By John Petley.
With contributions from Dr Niall McCrae, John Ashworth, Ariane Loening and Lawyers for Britain.
Cast your mind back to summer last year. The Cabinet gathered at the Prime Minister’s country retreat of Chequers, on the sylvan Chiltern downs. There was very important business: Theresa May, flanked by senior civil servant Olly Robbins, presented the draft agreement for Britain’s departure from the EU. For the first time, ministers (including Brexit secretary David Davis and foreign secretary Boris Johnson) saw the proposed terms – and the extent to which May would abide by her pledge of ‘Brexit means Brexit’. The chief whip instructed that nobody could leave without consenting to the Withdrawal Agreement, unless they resigned – and must then find their way home without ministerial transport.
For Leavers in the Cabinet, it was a shocker. Scarcely anything appropriate for a renewed sovereign nation could be found in this document, which seemed an abject surrender to Messrs Barnier and Juncker. For Brexit voters, it was hard to believe that their government would consider such punitive clauses; their faith in Theresa May, until then buoyant, was shattered. And this document, we were told, was only the initial negotiating stance – it could get worse. In the morass since the referendum on 23rd June 2016, this has been the most significant subsequent event to date.
It was widely reported that Theresa May paid a visit to Angela Merkel in Berlin shortly before the Chequers meeting. What did they discuss? We weren’t told at the time. According to a confidential source who has seen a complete transcript of the meeting, the two leaders agreed to a plan that Mrs May allegedly told the Chancellor would “appease” Brexit voters while nonetheless enabling her to get rid of those Tories who were (in her words) “against progress and unity in the EU.” According to the transcript, Mrs May is also reported to have agreed “to keep as many EU laws and institutions in effect as she could despite the current groundswell of anti-EU hysteria in Britain” (again, apparently her words). It is claimed that both leaders agreed that the only realistic future for the UK was as a member of the EU, and that in the likely course of events Britain would re-join the EU in full at some time after the next general election.
The transcript also indicated that the Withdrawal Agreement was essentially a German production, with the original draft completed in May 2018 in Berlin. It was then sent to the Cabinet Office marked “Secret”. After much to-ing and fro-ing in the subsequent few weeks, including several telephone calls between Mrs May and the Chancellor the final draft was completed late in June, with the Chancellor telling Mrs May that she was happy with it. However, a few more small concessions by the UK would be needed later on, just to keep the EU happy.
David Davis was kept in the dark about this planning, as were other pro-Brexit ministers. The EU, by contrast, was happy to circulate the transcript of the final May/Merkel meeting to key EU and German embassies. What is more, Mrs May was probably unaware that the Chancellor had made a recording of this private meeting! Perhaps our Prime Minister would not have spoken so freely had she realised her words were being noted for posterity.
If this account of the meeting between the PM and the German Chancellor is accurate, this paints a very different picture of the Brexit process from that reported to the public by the BBC and other mainstream media. There is one obvious objection: these explosive claims are impossible to prove in the absence of a copy of the transcript of either the May/Merkel meetings or of the briefings given to EU embassies. My source, however, has been accurate in the past: several other tip-offs of EU intentions passed to me were revealed two or three days later by the press.
Furthermore, I believe that this account of the meeting has verisimilitude, because of the considerable amount of circumstantial evidence to support it. For example, John Ashworth, of the campaign group Fishing for Leave, has analysed many UK government and EU documents over the past twenty years. Familiar with the style of both, he has noted how the Withdrawal Agreement resembles an EU document rather than anything originating from the UK government. Lawyers for Britain has also noted examples in the Political Declaration accompanying the Withdrawal Agreement which sound more like a translation from a foreign language. Paragraph 6, for example, begins: “The Parties agree that the future relationship should be underpinned by shared values such as the respect for and safeguarding of human rights.” The final “the” before “respect” is totally superfluous. The next paragraph ends with a clumsy sentence. Paragraph 8 begins with an ugly construction:- “In view of the importance of data flows and exchanges across the future relationship…” No British civil servant would have written such gobbledygook.
There is much circumstantial evidence from the EU side. Martin Selmayr and Sabine Weyand, both Germans and deputies to Jean-Claude Juncker and Michel Barnier respectively, have spoken very positively about the Withdrawal Agreement. On 9th November last year, Weyand told The Times, “They must align their rules but the EU will retain all the controls. They apply the same rules. UK wants a lot more from future relationship, so EU retains its leverage.” Selmayr said that he wanted the Withdrawal Agreement to show that “Brexit doesn’t work” and he told a group of EU officials last November “The power is with us.” These statements have been widely reported in British media. Dan Hannan MEP recently quoted an interview with Michel Barnier in which he said, “I’ll have done my job if, in the end, the deal is so tough on the British that they’d prefer to stay in the EU”. In an article In an article in the Daily Telegraph published only yesterday (6th March), Igor Gräzin, an Estonian Eurosceptic MEP, claimed that “around Europe, Theresa May’s ‘deal’ is described as a capitulation.” Why, if the EU regards the Withdrawal Agreement as a victory for them, is Mrs May pushing so hard for us to agree to such a one-sided outcome while refusing to consider any alternative? The only plausible explanation is that she actually wants a deal that disempowers her own country.
