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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:47 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Lord Armstrong of Ilminster Crossbench 6:47 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, in the referendum on 23 June, I voted to remain. I took the view that the economic prosperity of the UK was likely to be better looked after if we stayed in the EU than if we left. I thought that, for all its failings, the EU was an integral part of the international system created after two catastrophic world wars originating in Europe. It was intended to enable intra-European disputes and differences to be resolved by peaceful means and to give the countries of Europe, acting together in a world increasingly dominated by superpowers, an influence that none could exert on its own. Our history shows that, when there are differences and disputes in Europe, we are inevitably—and to protect our own interests—drawn into them. We should be taking a full part in Europe, not standing aloof from it.

I welcome the way in which the Prime Minister is seeking to restore and strengthen the relationship with our United States allies. Of course, this is very important, but there are limits to the extent to which we should allow ourselves to become too dependent on it. President Trump’s priorities are crystal clear—America first. We are a stronger and safer ally for the United States as part of the EU than we would be on our own.

So I regretted the outcome of the referendum but, whatever one may think about the quality of the campaign, the result was what it was. We have to respect that and pass this Bill. The result was not a legally effective decision; it was, in effect, a political mandate. It was an instruction to the Government and to Parliament to enter into negotiations with the EU for a treaty and to introduce legislation that would give effect to that instruction. The Bill that we are now debating is, in effect, a process Bill. It does not set out the terms for our leaving the EU; it simply authorises the Government to enter into negotiations with the EU for a treaty that would take us out of it. The elected House has approved the Bill by a substantial majority, and the unelected House should not seek to reverse that decision—or, indeed, to amend it.

The negotiations for our joining the EEC, when there were only six member states, were complex enough. The negotiations for getting us out of the EU by unstitching more than 40 years of membership, when there are 27 other member states, are likely to be much more complex. It is very likely that we shall need to invoke the part of Article 50 that allows the period of negotiation to be extended beyond two years.

I cannot see the outcome of the negotiations; the fog is too dense. It may be possible to negotiate an agreement which gives us a reasonably open and comprehensive trading relationship with Europe; which preserves our participation in European scientific, technological and academic organisations—it benefits them as much as us—which allows the continuance of the flow of migrant and immigrant European workers, on which large parts of British economic and social activity have come to depend; which deals with the problems of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; and which preserves the rights of British citizens who have chosen to live in Europe and of European citizens who have chosen to live in this country. That is a consummation devoutly to be wished for. But there are so many uncertainties and variables that we cannot be sure of it. The EU is under strain for other reasons than Brexit, not least the strains created by the introduction of the euro. There are electoral uncertainties in a number of European countries that could have profound consequences for the European Union.

At the other extreme is the risk of coming out of the negotiations with a deal that is clearly not in British interests. We have been told that we could be faced with a choice between coming out with a bad deal or coming out with no deal at all. That, to me, has an air of political unreality. Surely the Government who presented such an outcome for parliamentary approval would have utterly failed the nation and would have to pay the price for such a failure. There would be a major political crisis at home, as well as a major crisis in our relationship with the EU.

Because the outcome is so uncertain, it is very important that Parliament should be given an opportunity to consider and vote on it when the time comes. I welcome the Government’s commitment to seek parliamentary approval when the probable contents of an agreement are clear, and before any final decisions are taken. I am not a lawyer, but it seems to me that the judgment of the Supreme Court the other day means that whatever parliamentary approval is sought will have to be given by legislation, not by a Motion or a resolution.

By the time the outcome of the negotiations is known, it will be nearly three years, if not more, since the referendum. If a week is a long time in politics, three years are an eternity. When the time comes, the Government will have complied with the political instruction of the referendum, and it will be the responsibility—indeed, the duty—of the Government and of Parliament to look not just backwards at the referendum but forwards to what, in the situation then prevailing, is going to be in the best interests of Britain and the welfare of British citizens, whatever that solution may be, and to set their course accordingly.