“The only reason that the EU would put up trade barriers is through political choice”: an interview with Dominic Raab MP

“The only reason that the EU would put up trade barriers is through political choice”: an interview with Dominic Raab MP

Our resident provocateur Blake Coe speaks to former Brexit Secretary and MP for Esher and Walton, Dominic Raab.

Blake: What I’d like to start off with is, who is Dominic Raab? Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you came into politics?

Dominic: So I can’t say that I had a burning desire when I was younger to go into politics. I started off my career as a business lawyer, I used to do competition law. I really wanted to do international law, so I went back and did a masters, then after law school, I did six years at the foreign office doing international law. After 9/11 I was involved in some of the maritime security work, I negotiated investment protection agreements and then I was posted to the Hague to do war crimes for three years which was something I was really interested in. I guess it had a strong motivating factor of doing some good in the world and it was only when I came back from The Hague with my wife in 2006 that I decided to look around and I think that I might go and do something political because I enjoy the policy side of things. I went to work as chief of staff for David Davis and then sooner or later the Telegraph expenses scandal happened and that meant that there were a lot more opportunities to throw your hat in the ring and become an MP for 2010. Whilst there was nothing against (the previous MP for Esher and Walton) Ian Taylor’s name, I think he could see that there was an opportunity for him to have a fresh lease of life in his career.

Blake: Now I’d like to move on to Brexit. What would your ideal Brexit be? In an ideal world, what would it look like to you?

Dominic: I wrote around the time of the referendum and after the result that I would like to see us leave with a good deal with our European friends and partners, retain the trading links and security co-operation that I think we pride, maintain some of the other closer links we have. But not be bound by all the regulation and red tape and be free to have a global free trade policy. And the reason that that’s attractive to me is that I think it’s good for businesses in this country, particularly start-ups. It’s quite a big issue in the UK with start-ups and small businesses not being able to scale up. Free trade and global export opportunities are a good opportunity to do that. And secondly, I’m a big believer in liberal free trade and reducing barriers to free trade and if you look at who that benefits through cheaper prices and more choice for consumers, it tends to be the lower- and middle-income families across the country. So that to me, I think, is the key thing, to grasp the opportunities of Brexit. But we’re not saying “pull up the drawbridge” with Europe. I’m half European myself, my dad was Czech. So, I feel as European now as I ever did, I just want to be free from the undemocratic political club as I see it.

Blake: So you say that freer trade is one of the big attractions of leaving the EU for you, but also that you are prepared to put up with the temporary disruption of a no deal Brexit for the long-term gains, but a no deal Brexit would involve in the short term at least, higher trade barriers.

Dominic: Well I’m not sure about that, obviously if we had the deal that I set out we wouldn’t have a departure on WTO terms or no deal as you put it. But even in the worst-case scenario I think in any deal or any negotiation you need to be able to say, “well I’m not going to be held over a barrel to the demands of the other side.” You need to be able to walk away. And in terms of leaving on WTO terms the first thing is at I think we’d be able to manage down the risks. The only reason that the EU would put up trade barriers is through political choice, they wouldn’t need to do that. There are various mechanisms by which we could continue with the standard arrangement where no tariffs go up. And of course, it would hurt German and other European firms significantly because they trade more with us, they have a trade surplus with us. You’re right there would be some short-term risks but if you take a long-term approach, and people say that politicians should, if you look at the opportunities of Brexit as well as the risks. The opportunities to trade more energetically with the growth markets of the future, I’m thinking of Latin America to Asia really, I think those opportunities are enormous over a 10, 15, 20-year period.

Blake: So are you saying that if it came to a no deal Brexit, you don’t think that the EU would put up trade barriers?

Dominic: It wouldn’t have to. It would be a choice. All of the biggest risks with a no deal or a WTO exit are ones that the EU would have to choose. And I think that’s one of the reasons that public support for leaving on the 29th of March with or without a deal has risen. Because people can see that, sure the EU has got to protect its interests, but they’re throwing their weight around quite a lot in these negotiations, they’re taking quite an aggressive and stubborn approach and even if we left on WTO terms, I don’t think that there would be the disruption at the border that some people are suggesting. The authorities in northern France have made clear that they wouldn’t want to “go slow” on trading vehicles going through because it would damage their business. They would lose that business to Dutch and Belgian ports. I think people can see that most of the worst risks would be the result of the EU taking a conscious decision to punish the UK and I don’t think that this is the kind of country that would put up with that.

