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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:12 pm on 20th February 2017.

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Photo of Lord King of Bridgwater Lord King of Bridgwater Conservative 7:12 pm, 20th February 2017

My Lords, when I had the honour to move the humble Address to Her Majesty, I said I believed that this House, when it approached the issue of debating the referendum and its outcome, would show the value of the experience that exists within it and the ability to conduct its debates in a respectful and intelligent manner. Although I appreciate that we are only a fraction of the way through, I am extremely encouraged that so far this has been achieved. I am also extremely encouraged by the amazing ability of people to match the time requirement set down by the Captain of the Honourable Corps of the Gentleman-at-Arms. In general the debate has been pretty well conducted, although I have to say my noble friend Lord Forsyth has an individual style of bridge-building with people who do not agree with him that may not always attract their attention.

The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, who brings huge experience, is a perfect illustration of what this House can contribute. When I heard someone, who I am sure was not a responsible member of the Government, suggest that if this House did not behave itself, that might lead to its abolition, I thought it was a particularly unhelpful and silly remark that should never have been made. I believe this House will show its respect—as has already been shown by the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition—in not seeking to frustrate the will of the elected House but giving it the opportunity to think again.

The House will have listened with great interest to the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Eames, and to the noble Lord, Lord Empey. The issue of Northern Ireland and the challenges it will face is very real, and all of us who have lived with some of those problems will recognise the challenges. I concede that both noble Lords went over their time but that was in a very important cause, although it was greeted with great horror by everyone else.

Today we are all setting out our own positions. I made it clear when I spoke in the humble Address five weeks before the referendum that I believed we should remain but that there would be a very substantial Brexit vote, and that we should employ that vote to discuss with our colleagues in Europe the need for substantial reform of the EU. I believe that many other countries in the EU were also recognising that need. I had been brought up on the lesson that the argument for enlargement would be “larger but looser”, but I have to say I felt we were not given that opportunity. The EU did not change. I used to represent the Council of Ministers in a European Union of nine, and found that when it had 28 member states it was still trying to run it in the same way. I am afraid that is still its problem, and it is going to be our problem in the negotiations.

We are where we are. I think the result came as a great surprise to most people, including Mr Farage, and no plan was made for how we would deal with that situation. However, the decision has been taken. I accept the outcome of the referendum, and now we must notify of the UK’s intention to withdraw. What is now essential is that we get going. We do not know what is going to happen, and at present the only certainty is that uncertainty is usually damaging. Every day now we are going to get different stories. We have one today about the European Union Youth Orchestra moving out. There will be allegations of one sort or another, new developments such as Opel/Vauxhall will come up and all sorts of different problems will arise. The longer that lasts, the more damaging it will be. Sterling has of course been seriously hit and we face the prospect of rising inflation.

Also—I understand the problem that exists here—noble Lords may have noticed that Monsieur Macron is coming to London tomorrow, because you cannot stand for election as the President of France without trying to get the votes of the 300,000 French people who live in London at present. Not only does the uncertainty endanger economic growth and the position of our country, but it makes personal arrangements very difficult indeed.

I strongly support the speeches by my noble friends Lord Hague and Lord Hill. We have a very real challenge in these negotiations, and all should study the powerful speech by the noble Lord, Lord O’Donnell, about the problems that will arise. If the noble Lord, Lord Empey, thought it was difficult in Northern Ireland, try doing it with 27 other countries that each have a vote, with the scale of the challenge that will present.

This issue is important for Europe as well. We know it has major problems, and this uncertainty comes at a time when its member states have a series of elections. Another issue I have raised in this House before is that during the two-year period, four of the smallest countries in the EU will successively have the presidency of the Union, which we will have to deal with. Malta has it now; then it will be Estonia, Romania, Austria and, for what may be a crucial last six months, Bulgaria. That shows some of the challenges we are going to face.

I do not support the idea that we ought to have a later go at it—a further vote. I do not support that in the Bill, and I do not support these amendments. At the end of the day, both sides in this argument believe in the sovereignty of Parliament, and the Government will have to have the support of Parliament for what they propose. In the end, we all believe in that, which might be the ultimate safeguard if things come seriously unstuck.