European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill - Second Reading (2nd Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:06 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness Jolly Baroness Jolly Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Defence) 4:06 pm, 21st February 2017

Yesterday, the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, spoke of the vision of what was known as the Common Market. My first vote was in 1975, in the referendum to remain in that Common Market. Although I was born in the 1950s, the war still cast a shadow. I was a young woman, newly married to a junior officer in a very, very much larger Royal Navy—one which could certainly cope east of Suez—and the idea of binding states in trade to avoid conflict appealed to me then, as it still does.

Britain’s withdrawal from the EU comes at a time of great global instability. Russia, resurgent and hostile, flies nuclear sorties through UK airspace, harasses NATO’s eastern flank and claims to be seeking a “post-West world order”. The American President expressed ambivalence towards NATO as recently as last Wednesday. Europe has been wracked by a wave of extremist attacks, and the chaos swirling in the Middle East shows no sign of abating. Against this bleak backdrop, the passage of this Bill will set in motion the greatest upheaval of UK foreign, economic and domestic policy in recent history. I submit that the triggering of Article 50 will also have—and, indeed, has had—a profoundly negative effect on the UK’s defence and security.

As I noted last July in this House, Brexit means losing our place in defence institutions such as Europe’s common security and defence framework. Last July, it was clear to us that the loss of access to these important networks might hold unknown risks to our ability to defend ourselves, but last July Donald Trump was not President and NATO did not seem any more at risk than at any time since the end of the Cold War. In difficult times, we must preserve our global alliances and friendships, and yet this Government have failed to provide assurances that they will work to preserve our key security links with the continent after triggering Article 50.

I would be grateful if the Minister could reassure the House that, in this hard-Brexit world, our defence alliances with mainland Europe have not been overlooked. Defence and security should not be bargaining chips to be pushed back and forth across the negotiating table; they are essential commitments which protect our citizens and those of our allies. We cannot allow our withdrawal from the EU to jeopardise or sour our security alliances, and yet the Government’s approach risks doing just that.

It is not just our European alliances that are at risk. Since the 23 June referendum, the pound has fallen by more than 20% against the dollar. At the end of last year, RUSI predicted that if the decline were sustained, the cost of Britain’s defence imports could increase by around £700 million a year. This means, in effect, a 2% cut in the purchasing power of Britain’s defence budget. Last month, a National Audit Office report on the MoD’s equipment plan found that the MoD had already eaten through the £10.7 billion of headroom built into last year’s budget to provide flexibility. That report found that,

“The affordability of the Plan is now at greater risk than at any time since reporting was introduced”— an effect of the declining exchange rate.

There is, in short, a significant rising threat to the affordability of the defence of the UK. Despite the commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence, the continuing capability of the British military to meet strategic objectives is far from guaranteed. Just last week, the International Institute for Strategic Studies reported that, in 2016, Britain failed to meet that spending commitment despite the Government’s 2015 pledge to commit at least 2% of GDP for defence for each and every year of this decade. These rising costs might necessitate a revisiting of the 2015 SDSR or else there will be a reduction in expected UK defence capabilities at a time when the world is becoming markedly less secure.

The Government will need to accept that the effects of Brexit on defence will require either a substantial rise in taxes or cuts to vital domestic services. If the UK Government cannot accept these options, they must admit to British citizens that their borders will be less secure and their security more uncertain; they must acknowledge that they have broken their NATO spending commitments at a time when NATO’s future is already uncertain. It is clear that, in just a few months, Brexit and this Government’s Brexit strategy have made the UK less secure and less well defended.

It is not clear, however, that on 23 June last year voters assumed these risks. Leave campaign leaders promised that Britain would reclaim its place on the global stage, yet Brexit has left UK forces less able to defend key interests and has seen the UK diminished within its network of alliances. Brexiteers promised more secure borders, yet our borders are set to become less secure against those who wish to do us harm. They promised us more money for services such as the NHS, but the Government might now have to slash those services if they are to defend our borders and interests in an increasingly unstable climate.

In short, while 52% of voters cast ballots last June for a departure from the EU, they did not vote for that destination. On matters of defence, that destination seems increasingly bleak. My noble friend Lord Paddick and other noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Butler of Brockwell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, have said that the voters should have a final say.