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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:40 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 4:40 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, I leave the great constitutional issues to Edmund Burke and the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock—they are very similar thinkers; I am a great fan of both of them. I want to say a word about the White Paper. Others have mentioned that it is a little long on assertion and bravado and a little short on facts. I thought that I would offer four facts.

First, it is a fact that if we leave the European Union, our economic relationship with it will be less advantageous than it is now—that has to be a fact. If we leave the single market and the customs union, if we reject common regulation and common jurisdiction, there will be a price to be paid; there has to be a price to be paid. Secondly, it is a fact that our relationships with the rest of the world will be more difficult economically. We will be less attractive to them. Why should they be so keen to open their markets to us if we are no longer their entry point to a market of 500 million? Thirdly, it is a fact that trade halves as distance doubles. Fourthly, it is a fact that customs controls cause delays that damage modern global supply chains and that building trade barriers hurts both sides, but the bigger economy loses less. Obviously, the Government know all these facts but have decided to put our autarchic sovereignty ahead of economic well-being. It is a sad fact that it will not be those who got us into this fix who will suffer. The Bullingdon boys will be just fine; the country may not.

But the country is still in the dark; it does not know where it is going. We are in this bus heading for Heathrow, with mendacious slogans on the side, and we have no idea what the destination is. We do not know what the Government mean when they say that they may have to change our economic model. They may have to go for a low-regulation, low-tax and low-welfare economy. What do they mean? The White Paper does not tell us. The White Paper does not tell us the future of farming in this country, of environmental law in this country or of social law in this country. It does not tell us how the Belfast agreement can survive if the Irish Government are obliged on the inner Irish frontier to run the customs frontier of the European Union.

It will not do just to refer to the oxymoronic repeal Bill and to tell us that all applicable laws will be temporarily extended while we think about their fate. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, spoke authoritatively yesterday on the Supreme Court ruling. The Supreme Court says that rights resulting from EU membership can be extinguished only by legislation; this Bill extinguishes no such rights. But some rights fall away the moment we leave the European Union and cannot be extended by the oxymoronic Bill. The rights enjoyed in this country by our citizens that are enforceable against other member states go. Rights whose geographical scope extends into other member states go. Rights whose enforcement requires the co-operation of other member states and the EU institutions go. We will need a new legislative rendezvous, and that is nothing to do with the great repeal Bill.

In my view it would make sense to improve the Bill before us to provide for that rendezvous in at least two respects. First, the Government have given us no undertaking that they will come back to Parliament if the negotiations threaten to break down. I rate the chances of breakdown at well over 30%. The White Paper is totally silent on the impending row about money and the bills we will be asked to settle as we leave. With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Lawson, no deal is much the worst deal. Walking away would mean recourse to law or arbitration, extended uncertainty about any continuing links with our largest and nearest trading partner and no legacy rights in its 50 agreements with third countries—a disaster for business and citizens alike. If the bravado of the White Paper proves hollow, the Government must come back to Parliament before the clock runs out.

Secondly, we need to consolidate in the Bill the Government’s quasi-commitment to give Parliament its say before the die is cast on any emerging settlement. The European Parliament’s similar right is enshrined in the language of Article 50. This Parliament deserves no less. It will not do just to give Parliament Hobson’s choice—to say, “It’s this deal or no deal”. Timing is crucial. Parliament must have the chance to consider at least three other options. Under option one, Westminster could follow the frequent practice of the United States Congress, say that it does not like the emerging deal or some particular aspect of it, and ask the Executive to go back and try harder. As one who has negotiated with two US Administrations, I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hill of Oareford, who thought that any such possibility would weaken the Government’s negotiating hand, that that is the exact opposite of the truth. Saying, “I hear you but Congress would never wear it” is a negotiating weapon our American friends frequently use to great effect. I speak from experience.

As regards the second option, if timing proves tight Westminster could invoke Article 50(3) and invite the Government to seek an extension of the two-year period. The European Union is a union of democracies. If this Parliament asked for an extension, and our Government conveyed our request, in my judgment it would certainly be given.

Under the third option, Parliament could invite the Government or the country to think again. An Article 50 notification is not irrevocable. The President of the European Council and a gallery of EU legal luminaries have confirmed—of course, the noble Lord, Lord Lester of Herne Hill, is among their number—that a member state may, in accordance with its constitutional requirements, withdraw its notification within the two-year period or its extension. This morning, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, asked about the Government’s motive in conniving in the High Court at the fiction of irreversibility. I cannot answer her but the fact is that Article 50, which first saw the light of day under the heading “voluntary withdrawal” is not an expulsion procedure. We remain full members of the European Union throughout the negotiating period—the two years or its extension. If, having looked into the abyss, we were to change our minds about withdrawal, we certainly could and no one in Brussels could stop us. If it were not so, I would have to oppose the Bill. As it is, all we need do is improve it and make sure that the rendezvous with history, which comes when we know what the Government want for the future of our country and its relationship with our continent, is clear.