Exiting the European Union

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 10:00 pm on 11th March 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of David Lidington David Lidington Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 10:00 pm, 11th March 2019

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s negotiations to leave the European Union.

May I start with an apology to you, Mr Speaker, and to Keir Starmer, Peter Grant and other Front-Bench spokesmen that we have not tonight been able to follow the usual courtesies, which I would have wanted to do, and give them advance notice? The reason for this, as hon. Members who have been following the TV coverage will know, is that negotiations are still taking place in Strasbourg, and anybody who has taken part in EU business on behalf of this or any previous Government will know that it is far from unusual for deadlines to be stretched and for talks to be going on late.

I would emphasise to the House that the intention of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is to secure a deal that works for the national interest of our country, and she will persist in those negotiations until she is satisfied that that is what has been achieved. However, I can provide the House with an update tonight on what has been agreed so far, and clearly the Government will update the House at the earliest opportunity tomorrow should there be an outcome to the continuing talks in Strasbourg that will have an impact on tomorrow’s debate.

This evening in Strasbourg, the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union have secured legally binding changes that strengthen and improve the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. The House spoke clearly on 29 January when it voted in favour of honouring the decision of the British people and leaving the European Union with a deal that works for the UK. The primary issue of concern then was the Northern Ireland backstop. This House said it needed legally binding changes, and today that is what the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have achieved.

Tonight, we will be laying two new documents in the House: a joint legally binding instrument on the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Northern Ireland; and a joint statement to supplement the political declaration. The first provides confirmation that the EU cannot try to trap the UK in the backstop indefinitely, and that doing so would be an explicit breach of the legally binding commitments that both sides have agreed. If, contrary to all expectations, the EU were to act with that intention, the United Kingdom could use this acceptance of what could constitute an explicit breach as the basis for a formal dispute, through independent arbitration, that such a breach had occurred, ultimately suspending the protocol if the EU continued to breach its obligations.

On top of this, the joint instrument also reflects the United Kingdom’s and the European Union’s commitment to work to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by December 2020, setting out explicitly that these arrangements do not need to replicate the provisions of the backstop in any respect. By including this commitment in the joint instrument, this provision on alternative arrangements will be legally binding. I hope, too, that that legally binding commitment that the alternative arrangements do not need to replicate the backstop in any respect will go some way to reassuring hon. Members that the backstop does not predetermine what our future relationship with the European Union should be.

The joint instrument also puts the commitments set out by Presidents Juncker and Tusk in January on to a legally binding footing, underlining the meaning of best endeavours, stressing the need for negotiations on the future relationship to be taken forward urgently and confirming the assurances we made to the people of Northern Ireland—for example, providing a United Kingdom lock on any new EU laws being added to the backstop.

The second document is a joint statement that supplements the political declaration and outlines a number of commitments by the United Kingdom and the European Union to enhance and expedite the process of negotiating and bringing into force the future relationship. For example, it refers to the possibility of provisional application of such a future agreement and sets out in detail how the specific negotiating track on alternative arrangements will operate.

As I said, negotiations are continuing and the Government will provide an update to the House at the earliest opportunity should there be further changes. I completely understand that hon. Members of all parties will want to have the opportunity to study the documents in detail and analyse their import. Clearly, there will be an opportunity during the debate scheduled for tomorrow for Members to question the Prime Minister and other Ministers and to seek answers.

During Law Officers’ questions last week, my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney General made a commitment from the Dispatch Box to publish his legal assessment, which will be available to all Members in good time before the debate. [Hon. Members: “When?”] Hon. Members ask “When?” Since my right hon. and learned Friend has just seen the outcome of the negotiations in Strasbourg so far, hon. Members would want him to consider carefully the implications of those documents rather than rush out an opinion to meet the deadline for this evening’s statement.

This evening, we shall table the motion that the House will debate tomorrow. We have already published the withdrawal agreement and political declaration and the other papers required of us under the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, and they will be supplemented by the documents that I have drawn to the House’s attention. Tomorrow, the House will vote on the improved deal.

I believe that the deal we have already secured represents a good deal for the whole country and delivers on the result of the referendum. When I knocked on doors during the referendum campaign, the clear message I got from people who voted to leave the European Union was that they wanted to take back control, particularly of our borders, but also of our laws. The deal ends free movement and allows us to deliver a skills-based immigration system, and ends the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in the UK. Under the deal, we will also take back control of our money, no longer sending vast sums to the European Union. We will leave the common fisheries policy and the common agricultural policy and take back control of our trade policy.

I also found in 2016 that, whether people voted to leave or to remain, they wanted us to have the deep and special partnership with the European Union that my party’s manifesto committed us to delivering. The political declaration—the framework for the future relationship—allows for that. In the meaningful vote tomorrow, the House will face a fundamental choice. We said that we would negotiate a good deal with the EU and I believe that we have done so. The EU has been clear that, with the improvements that have been announced and continue to be negotiated, this will be the only deal on the table. Tomorrow there will be a fundamental choice: to vote for the improved deal or to plunge this country into a political crisis.

If we vote for the improved deal we will both end the current uncertainty and deliver Brexit. The House was clear on the need for legally binding changes to the backstop. Today, we have secured those changes. Now is the time to come together to back this improved Brexit deal and to deliver on the instruction of the British people. I commend this statement to the House.