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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:37 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Lord Marks of Henley-on-Thames Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Justice) 4:37 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, in this debate. This is the most important issue that this House has debated in a generation. Yet there are voices out there who say that we should just get on with it and vote the legislation through unamended so as not to frustrate the will of the people. Many of us believe that we are about to make our biggest foreign policy mistake in decades, so just getting on with it and voting it through is not an option. As my noble friend Lord Newby eloquently asserted, we cannot and should not stay silent simply because the leave campaign won. That would be just as true even if it had won by a substantial majority.

I believe that the economic consequences of our leaving the European Union will be deep and lasting, but I fear that the most serious consequences will be for Europe and Britain’s place in the world. At a turbulent and dangerous time, we threaten to undermine our closest allies, who share our commitment to democracy, internationalism, the rule of law and human rights. We face an isolationist and protectionist America, led by a President who chooses to govern by Twitter, with scant regard to facts or principles, intent on jettisoning decades of carefully honed international policy that made America a worthy and safe leader of the free world.

In the Middle East we face ever-worsening violence, barbarity and terrorism, with little hope of reprieve. The refugee crisis in Europe, which is a consequence, cries out for a negotiated solution that combines humanity with pragmatism. We must deal with a dangerously resurgent Russia and a powerful and increasingly assertive China. Globally, we face the existential threat of climate change on which, in Paris, with Europe’s lead, we were making progress until President Trump changed America’s direction. Our leaving the EU threatens future European co-operation. Worse still, it strengthens and emboldens the fissiparous forces seeking to pull Europe apart—in France, Germany, Italy, Austria, Hungary, the Netherlands and elsewhere. Already, the referendum decision drives our Prime Minister to a weak and almost needy dependence on Trump’s America and Erdogan’s Turkey. The duty of this House is to mitigate the damage.

We are now asked to pass a Bill to set this process in train, and upon the basis that our Article 50 notice will be irrevocable unilaterally—although, as Andrew Marr pointed out to Liz Truss yesterday, that is a legal not a political question and one that is unclear and undetermined. Yet the Government want to deny us all, people and Parliament, the right to decide whether we still wish to leave when the negotiations are concluded. Where is the sense, the political courage or the respect for parliamentary sovereignty in that approach? So we will seek to amend the Bill to let Parliament and the people decide on the final deal before we leave, and with the option of remaining still clearly open.

The Government’s plans were eventually spelt out in Mrs May’s 12-point 17 January speech: no to the single market, despite the Conservatives’ manifesto commitment; no to the customs union; no to Euratom. And all, I suggest, because of two unrealistic and obsessive illusions: first, that our leaving will cut immigration and that doing so will benefit this nation; and, secondly, that it will win us freedom from the Court of Justice of the European Union.

On immigration, no one can say how far it may fall, but what we do know is that our economy, our universities, our research and development, our health service, our cultural life and our soft power all depend to a large extent on it. Already, the threat of our leaving the European Union is damaging confidence.

On the European Court of Justice, the Government’s position borders on the absurd. The court provides an effective and essential system of resolving disputes about the EU treaties and legislation. The Government promise free and frictionless UK-EU trade, which means British exporters of goods and services meeting EU standards. We will have no say in setting those standards, but in determining whether they are met the CJEU will be the final arbiter.

We are told that the agreement,

“may take in elements of current single market arrangements”.

The Government promise close collaboration in science and innovation. They recognise that our arrangements for civil jurisdiction and for the recognition and enforcement of judgments under the Brussels and Lugano regime enable our commercial law to function. Energy, transport, communications, the many EU agencies, cross-border environmental protection, digital security and co-operation all depend on EU regulation. Why should our European partners agree to abandon the CJEU for some inferior alternative to resolve disputes? The White Paper sets out in an annexe a medley of other dispute resolution mechanisms, but this is an inadequate and meaningless response to the problem. Like the rest of the Government’s ill-thought out approach to Brexit, it does the Government no credit.