Mrs May yesterday claimed “a Brexit deal is within our grasp” after returning from talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in advance of Sunday’s summit of bloc leaders, at which the 585-page draft withdrawal agreement is likely to be agreed. But her claims rang hollow for Mr Howe, a specialist in EU law who let loose in a caustic column for The Sun. He wrote: “Politicians who claim this is just a bad treaty – one we can get out of later – are being ignorant or disingenuous.”
With respect to the backstop for Northern Ireland, for example, he said once it was in force, the UK would not be able to leave it without a joint decision with the EU which he said amounted to a veto over the UK’s exit.
The backstop would lock the UK into a customs union with the EU – with no decision-making powers whatsoever, he explained.
It would also force the UK to maintain the EU’s tariffs against competing goods from the countries, which he said would “kill stone dead” the possibility of forging trade deals with “fast-growing economies” around the world.
In addition to the lengthy draft withdrawal agreement itself, Mr Howe referred to the non-legally binding political declaration hammered out by the two parties, which he pointed out omits any commitment to allow the UK to set its own external tariffs.
Instead, it contains a commitment to customs arrangements that “build on the single customs territory provided for in the Withdrawal agreement”.
Mr Howe said: “This means the EU will not even be under a moral, still less legal, obligation to agree a trade deal which allows the UK to conduct its own future independent trade policy.
Despite the declaration stating both the EU and the UK would use their “best endeavours” to strike a trade deal by the end of the transition period, Mr Howe warned this was not legally enforceable.
The EU would be able to slow down negotiations, or just refuse to agree to the kind of deal which the UK wanted, forcing the activation of the backstop.
He said: “Not only would this mean a customs union and onerous “level-playing-field” obligations binding the whole UK, but also the annexation of Northern Ireland into the EU for laws relating to goods, customs procedure and taxes.
He added: “This is true vassalage, during which will be required to abide by laws which we have no vote in shaping.
“It could run indefinitely, prolonging the turmoil of the past 18 months and uncertainty about the future.
“Why is the Prime Minister so desperate for a deal that she is willing to humiliate her country in this way?
“EU treaties give us the right to withdraw on two years’ notice, but this deal would lock us in with no right to leave at all, and destroy any benefits of the freedom of action Brexit should give us.
“It would not let us forge our own trade policy with other parts of the world.
“It would not make our economy more competitive.
“It would not give us back control of our laws.
“This is not a bad deal. It is an atrocious deal.”