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European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (1st Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:25 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Hill of Oareford Lord Hill of Oareford Conservative 4:25 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, since I stood down as European Commissioner back in the summer, I have had a self-denying ordinance on speaking about Europe in this House. The bad news is that today I have broken my self-denying ordinance, but I do not intend to do it too often.

I did not feel that I could sit out this debate without saying something about what seems to be missing almost altogether in many of our discussions about Brexit: the views of our European neighbours. Sometimes it seems that the debate about Brexit is one that only we Brits are allowed take part in and that, once we have sorted out our internal disagreements between leavers and remainers, all we have to do is present our demands to the European Union and it can take it or leave it.

We are not going to be able to proceed by diktat; it is going to be a negotiation. So I want to look at this Bill from the point of view of our European partners and what we need to do if we want a successful negotiation. First, they need to be able to trust the British side to be clear and consistent. They need to know that what our negotiators say our negotiators can deliver. They cannot sit there thinking that at any point the timing or the content might change, or indeed that the whole thing might be put to a second referendum.

Getting 27 countries to agree a common position is going to be hard enough, but how can they be expected to negotiate if the British Government have to say that they cannot undertake to deliver what they have negotiated because the British Parliament or the British people might vote against some or all the details at a later stage? That seems simply impossible from a practical point of view.

There is another crucial point that, however we voted, we have to take into account. The rest of Europe is not sitting there desperate to take us back. They certainly wanted us to stay, but they have now accepted that we have voted to leave. Their priority is to work out their own future at 27 and not to sit there putting everything on hold, hoping that one day the phone will ring and it will be the British Foreign Secretary saying, “Sorry, we’d like a different offer” or “Sorry, we’d like to come back after all”. Businesses here in Britain are also not sitting here just waiting for something to turn up. Every day, the facts on the ground are changing as they make their investment decisions and plan ahead. Their timescales and their shareholders will not permit a debating-house approach.

I know that most of us here want to remain on the best possible terms with the rest of Europe once we have left: to co-operate on defence and security to keep Europe secure; to continue to trade together to keep Europe prosperous; to collaborate on research and on science; to encourage our young people to learn from each other and to work together, and to have open minds even if we do not have open borders.

To increase the chances of this happening and to avoid the dangers of a mutually damaging political crash, we need to have a grown-up negotiation. That means that we also need to think carefully about the language that we use in this debate. The ludicrously polarised nature of our political and media debate and the chronically debased nature of our language, where everything is either a catastrophe or a liberation, are obstacles to working out not only how to overcome the challenges that we will face on leaving but how to make the most of the new opportunities that will also open up.

I believe that we need a political climate that is far more reasoned, calm and rational if we are to help bring the country together and lead it through the period ahead. That is why we need to be thinking more about how we can bring remainers and leavers together instead of constantly looking to drive wedges between us. We need to talk more about the things that bring us together with our European neighbours, rather than the things that drive us apart. Instead of endlessly rerunning the referendum debate, we need to spend much more time thinking constructively about our future. If that is not a job description for your Lordships’ House, I do not know what is.

I loved being Leader of this House. I saw how important it was that we should be different from the other place, with a different voice and a different set of experiences. I saw very clearly the contribution that we make to improving legislation and I had no hesitation in pointing out to my colleagues in the other place our right to perform that role, to scrutinise Ministers and ask them to think again. However, the truth is that the rest of Europe wants to get on with its post-referendum life, business wants to be able to get on with its post-referendum life and so, I gently suggest, do we.