Transitional deal keeping UK in EEA ‘worst of possible worlds’, says Davis
Brexit secretary speaks to MPs before the debate on the EU withdrawal bill
Brexit Secretary David Davis is questioned by MPs, in the House of Commons, London, on progress in Brexit negotiations with the European Union. Photogrph: PA Wire
A Norway-style transitional deal which keeps the UK in the European Economic Area would be the “worst of possible worlds”, Britain’s Brexit secretary David Davis has said, as MPs prepared to debate the first major piece of Brexit legislation of the parliament.
Speaking to MPs at Brexit questions in the House of Commons before the debate on the EU withdrawal bill on Thursday afternoon, Mr Davis said the government had considered the benefits of retaining membership of the European Free Trade Association.
“The simple truth is membership of Efta would keep us within the acquis [EU LAW]and it would keep us in requirements for free movement, albeit with some restrictions but none have worked so far,” he said.
“In many ways it’s the worst of possible worlds. We did consider it, maybe as an interim measure. But it would be more complicated and less beneficial.”
Countries such as Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland are members of Efta with varying relationships, which allows full access to the single market but means acceptance of some, though not all, EU law and regulation, without voting rights.
Labour’s Keir Starmer has said his party backs full participation in the single market and customs union during a transitional period that could last between two and four years after the day of departure, which would mean continuing to pay into the EU budget and accept freedom of movement.
During the debate, Mr Davis said he believed the European Commission was open to the “mutual benefits” of a transitional deal after March 2019, when the UK formally quits the bloc, in order to avoid a cliff edge.
“I believe the benefits of a transitional arrangement are both ways, they apply to France, Holland ... as they do for us,” he told the Commons on Thursday.
“That’s the readback we have been getting; we’ve found the commission is open to the idea of transition, we’ve only raised it briefly because it doesn’t fit with the four parts of the negotiation but I think there’s a very good prospect.”
Though Mr Davis ruled out membership of Efta, he said the government was seeking “a transition based on maintaining the important components of what we currently have is the best way to do it”.
Replying to a question from Labour’s Hilary Benn, who asked if the UK would pay into the EU budget during transition, Mr Davis did not rule out the possibility.
“I think this must be the 20th time I have said I am not going to negotiate from the dispatch box,” he said. “The transitional period ... is there for one purpose, to ensure we avoid a cliff-edge. It is not just the UK that has come to this conclusion but also the other members of the EU but one of the things we have been doing for six to nine months is showing how beneficial to them a transition would be.”
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Labour MP Chris Bryant, a supporter of the pro-Europe Open Britain campaign, said Mr Davis was running out of options. “David Davis is very good at taking options off the table, but doesn’t seem to bother putting any options on the table,” he said.
“The idea that he can rule out every possible transitional arrangement except for a yet-to-be-defined bespoke arrangement is mad, given that the talks are stuck in the mud and we have just a year left before the final Brexit deal must be finalised. To protect jobs and our economy, the only transitional option the government should be looking at is keeping Britain in the single market and the customs union.”
UK prime minister Theresa May’s flagship piece of Brexit legislation will be debated for the first time Thursday, giving opponents an opportunity to lay out their objections in parliament.
On Wednesday, Mr Davis issued a plea to MPs of all parties to “work with him” to deliver the legislation.
With Labour, Liberal Democrats and Scottish and Welsh nationalists lined up to oppose the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the British government faces a fight to clear what is normally the formality of a second reading in the House of Commons.
Speaking before the start of the two-day debate, Ms May urged MPs from across the House to work towards the “shared aim” of securing the best possible Brexit for Britain.
But Labour sources insisted the Bill was “completely unacceptable”, as it hands wide-ranging authority to ministers to amend the law without securing parliamentary consent under so-called Henry VIII powers.
The Bill — sometimes described by ministers as a “great repeal Bill” — will overturn the 1972 act which took Britain into the European Economic Community and will transpose relevant EU law onto the UK statute book to ensure there are no gaps in legislation at the point of Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn has ordered Labour MPs to vote against second reading on Monday, and other parties have tabled “reasoned amendments” stating that the Commons should refuse to let the legislation progress through parliament in its current form.
But the chances of a government defeat look slim, with pro-EU Tory Anna Soubry playing down the prospect of a rebellion and some Brexit-backing Labour MPs thought likely to defy Mr Corbyn’s whip.
Prominent Leave campaigner and Labour MP for Vauxhall Kate Hoey said anyone opposing it at second reading would be “betraying the will of the British people”.
Mrs May said: “The repeal Bill helps deliver the outcome the British people voted for by ending the role of the EU in UK law, but it’s also the single most important step we can take to prevent a cliff-edge for people and businesses, because it provides legal certainty.
“We’ve made time for proper parliamentary scrutiny of Brexit legislation, and I look forward to the contributions of MPs from across the House.
“But that contribution should fit with our shared aim: to help get the best Brexit for Britain.”
Mr Davis promised to work with MPs and to take action if they identified any right which would be lost as a result of the bill.
“If anyone in this House finds a substantive right that is not carried forward into UK law, they should say so,” he said.
“No-one has yet brought to my attention a right we have missed.
“We are not rejecting EU law, but embracing the work done between member states in over 40 years of membership and using that solid foundation to build on in the future, once we return to being masters of our own laws.
“I hope everyone in this House recognises this Bill’s essential nature — it is the foundation upon which we will legislate for years to come — and I look forward to working with the whole House to deliver the Bill.”
But a Labour spokesman said: “In this Bill, the government is making a power grab to change a whole set of legislation and rules without recourse to Parliament.
“That ranges from the date of Brexit to the amount of money paid to the EU to employment and social legislation and environmental legislation.
“Under the proposals, the Brexit secretary can make these changes at the stroke of a pen. That is completely undemocratic.”