Michael Gove – 2020 Statement on EU Negotiations

Below is the text of the statement made by Michael Gove, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Minister for the Cabinet Office, in the House of Commons on 4 June 2020.

I beg to move,

That this House, having regard to the constitutional and legal functions enshrined in the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 and the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act 2020, urges the Government to conduct its negotiations with the European Union with the fullest possible transparency to facilitate essential parliamentary scrutiny; also urges the Government to make regular progress reports on the negotiations, including on stakeholder contributions to the consultation on The Future Relationship with the EU: the UK’s Approach to Negotiations, and to address the issues identified by the European Scrutiny Committee in its Fifth Report of Session 2019–21, HC 333, as matters of vital national interest.

I am delighted to be opening this important debate. In particular, I would like to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash). I am sure the House will be aware that, having first been elected in 1984, he has been a distinguished campaigner on a number of issues, including improving the UK’s role in overseas development. Above all, he will be remembered for his commitment to restoring the sovereignty of this House. For more than 35 years he has served on the European Scrutiny Committee, which he now chairs. Having served on it for a brief period when I was a Back Bencher in the 2005 to 2010 Parliament, I can say that his attention to detail, his commitment to this House and his service to the country are things that all of us should recognise and applaud.

The motion we are considering today asks the Government to do three things: to negotiate transparently in order to ease the way for essential parliamentary scrutiny of the Executive; to provide regular reports on the progress of the negotiations; and to address the issues raised specifically by the European Scrutiny Committee about the impact of legislation being passed at European Union level while we are in the transition period, not fully part of the EU but of course subject to its acquis.

With respect to the transparency of our negotiations, it is the case that a Command Paper was published earlier this year outlining the approach that the UK Government would take towards the negotiations. I made an oral statement in this House to outline our approach. Since that time, the UK Government have outlined their approach in detail by the publication of draft texts covering not just our future economic partnership but areas such as fisheries and security. The publication of those draft texts has also been accompanied by my appearance alongside David Frost, the Prime Minister’s sherpa and EU negotiator, in front of the Select Committee of the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) on the future relationship with the European Union on three occasions, in front of the House of Lords Select Committee covering European affairs on ​two occasions and, of course, in front of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee on one occasion as well.

Hilary Benn (Leeds Central) (Lab)

The document to which the right hon. Gentleman has just referred makes it clear that the Government want an agreement that involves no tariffs, but in the interests of transparency, will he explain to the House why the Government are prepared to contemplate tariffs being imposed from 1 January next year, when he will know that the president of the National Farmers Union has described that prospect as catastrophic for the industry, and that only this week the chief operating officer of Nissan has warned that the Sunderland plant would not be sustainable if tariffs on car exports transpire?

Michael Gove

The right hon Gentleman is right; it is our intention. Indeed, it is a commitment in the political declaration that accompanies the withdrawal agreement that both sides will work towards ensuring that we have a zero-tariff, zero-quota approach. One of the problems we face is that the European Union is placing an unprecedented demand on the United Kingdom, which is that in order to secure that zero-tariff, zero-quota approach, we accept a suite of commitments—the so-called level playing field commitments—that would place obligations on the UK Government and our institutions to follow EU law in a way that no other sovereign nation would and in a way that no other free trade agreement requires. That takes us to the heart of the UK’s approach.

In all these appearances and opportunities in which the House has allowed me, on behalf of the Government, to explain our approach, we have taken a consistent line, and that is in keeping with the political declaration. We want a free trade agreement with the European Union, and the free trade agreement that we seek is built on precedent. There is nothing novel, outrageous or excessive about our requests, and the free trade agreement that we seek is, as I say, one that builds on precedents from Canada, Japan and South Korea and agreements that other sovereign nations have entered into with the EU.

The challenge that we face, however, is that the European Union argues that, because of the size of our market and our geographical proximity, we should be subject to rules of the club that we have left, which they impose on no other sovereign nation. At the same time, the EU insists that in the hugely important area of fisheries, it should continue to have access on terms that are similar, if not identical, to the common fisheries policy, which so many people in this country recognise as having worked against the interests of our coastal communities and of marine conservation.