The whole subject of defence integration also strongly hints at collaboration between the EU, Mrs May and pro-remain Civil Servants. Prior to the 2016 referendum, as an EU member state, the UK strongly opposed efforts by the EU to develop its own military capability independent of NATO. After 2016, however, the EU has pushed ahead with military integration. Astonishingly, since 2016 the Government has signed no fewer than five agreements with the EU on military matters. The excuse given to MPs at the time was that as the UK was leaving anyway, we didn’t want to be obstructive. The Withdrawal Agreement and accompanying Political Declaration, however, looks to create a longer-term relationship with military EU, beyond any transitional period. Particularly worrying are proposals in the Political Declaration pointing to an attempt to bypass Parliament in the shape of a future defence treaty, to be signed after Brexit Day using ministerial, or ‘prerogative’ powers delegated by the Crown.
There is absolutely no need for the UK to continue being involved with the EU’s military programme at all – even during any transition period. We will still be a member of NATO, the true guarantor of peace in Europe. Unlike trade, there would be no disruption for the UK if we simply cut off our involvement with military EU on the day we leave. Given the UK’s leading military role in Europe, the inclusion of a long-term military arrangement with the EU in the Withdrawal Agreement when the EU has specifically stated that “third countries” cannot be involved in key decision making is extremely worrying. We would essentially be compromising our independent military and intelligence capability and handing over ultimate control of these areas to Brussels in a manner that would be extremely difficult to reverse. This only makes sense in the context of a plan for the UK to resume EU membership. Surely this cannot have happened behind the Prime Minister’s back?
Returning to the topic of fishing, why has our side thrown away one of the strongest cards in its hand? Surely our negotiators must have studied Greenland’s departure in the 1980s. Faced with a similar unsatisfactory deal from the EEC (as it was then), the Greenlanders issued an ultimatum: all EEC fishing boats must depart from their territorial waters on Independence Day. Brussels rapidly backed down and Greenland gained a satisfactory deal. By contrast, the UK caved in right at the start, agreeing in effect to a common fisheries policy in all but name during the transition period, and completely failing to use any leverage on access to rich fishing grounds. Indeed, under the proposed arrangements for the 21 months after Brexit, our fishermen will have a worse deal than before, with the discard ban likely to result in many small firms going out of business before the transition period is ended.
Lastly, why the reluctance to consider, even as a transitional arrangement, re-joining EFTA and following Norway’s example? At a stroke, on 29th March, we could have regained control over fishing, extricated ourselves from about 75% of the total acquis, solved most of the Irish border problems and ended the supervision of the ECJ. The “Norway Model” was never popular with the majority of Leavers, but it is infinitely superior to the arrangements which will be in place on 30th March if Mrs May’s deal goes through. What is more, for all its shortcomings, the Norwegians prefer their arrangement with the EU to membership. Even if we had left via this unpopular route, there is no reason to doubt that within a couple of years, the issue of EU membership would have died a natural death in the UK with travel and trade flowing smoothly and no one except a handful of incorrigible Remainers regretting our exclusion from the federalist project.
The EU has been accused of everything from persuading the Norwegians to discourage our following their example to dissuading the Chinese from starting trade negotiations with us. There is no doubt that they don’t like Brexit and have done nothing to help us leave. However, the repeated pattern of failing to stand up for the UK’s best interest and overlooking a given option in favour of a worse one leaves me in little doubt that the transcript of the May/Merkel meetings, as seen by my source, is trustworthy. Why, when Mrs May dismissed both “Canada” and “Norway” options in her Florence speech saying “We can do so much better than this” has she ended up with something far worse? Such an appalling exit deal for the UK could not have been obtained by accident or through sheer incompetence.
The absence of documentary corroboration for the transcript will inevitably lead to these claims being dismissed as conspiracy theory, but veracity is bolstered by contextual evidence. We know May met Merkel before Chequers – that is not disputed. My informant was shown the document but was not allowed to take it away, due to the risk of severe consequences for the exhibitor. However, it would be justifiable for a British parliamentarian, perhaps from the ERG or DUP, to request a copy of the minutes from the German administration. Of course, Berlin might refuse, but there is a strong moral case here. The British people have a right to know what was discussed about their future with a foreign power, and whether there is any truth in these scandalous allegations.
If this account of the meeting is true, the Withdrawal Agreement was written within the German administration, and our ministers and MPs are being bullied and cajoled into passing this into law by a Prime Minister who seems far more interested in pleasing Chancellor Merkel than the 17,410,742 voters who delivered their verdict on the EU in June 2016.