and allow us all to get on with our lives.

It is not irreconcilable Remainers who are prolonging the agony, it is those who would have us press on with this misconceived project without end – a project that even the most ardent Brexiters have had to admit will leave us all worse off economically, supposedly for the illusory gains of some theoretical sovereignty.

It is Michael Heseltine who put sovereignty in its rightful place: ‘The man in the desert is free. He is sovereign, but he can do nothing because he has no power. To talk about sovereignty in the absence of power is to live in a world of fiction.’

It is time for the government to face the twin realities both of our place in the world and of Parliamentary arithmetic.