My Lords, the debate both before and after the referendum has been passionate and, at times, heated. However, I will briefly restate three points. First, the decision to call the referendum to ask the people whether they wished to leave or remain in the European Union was endorsed by both Houses in this Parliament and was based on a manifesto commitment of this Government. Secondly, the referendum decision, on a turnout of more than 72%, was clearly to leave. Thirdly, the overwhelming will of the elected other place—both Her Majesty’s Government and the loyal Opposition—is to accept and respect the outcome of that referendum and to carry out the instructions of the people. It would be undemocratic for this Chamber of appointed Members to do anything other than vote for this Bill. To do otherwise would demonstrate a lofty disdain for the democratic mandate and could cause enormous harm to the status of your Lordships’ House.
There will be many important debates in the months ahead about our future relationship with the European Union. The Prime Minister’s speech in Lancaster House, and the Government’s subsequent White Paper, set out a common-sense plan for the wider relationship between Britain and the European Union. I trust that Brexit will not mean Britain turning in on itself. That is not in our history, not in our culture and not in our nature; nor is it in our short-term or long-term economic interest. Speaking as the daughter of a refugee from communist Czechoslovakia who defected to the liberal West, I believe it is vital that that applies to immigration, where the aim should be control, not arbitrary reduction, and it should certainly apply to global free trade. Post-Brexit Britain must be open, free market and liberal.
The Prime Minister has also, correctly, promised to resolve the status of EU nationals in the UK, calling this “right and fair”. The sooner we can give a guarantee to EU citizens that they are welcome to stay here, the better. The Prime Minister’s noble attempt to fast-track a deal whereby EU workers currently living in the EU are allowed to remain, in exchange for an agreement that would give British expatriates in the European Union similar rights, was rebuffed by the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, and the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk. It is deeply regrettable that European politicians are playing politics with people’s lives to force the Government’s hand. I very much hope that other member states give the Government the guarantees they need to resolve this issue at the earliest moment.
This will not be a winner-takes-it-all process. It is, after all, a negotiation and negotiations require compromise. We need to seek the best deal possible. It is vital not to bind the Government in any way, administratively or legally, because they must have the ability to negotiate flexibly and in the national interest.
The EU institutions and member states have obdurately held to the position that negotiations cannot begin without notification, although the demand from the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, for €60 billion in advance of trade negotiations appears to be at odds with his own declaration that he should be holding his peace.
The Prime Minister must therefore trigger Article 50 before the discussions commence. My appeal to remainers who also support free trade and liberal values is to move on from attempts to frustrate Brexit through clever procedural amendments and to join the debate about what sort of country we want to be and what policies we want to have after Brexit. We must allow the Government to get on with their negotiations. I therefore support the Bill and urge other noble Lords to vote in favour of it.