It is on that basis that the fourth round of negotiations is currently being conducted. David Frost, our negotiator, is negotiating hard today, and I am sure that Michel Barnier will update us with his perspective on these negotiations tomorrow. We will also be laying a written ministerial statement next week and, of course, should the House require any further updates on the progress of the negotiations, I would be delighted to give them.

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP)

Does the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster also accept that another impediment is Michel Barnier’s insistence that the EU’s draconian interpretation of the provisions of the withdrawal ​agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol should be implemented? Does he agree that the Government cannot and must not give in to those demands?

Michael Gove

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that point. The protocol is part of the withdrawal agreement, but it makes it clear that Northern Ireland is part of the UK customs territory. Also, in the Command Paper that we published recently—which was broadly welcomed, albeit with caveats by political parties, businesses and citizens across Northern Ireland—we made it clear that we would not impose additional physical customs infrastructure and that we would do everything we could to ensure that the Good Friday agreement was upheld in its essentials, and that means that the citizens and the businesses of Northern Ireland should continue to enjoy unfettered access to the rest of the United Kingdom’s internal market, its customs territory and its nation overall.

In these negotiations, there will inevitably be commentary, in the form of shots fired from outside and attempts by some who do not have an interest in us reaching an agreement, to suggest that an agreement is impossible, and certainly impossible within the time allowed. However, there is ample time for us to reach an agreement. The detailed work that has been undertaken by both sides should not be set aside or diminished. All that is required is political will, imagination and flexibility, and I believe that with the advent of the German presidency of the European Union on 1 July, we will see the leadership required to guarantee that we secure the agreement that we need.

Jacob Young (Redcar) (Con)

I thank my right hon. Friend for everything he has just said. What is his response to Michel Barnier’s letter to Opposition party leaders on 25 May, encouraging them to extend the transition period beyond 31 December? Would that be a betrayal of our voters and the recent general election?

Michael Gove

Yes, I think it would be a mistake. Different people have sincere views on this matter. For example, the Welsh Assembly Government—Labour—want an extension; the Mayor of London—Labour—wants an extension. The position of the Labour leader is not clear on this matter, but perhaps the hon. Member for Sheffield Central (Paul Blomfield) will enlighten us. The Scottish National party is clear in its view that there should be an extension, and the Democrat Unionist party is clear that there should not be. Every party in the House has a clear position—either for or against an extension—apart from the Labour party, although that point might be elucidated.

The reason I think we should not have an extension is that if we did, we would end up paying the EU more money, which we could spend on our own NHS. We would have to pay for continued membership. We would not know how much that would be; we know only that it would more than we currently pay on an annual basis. We would also be subject to rules shaped at European level, although we would have no say, and that would constrain our capacity to respond not just to the coronavirus crisis, but to other coming economic challenges. During that period, the decisions made by the EU27 will be, entirely legitimately, in their interests, and not necessarily in ours. That is why an extension would be unwise and run counter to the clearly expressed view of the British ​people when they elected my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) as Prime Minister, on a manifesto that clearly spelled out that we will leave the European Union’s transition period at the end of this year.

Before I sit down and allow other Members to make their points, I am conscious that the explanatory memorandums that some Departments have provided to the Committee chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Sir William Cash) have not always been as diligent and detailed as they should have been in ensuring that the European Scrutiny Committee can do its valued work. I assure my hon. Friend that I and the Paymaster General have spoken to all Departments to ensure that the Committee’s work can continue. It is vital, particularly during a period when we are not represented at European level, that any new addition to the acquis is scrutinised effectively by the House, and that the House has a chance to determine what response we make.

I look forward to contributions from across the House, and in particular I thank all 23 Select Committees that joined the European Scrutiny Committee in putting forward propositions for the Government to take account of during the course of the negotiations. I am grateful to Members from across the House for the continued and constructive engagement in helping us to secure a good deal.