My Lords, the Prime Minister, and the government White Paper, state that there is to be no “partial membership” of the European Union. The UK is to leave and will be out. The Prime Minister has further made it clear that she hopes for a good deal, one that is mutually of benefit to both sides and the most satisfactory to aim for and to achieve. A win-win solution. She has also made clear that in the absence of any acceptable future arrangement the UK will up sticks and leave. It is to be assumed that this would be at the end of the two- year period set aside in Article 50, or possibly by mutual consent, somewhat delayed by the pace of negotiation, to more than two years, but certainly not indefinitely.
If the first of these is plan A and the second is plan B, is there not also a real plan C that must be borne in mind? I have referred in previous debates to my concerns about the all-too-prevalent presumption that the European Union, not least during the period of Article 50 work, is going to be and will remain a stable and unified entity. I do not believe that to be more than an optimal assumption about the state and configuration of the EU in two or three years’ time.
The euro problems are not resolved, migration flows may further stress relationships throughout continental Europe, and the prospect that several parliamentary and leadership elections are imminent this year may also presage a potentially very different negotiating climate, and replacement interlocutors for Article 50. That may lead to some delay, but I think that the ultimate and critical hurdle has to be political in the sense that the EU has to engender European parliamentary approval and a qualified majority of nation member Governments, to a final Brexit deal. However, on such an issue the Council would surely, as is already normal, seek unanimity. As Sir Ivan Rogers prophesied, a period of years, or even decades, of negotiation and stalemate could be the prospect.
I believe, therefore, that there must be a plan C that addresses the political difficulties I have outlined, and not just those concerning the trade and many other international relationships that have grown up for the UK and the EU in the past 40 years, and been much debated today. The reality hurdle, or stumbling block, has to be: will the EU nations agree and maintain a common political approach over the coming two years, maybe a bit longer?
I, for one, will not wager any bet, large or small, on that being the case. A plan C, which may presumably be a variant of “We’re off plan B” must be considered. How do we respond if faced by a protracted lack of political unanimity in the EU nations, even though many trade, research, residency and other aspects have been favourably negotiated and backed by some, but not all, of the EU nations? On residency that must surely be a first priority issue for the Government. A plan C must be prepared to consider the range of such possibilities where neither a plan A nor a plan B will be achievable and satisfactory, or likely to gain parliamentary approval. Meanwhile, I support this short enabling Bill to invoke Article 50 without amendment. The time to consider future-related legislation and challenges is not for this short Bill.
The opportunities to debate, and if necessary challenge the Government, will arise during the next couple of years, when issues become clear and are not merely supposition. As a short postscript, I suppose for some there is also a plan D—for the UK to remain, as now, in the EU—but I have no time to take this type of plan seriously.