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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:06 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Baroness O'Loan Baroness O'Loan Crossbench 5:06 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, we are facing change on a scale probably not experienced since World War II. The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, spoke very eloquently on the changes we face yesterday. This is a time of massive global economic uncertainty. As Members of this House, we know a little of the complexities of roles, function and status which derive from our current situation as members of the EU. But I wonder, despite what some noble Lords have said, whether those who voted for Brexit—I was not one of them—really understood the extent to which our economic, social and cultural realities are interwoven with those of our fellow member states in the European Union.

When I started teaching European law, more years ago than I care to remember, freedom of movement was available only to those who could support themselves and satisfy various criteria. That has changed utterly, as have the rules on freedom of movement of goods. There were restrictions, some of which might have seemed eminently sensible had we been looking to reform the European Union today. It needs to change—I think there are very few who would say otherwise—and it would be good had we been able to be part of that change. But that is not going to happen.

When the Supreme Court said that legislation was essential for us to trigger Article 50, it did not say that we had to rubber-stamp the outcome of the referendum. Rather, it said that it was for Parliament to determine what should happen and, as your Lordships know, the House of Commons voted conclusively on that issue. Now we have to decide whether to endorse that view. I will not repeat the contributions of many Members in articulating the reasons why I believe we cannot vote against the Bill or really amend it. My reality is that although, as a citizen of the UK, I believe that our best interests would be served by remaining in the EU, I do not believe that as a Member of your Lordships’ House I should vote against the Bill.

I have read with care the many amendments suggested. The issues with which they deal are very often of fundamental and enormous significance, but I do not think that anything will be achieved by attempting to alter the Bill. It has but one purpose, and that purpose, however regrettable, must be achieved. Other issues must be dealt with during the period of negotiation. The EU committees here—I was a member of the Justice, Institutions and Consumer Protection Sub-Committee—have produced several reports on various vital areas of concern. We will have to ensure that all that should be taken into account is taken into account.

I listened to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, talking about the effect of triggering Article 50, but it is possible that any attempt to retract Article 50 would end up in the European Court of Justice, with the delays which would inevitably follow from that. The fourth report from the Constitution Committee of your Lordships’ House says that Parliament should work on the assumption that if we trigger Article 50, it will not be reversible. I do not know the answer to that and I do not think that any of us knows.

Contributions have been made both in this House and in the other place that have been very disparaging about the White Paper, but the reality is that it goes to the negotiations that will take place and nobody would expect a negotiator to disclose their hand at this stage. We in Northern Ireland know that negotiations always go to the edge, and it is at the very edge that the most important concessions are made by both sides.

Having said that I do not think we can amend the Bill, I will refer to two issues. In Northern Ireland we have an uncertain peace. I have said before in your Lordships’ House that we cannot assume that our peace agreement will stand. I am sure that the election we face in just over a week in Northern Ireland will result in direct rule. I do not believe that our politicians will be able to form a Government, so to my mind direct rule is inevitable. That will create space for malefactors who will then argue that the Good Friday agreement has failed—and, of course, we still have active dissident and loyalist paramilitary groups that manage a large empire of drugs, fuel smuggling, people smuggling and so on. There are still a lot of guns in circulation and we continue to have shootings and bombings, so we cannot be complacent and I do not think we can suggest that there is nothing to worry about. Brexit will recreate the border between the north and the south.

Borders are by their nature divisive, and this border will attract protest, hostility, violence and significant economic delay. Other borders across Europe will also create delays for those who seek to export from the United Kingdom into Europe—but, ironically, the border could be the thing that precipitates the demand for another referendum on a united Ireland, which is provided for in the Good Friday agreement. The Governments are talking glibly of not recreating the problems of past border stops, but that seems inevitable because how else are tax and customs regimes to be managed?

If we leave the customs union and the single market, or if we enter them on different terms, as we must if we leave the EU, we will have to have alternative systems or some form of alternative access to European markets. As other noble Lords have said, it is inevitable that that will come at great cost. We will be one country seeking to deal with 27 separate states who are already in—and it does not take much effort to work out the odds in that situation. So my question for the Government on the subject of borders is: how does the UK intend to manage restrictions on freedom of movement? Is it not inevitable that there will have to be some sort of presence on the one land border that we have in these islands—the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic? Otherwise, people will move into the UK through Ireland, and into Ireland through the UK. That is going to be costly and difficult.

I also find it difficult to imagine how trade and customs tariffs can be managed without some visible form of border. The border between the north and the south of Ireland has many crossing points and was always difficult to police. It was done during the Troubles by destroying crossing points—placing massive concrete bollards in the way and often having a military presence. That generates resentment and no one wants to see a regular visible military presence again. If roads are closed, that will attract direct action to reopen them because they have been open for so long now—and that will lead to violence. I suspect that if electronic forms of surveillance are put in place, they will be blown up after a few days. How are Her Majesty’s Government going to manage that situation? How will we generate some sort of a programme to win over the minds and hearts of people to the division of the island of Ireland that will be necessary to enable both Brexit and the functioning of the EU? These are not idle questions; they are fundamental.

I will make one more point, on security and policing for the protection of the UK. There is an expectation that everyone will understand that it is in everyone’s interest to continue the Europol arrangements we have with Europe. That is the theory. When there is a need for immediate co-operation, as there is when things suddenly go terribly wrong—and they always do go terribly wrong suddenly—you need to have the databases, contacts and everything else in place. It is not enough to start talking about them then. We have seen the failures of the security services in America, France and elsewhere, as well as in Ireland, and we have seen what happens. So I would say that this issue must be one of the Government’s primary targets in terms of focusing on what must be done to enable everything else that will follow in terms of trade.

So there are huge dangers and huge opportunities. I wish the Prime Minister well in the journey that she is embarking on. She has got to do her best for all of us and we have to go with this referendum result, but I would say to the Government that there are far more important issues yet to consider, and noble Lords will have that opportunity.