The deadline for a Withdrawal Agreement is fast approaching, although slipping beyond the original target of October, and I have spent recent weeks preparing for the Agreement’s return to the Commons. We have been clear that the chaos within the Tory Party cannot be allowed to crash the country out of the EU without a deal and therefore with no transition period. A no deal would be disastrous and the Government’s flimsy ‘no deal preparation’ documents released over the summer did nothing to suggest otherwise.
Disagreement over the Irish backstop remains a sticking point in negotiations. I visited Northern Ireland in August, for the first time since the height of the conflict, which took so many lives. The Good Friday Agreement has transformed Northern Ireland, but I was struck by the fragility of the peace, with walls dividing communities still intact, and with the stalemate at Stormont continuing.
I went to South Armagh to explore the border, which is key to the Brexit negotiations. Its invisibility is one of the most significant manifestations of the peace process, with people from both communities in Northern Ireland valuing and benefiting from it. One evening, on a short journey to dinner, we crossed the border six times, although barely noticing, in the way that people there do every day. The hard-won delicate peace in Northern Ireland cannot be sacrificed for the right-wing Tory extremists’ hard Brexit.
Back in Westminster in early September, I spoke at the quarterly meeting of the Ethical Medicines Industry Group just before the House returned in September. The group represents small and medium-sized pharmaceutical companies and there was great concern about Government requests to stockpile six weeks’ worth of medicines. There was also a lot of anxiety about the prospect of no deal and its impact on supply chains and research and development.
I have continued to work closely with the 3 Million, representing EU citizens in the UK, and the British in Europe, representing Brits living in other EU countries. I caught up with the British in Europe last week for an update on their concerns about the Withdrawal Agreement and what will happen to them in the event of no deal. We also discussed the implications for the 1.2 million British people living in the EU27 – the vast majority working or studying, contrary to stereotypes of them being sun-seeking retirees – if there is a permanent or even temporary suspension of their right to freedom of movement. For people who cross borders to get to work in the morning, this would have huge implications. Unfortunately the Government has not pressed for these rights to continue in negotiations and David Davis did not even bother to meet the group while he was Secretary of State. I have also been working with the 3 Million on the Government’s pilot of the proposed Settled Status scheme for EU nationals who will need to register in the UK post-Brexit and will be speaking about the scheme on a panel they have organised at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool.
The House will return after the political party conferences in October and, by then, the conclusion of the negotiations should be in sight. We will continue to press for the closest possible relationship with the EU. If there is an agreement, we have made it clear that we will judge it against our six tests and that we will vote down any deal that fails to meet them.