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Article 50 (Constitution Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:07 pm on 22nd November 2016.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 6:07 pm, 22nd November 2016

My Lords, first, I thank my noble friend Lord Lang and the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, for their excellent reports. Secondly, I draw attention to my entries in the register, many of them concerning my various European roles. I was also strongly in favour of remain. We made a foolish decision: 43 years on from joining the EU, we appear to be deciding that we will be the only major industrialised country in the world that is affiliated to no one at all in particular and will somehow try and negotiate our way through a morass of technical agreements in the modern world.

I serve on one of the sub-committees, as the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, knows. Representatives of the Norwegian Government came to see us. They told us of the hundred treaties, the whole department of the Norwegian Government that exists to monitor their relations with the European Union and, in particular, that very valuable section of the Norwegian department responsible for ringing Stockholm as the only way they can get their viewpoint put forward in the EU. Of course, that can be ignored when Stockholm does not like it.

I will deal first with the matter of Article 50. I do not understand why the Government do not come to Parliament for a vote. They would not lose it: in the Commons it would be made a matter of confidence and in the Lords we would not defeat it. Why do they not come? Why do they not want to hear what we have to say, particularly since we do nothing else but talk about Brexit? We have a debate virtually every hour on the hour about some aspect of it or other, so why not come here to talk about Article 50? That is on page 8 of the report by my noble friend Lord Lang—the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, quoted from it.

I turn now to the European scrutiny. In the report by the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, the Secretary of State is quoted as assuring the committee that it would be unacceptable for the European Parliament to have greater rights of scrutiny over the negotiations on Brexit than Westminster does. However, the European Parliament will be regularly scrutinising every aspect of those negotiations. It is going to be a running commentary. Paragraph 54 states that:

“What is striking is not only that the European Parliament, as Lord Kerr put it, ‘will have access to all the negotiating documents’, but that it will have such access ‘at every stage’”.

This is in the summary with a list of the documents to be supplied.

I ask noble Lords—and noble political parties, if they are noble—what attempts they are making to talk to their MEPs. I know of very little talking. Surely they should be part of our gathering: we should be talking to them—they are the representatives on the other side of this fence. We need a structure whereby we can talk to our colleagues in Europe. However, we also need a structure in our political parties—I look particularly at the Opposition here—whereby we can talk to our political friends in other countries, because they will have an enormous impact on this dialogue.

Some noble Lords may remember that I have a particular interest in Scandinavia and the Baltics. Those countries are absolutely distraught by this decision. Britain used to be the sensible voice at the negotiating table; its contribution was to help build the blocking minority. If Britain was against something, it was generally for a fairly sound reason, and Sweden, Finland and the Baltics would look at it and say, “Yes, well”. Then, in Berlin, they would say to their friends: “Look, I think we had better listen to these people because they might just get a blocking minority”.

When Britain goes, the pressure will move to Berlin. Berlin will no longer be able to stand in the centre; it will have to take a much stronger role. It is a role that—having recently been there—I can tell you that it is not looking forward to taking. Britain can take a strong role and the worst that people will say is that we are throwing our weight around. Unlike Britain, however, if Germany tries to take a strong role it brings out all the animus of years ago. That is why the Germans do not like it and are very unhappy at our leaving. We have been the sensible people who have helped to deliver a European Union that works: when we look at things we ask whether they will work. If we are to have this dialogue about dissolution, we must look much more closely at the European Parliament, what it wants and what we can actually do, because at the end of the day, as Article 50 so accurately states:

“It shall be concluded on behalf of the Union by the Council, acting by a qualified majority, after obtaining the consent of the European Parliament”.

I finish with a few words about that. If we trigger Article 50 in March 2017 we will be looking for the consent of the European Parliament in the early months of 2019. What happens in 2019? Yes, you have guessed: there is an election. Half the people in the European Parliament will be demob happy because they will not be coming back, and the other half will be appealing to their Twitter accounts and the like and reacting accordingly: they will make the Government of Wallonia look like the most sober, respectable negotiators who ever went into a Canadian trade agreement. You will run into every possible problem.

I predict—it may not happen—that 27 countries of the European Union will decide that they wish to lengthen the negotiations. The noble Lord, Lord Kerr, will immediately spot that this cannot be done without Britain. If, however, 27 countries say to the United Kingdom that they wish to lengthen the negotiations by a year because of the European Parliament elections and all sorts of extraneous things—apart from the fact that the negotiations will not be finished anyway—it will be very difficult for us to say, “Oh no, we’re off—bye!”. It will just not work that way, will it?

What will happen then? We will have some sort of extension, and then we will have an election in the United Kingdom. I would not for the life of me propose it, but I wonder what would happen if one of the political parties were to go into that election saying not that it was going to overturn the decision—no, no, no—but that it intended to pause and review the process. Some noble Lords may know that one of my specialities is mortality rates. Demography means that the majority will be somewhat diminished by mortality, if I am to believe the voting profile by age. It may well be that a younger generation says: “Oh God, we have an opportunity to get out of this: we can pause”. We do not know what might happen after the pause. So I say: be careful, as my daughter is fond of saying, of what you wish for, because you may end up with something that you did not want at all.