Statement on Brexit

Theresa Villiers MP has published the following statement responding to the latest developments on the UK's departure from the EU:

"This issue continues to divide both the constituency and the country. I believe that the result of the 2016 referendum should be respected. I reflected with care before deciding to vote against the draft Withdrawal Agreement (dWA). I very much want to see an exit deal agreed by Parliament but I am worried that the Northern Ireland backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement could leave us permanently subject to EU customs and trade policy, and much of its regulation, without having a vote or a say. I am also concerned about the impact on the unity of the UK of provisions in the dWA which separate Northern Ireland from Great Britain and leave them subject to virtually all single market rules. That said, I can understand why a number of my colleagues felt they had to back the deal, despite its flaws, because of the threat of Brexit being stopped altogether.

I believe the best way forward is the so-called ‘Malthouse Compromise’ which received support from a majority of MPs via the amendment tabled in Parliament in January by Sir Graham Brady MP. This plan was negotiated between MPs from both the leave and remain side. It proposes that the dWA is amended to provide for a slightly longer transition (to the end of 2021) to allow more time either to negotiate a future trade relationship or to prepare for leaving without a deal. It would also replace the Northern Ireland backstop with alternative arrangements to maintain a free-flowing ‘drive-through’ border on the island of Ireland.

I was part of a team of backbench MPs who worked with the Brexit Secretary, Steve Barclay, and the Cabinet Office on these alternative arrangements. They would deploy existing technology and existing administrative procedures to enable checks and inspections to take place away from the border. This would ensure that the integrity of the single market is respected, and appropriate formalities and inspections are carried out, but without new physical infrastructure or checks at the border.

The discussions with the Cabinet Office in which I took part were fed into the negotiation process between the UK Government and the EU. The Government has acknowledged that these alternative arrangements could be workable and have committed £20m to develop them further. Mr Barnier has publicly acknowledged that pre-clearance and de-centralised checks of the kind advocated under the Malthouse Compromise could work in practice. He made these remarks in the context of potential checks on goods coming from GB to NI under the terms of the dWA, but if the principle applies in that situation, it can operate in relation to the north south border as well.

I regret that exit day has been postponed. I voted against extension of Article 50 because this prolongs uncertainty and division and drags out the seemingly endless political dispute over Brexit.

Since this extension is now going ahead, the period it covers should be used constructively to carry out two parallel areas of work: firstly to seek improved exit terms with the EU, including the alternative arrangements on the Northern Ireland border outlined above; and secondly to prepare for the possibility of leaving without a deal at the end of the extended Article 50 period if the first work stream does not produce acceptable results.

I have been maintaining pressure on the Government to give the highest priority to no-deal contingency planning in order to minimise potential problems and give the public and businesses as much clarity as possible. Extensive preparations have taken place at ports on both sides of the Channel and the President of the Port of Calais has denied there will be delays. The EU also has wide ranging contingency plans in place, for example to ensure UK airlines and haulage companies can continue to operate in the EU.

My preferred option is to leave with a deal in place, but if this is not possible then reverting to WTO Most Favoured Nation status would still enable a strong trading relationship with the EU, as is the case with UK-US trade. Even if we operate on WTO terms for a period, I would expect this to be only a temporary situation because it is in the interests of both sides that we conclude a free trade deal. Both before and after exit day, we should continue to work towards the goal of a wide-ranging free trade agreement with the EU based on the Canada model.

Lastly I would emphasise that whether there is a deal with the EU or not, we need to give certainty to EU citizens living in the UK. I therefore very much welcomed the Prime Minister’s statement following the Salzburg European Council last year that the rights of EU citizens here will be protected whatever the terms of our departure from the EU.

I will continue to work to try to build as much consensus as possible regarding our future relationship with Europe, listening to different perspectives – leave and remain – within my constituency. Our goal as a country should be to try to bring people together to find sensible solutions on this question which has proved to be so divisive both locally and nationally."