THERE are rumours that Boris Johnson is considering a re-packaged version of the deal negotiated by his predecessor, minus the much-discussed Irish ‘backstop’. Although this ‘deal’ has been voted down three times by Parliament, I very much doubt if a single MP has fully read and digested it. The Withdrawal Agreement is popularly known as Mrs May’s agreement, but was actually written by Michel Barnier’s team. It is an incredibly complicated document leaving hardly a subject not covered, and everything in it has been designed to be beneficial to the EU.

I confess that I have not read every word. There are parts which I have only skimmed over, concentrating on the sections I am most interested in. The document is very heavy going as nearly every paragraph is cross-referenced to a Treaty, Regulation or Directive, and each one has to be looked up, read and understood before moving on. It takes hours.

One issue on which I felt the EU had particularly humiliated us was defence. Here is one particularly disturbing extract from the Withdrawal Agreement:

Article 124 Specific arrangements relating to the Union’s external action

Part 6 During the transition period, the United Kingdom shall not provide commanders of civilian operations, heads of mission, operation commanders or force commanders for missions or operations conducted under Articles 42, 43 and 44 TEU [Treaty on European Union], nor shall it provide the operational headquarters for such missions or operations or serve as framework nation for Union battlegroups. During the transition period, the United Kingdom shall not provide the head of any operational actions under Article 28 TEU.

I looked up Articles 28, 42, 43 and 44 from the Treaty on European Union and it appears to me that during any transitional period, the EU would be able to make use of our forces but they would not be under British command. What a humiliation!

I digress. My main area of expertise is Fisheries. I will start with the effects of the Withdrawal Agreement on the catching sector – in other words, fishermen. I will tackle the marketing sector later, as there are more than 30 regulations to check!

Article 130 of the Withdrawal Agreement discusses specific arrangements relating to fishing opportunities. It contains four paragraphs which require the reader to cross reference to articles 43(3) TEU and point (b) of Article 129(2). I won’t go into all the details, but suffice it to say that these few paragraphs give the EU everything it requires – in other words, access to our waters under the same terms as when we were a member state.

When the Withdrawal Agreement became public, the then Secretary of State for the Environment, the Rt Hon Michael Gove, was quoted as stating, ‘The opportunities available to us after the transition deal are critically important. We must secure them . . . That has meant that in the transition deal we have accepted a sub-optimal outcome . . . But it is only for an additional 12 months and we must keep our eyes on the prize.’

Therein lies the problem. Gove’s attitude is typical of the British mindset – ‘It will be okay in the end, don’t worry, chaps. Afternoon tea or gin and tonic later; we will soon fix it.’ Does Gove not realise that by the end of the transitional period it will be too late to ‘fix it’? Had Mrs May’s ‘deal’ gone through, we would have signed a document without understanding its importance. Even senior government ministers don’t seem to have grasped that every word of a document originating with the EU has to be scrutinised as they are masters in the art of turning everything to their own advantage.

Meanwhile policy-making continues with EU officials on defence and spending. Defence minister Ben Wallace was in Finland this week for talks, during which he appeared to let the cat out of the bag that the Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament was indeed a device to achieve Brexit. 

Going back to when the Withdrawal Agreement complete with transitional period was first mooted, we, the British, sought a two-year transitional period, from 30 March 2019 to 31 March 2021, which was felt to be the minimum time possible. The EU refused our request, insisting that for financial reasons any transitional period would have to end on 31 December 2020. This had the effect of placing us under pressure as far as the timescale for negotiating a long-term agreement was concerned.

After being told hundreds of times that we were leaving the EU on 29 March, our departure date has been put back by a further seven months, but the date set by the EU for the end of the transition period has not changed. In other words, we would have to move over to a long-term arrangement with only 14 months to sign it off – putting us under even greater pressure. We could, of course, seek to extend the transition period to the full two years, but would have to apply to the EU to do this by July 2020, thus creating a further pressure and source of confusion.

During any transition period, we would not be classified as a ‘third country’, so although technically one could claim that we had left the EU, in practical terms, we wouldn’t have done so – rather the opposite. We would effectively be controlled by the EU to such a degree that we might just as well shut our Parliament down. We would finally become a ‘third country’ on 1 January 2023, as it is doubtful that the EU would consider an extension other than on the previous transition terms, which would essentially mean that we would still not have left the EU in any meaningful way. We would still be paying our ongoing fees, at full rate, to the EU. The EU would still control our fisheries and our armed forces and we would still be subject to the European Court of Justice, with our Parliament still essentially sidelined. No one in their right minds could want us to be in such a situation. We would be like Hotel California in the song: you can check out but never leave.

So if any extension to the transition period would be undesirable, it therefore follows that even the initial transitional arrangement as proposed in the Withdrawal Agreement is equally undesirable – and let us be clear – the Withdrawal Agreement says nothing about a long-term arrangement between the UK and the EU. All it does is allow the EU to dictate the terms of our departure and the terms of a temporary arrangement afterwards. For all the short-term disruption of leaving without a deal, this scenario pales into insignificance when compared with the vassal state which we would become if the Withdrawal Agreement were ever signed off. Let us be under no illusion. The EU deliberately concentrated on the Irish backstop to take the focus away from the many other unsatisfactory features of this so-called deal. If it agrees at the last minute to drop the demands for a backstop, this isn’t good enough. Boris Johnson has insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement is dead. It must be dead in its entirety, as dead as the parrot in the Monty Python sketch. It is toxic from start to finish. It must not be granted a resurrection.

Unless the EU capitulates and offers us something very different, we have no option but to leave without a deal, and this now has much public support. Most people are now fed up with the whole subject of Brexit. Our Prime Minister has stated that we will terminate our membership of the EU on 31 October. Fine, but it must be a proper parting of the ways, with our armed forces and fishing industry under national control and the ECJ no longer interfering in our legal process. Mrs May’s ‘deal’, even shorn of the backstop, will not achieve this. We might have managed something better, but for three years we had to suffer a Prime Minister who saw Brexit as a problem to be managed rather than an opportunity to be seized. She is not the only one to blame, however. The EU, remainers, and those now screaming about the affront to democracy should consider the damage they have caused. They have blocked every attempt to achieve an amicable divorce because their goal has always been to ensure that the UK remains a member of the EU for ever. Had they succeeded, the UK would have been running a fishery management identical to the CFP, with the result that we would never have rejuvenated our coastal communities and thus not given youngsters the opportunity – nor the desire – to join our industry.

So I conclude with an appeal to our Prime Minister: Come on, Boris – keep up the enthusiasm, stand up to the EU, stick to your word that the Withdrawal Agreement is not only dead but buried in its entirety, and give us the tools so that we can make fisheries a success story of which the UK can be proud.

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John Ashworth
John Ashworth has worked all his life in the Fishing Industry, as a gear designer and manufacturer. He spent 20 years working on fishing vessels around the world, and promoted environmental issues, He led the Save Britain's Fish campaign through the nineties and early twenties and is now part of Fishing for Leave.