Blake: So what do you think will happen in the coming weeks? Do you think we will leave on WTO terms? Do you think that Theresa May’s new attempt to fix the backstop which you have described as “eminently solvable”, do you think that will come through or do you think parliament might end up keeping us in?

Dominic: Well it’s difficult. I think we’ve had an interesting week this week. First of all, the Prime Minister has listened to the concerns that people had. Remember that the deal was voted down by 230 votes, so over 400 MPs voted against the deal. That’s the biggest defeat in parliamentary history. So I think the Prime Minister is right to say “ok well I’m going to listen to some of those concerns and this is what I’m going to go and pursue, particularly the changes to the backstop” and I think that gives her a good shot of getting a deal that could be passed in parliament and MPs backed that approach pretty much across the board and by bigger margins than people expected. The question now is what does the EU want? What’s the EU’s choice? We’ve been saying what we want, and we’ve set it out very clearly and I think Brexit is partly a definitive moment for the UK but it’s also a definitive moment for the EU so they can take this view about punishing us and all the rest of it but I don’t see how they’d benefit from that. Or they could say “we’re going to have a new relationship, we’re going to put it on a different footing, there are still a lot of opportunities there and lets go for the win-win approach” and I think if they do that, if they choose that, we’ll leave with a deal and if not, we’ve answered our question and we should leave on WTO terms.

Blake: You’ve made some allegations against the Irish Taoiseach that he deliberately leaked a conversation that you had with him in October concerning the backstop. Can you tell us what happened there?

Dominic: Well I just told the truth. I went to see Simon Coveney, in fact he flew over to see me, and I talked about some of the compromise proposals that I thought would work. In a negotiation you always have to look at things from the other side’s point of view and I knew that the Irish would find it very difficult to accept a sunset clause for the backstop or a deadline or a finite time frame. I was asked to keep the conversation confidential which I did and then the Irish Taoiseach, the Irish premier came out and said that I’d been advocating a three-month time limit which just wasn’t true! So, I quite rightly responded and corrected it and they of course have been very defensive about it. I think Dublin is under some pressure now. Because they’ve taken a very political approach and they’ve enjoyed frankly maximising the political capital at home, then this can be resolved, the issue of regulatory checks not being at the border. So, I think they’re in a bit of a pickle now because if there’s no deal it would be very bad for Ireland and I think that the Irish government would be in a very precarious position. So, I’d been trying to work through pragmatic solutions to deal with this issue and he was trying to politicise that.

Blake: Jeremy Hunt has suggested that if a Brexit deal were reached at the eleventh hour that Brexit could be delayed by a couple of weeks, a very short period of time in order to pass the necessary legislation. Is that something you would support?

Dominic: I don’t think it should be necessary but there’s two different types of extension to article 50. There’s one which would be an extension for the negotiations which I wouldn’t support. I think that would just be kicking the can down the road and generate more uncertainty and I don’t see how that would strengthen our negotiating position. If we get a deal and we need an extra couple of weeks to get the legislation through, then I would at least not close my mind to it.

Blake: Other than Brexit, what would you like to see government achieve in the UK over the next 10 years?

Dominic: I think the big thing for me is social mobility. So, my Father was a refugee to this country, and I think if you look at the evidence from the LSE, social mobility declined after the post war era and it hasn’t really ever recovered. It declined and then stayed stagnant during the Blairite years. I think it’s a real national issue for us and certainly my party and government to improve social mobility. So, I’m really interested in schools reform, non-graduate routes to professions, vocational training. I think degree apprenticeships are a really interesting idea that need to be promoted, so that whole meritocratic agenda and boosting social mobility I think for me is the reason I went into politics and what I think also is the ying to the yang of the Conservative message on the economy and the enterprise economy. We need a good powerful, compelling message on the opportunity society. I think it’s good for the country and I also think that going into the next election that’s what the Conservatives will need to do to beat Jeremy Corbyn. So obviously, as a politician, I’m thinking about how these ideas translate into political terms too.

Thanks to Dominic Raab for giving his time to be interviewed for Pi Politics.  

Image Credit: Tom Nicholson