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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 5:45 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, the remain campaign told the people that the decision to remain or to leave was theirs. All of us should respect their democratic decision to leave. If we do not, public disaffection from politics will become a crisis. Those who meditate a second referendum are playing with fire. Besides, the deal will not be a binary constitutional choice appropriate for a referendum but a complex set of policy proposals.

To take back control must mean Parliament asserting its right and duty to invigilate the process of withdrawal and to give or withhold consent—whether by resolution or by legislation—in good time to the Government’s proposals for new terms of our country’s relationship with the EU. The Government were foolish to try to bypass Parliament. It is even more regrettable that they appealed the High Court’s decision, depriving Parliament of proper time to debate this legislation before the March deadline. Ministers from now on should be as candid with Parliament as the state of negotiations permits, while Parliament should not seek to constrain Ministers unduly or jog their elbows.

All of us should be intent on healing the wounds opened up by the referendum. It is no way to reunite the country to introduce new grammar schools, slam the door in the face of child refugees, use EU residents as bargaining chips and threaten to turn Britain into an offshore tax haven.

The two great fears of remainers—that Brexit will be a disaster for liberal values and make our people poorer—are ill-founded. I voted for Brexit precisely because the EU is both undemocratic and failing economically. The twin faults of the democratic deficit and crassly constructed monetary union are fuelling public anger and revolt across Europe.

The structures of the communities created after the war and inherited by today’s EU were intended, if anything, to insulate decision-making from democracy, following the catastrophic perversions of democracy in the 1920s and 1930s. In our time, the democratic deficit is provoking extreme reactions among populations who are aggrieved by the depressed conditions of their lives and feel that they are not effectively represented in the political structures of the EU, and that they are ignored or disdained by unaccountable EU elites.

Democracy has been trampled upon by the hierarchs of the EU. In Greece the Syriza Government, elected on a platform of mitigating austerity, have been coerced by the eurogroup of Finance Ministers, the ECB and the IMF into abandoning their commitments to Greek electors and serious suffering has been inflicted on them. In Italy, the replacement of Berlusconi by a technocrat selected in Brussels, Mario Monti, led to the rise of the Five Star Movement and the defeat of Renzi in the constitutional referendum. The fiscal compact of Merkel and Sarkozy wrecked Hollande’s presidency of France and paved the way for the surge of the Front National. Reaction to an EU perceived as alien, undemocratic and overweening led to the rise of UKIP in Britain.

Outside the EU, we in Britain will be free to make our own policies on immigration, workers’ rights, the countryside—free to legislate on all matters as we judge fit. We will have the opportunity to re-engage our people in a revitalised parliamentary democracy.

The referendum was both a great exercise in democracy and a low point in politics. Both campaigns were conducted without scruple—weaponised disinformation on the one side, alternative facts on the other. No wonder people think politicians are all liars. We need to rehabilitate politics. May we hope that leavers will resolve to appeal to the better, rather than the baser, part of human nature, while remainers will forswear condescension and the identity politics of metropolitan liberalism?

The EU is failing economically as well as democratically. The contractionary bias of the Maastricht criteria, perpetuated with the euro, has condemned the EU to weak growth, low investment and high unemployment. A combination of the global financial crisis, the crisis of the euro and neoliberal orthodoxy has devastated poorer areas and vulnerable social groups in the EU, with mass unemployment among young people in the Mediterranean countries. The protectionist policies of the EU keep prices higher and living standards lower in Europe than they need to be while discouraging innovation and economic dynamism. The single market is a sluggish, declining region of the global economy. It is no safe haven for us and we can flourish outside. Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, said the other day:

“I’m not saying that there aren’t going to be some potholes in the short-term. There are. But if you look beyond those the UK is going to be just fine. Not just OK, but great”.

Since the referendum Apple has taken out a lease on a major new HQ in London.

If the negotiators for the EU truly care about the fortunes of those they should be championing, European workers whose livelihoods depend significantly on trade with the UK, more than they care about a grandiose political project which they fear electors in other European countries may also reject, they will want rapidly to conclude mutually favourable terms of trade with us. Beyond that, we must tackle our productivity inadequacies and seek new export markets, and we must take care to support those who will be most vulnerable during the transition. Blame not Brexit but George Osborne that fiscal austerity is forecast by the IFS to continue for another 10 years.

It amazes me that so many of my noble friends remain enchanted by the EU, apparently blind to its oligarchic character and to the humiliation and impoverishment of many millions of its citizens. The EU has not been the promised land to which Monsieur Delors was to lead us. On the contrary, a long series of directives and treaty amendments has entrenched a neoliberal and financial model of capitalism where once it was hoped that a social market and social democratic model would prevail. The dogma of employability and flexibility has transferred wealth from wage earners to owners of assets. It has been an illusion for the left in Britain to think that it can outflank a Conservative Government by contracting out responsibility for progressive social policy to Brussels. Increasingly, the European left is concluding that the only prospect of taming modern capitalism and averting the social ravages that it causes is at the level of the nation state.

Decent and determined political leadership in post-Brexit Britain will curb the excesses of finance, govern for all the people of the UK, decisively reject racism and insularity, and play a responsible part in the world. The choice will be open to us.