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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:48 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord True Lord True Conservative 7:48 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, I declare an interest. For 37 years we have had a much-loved home in Italy, which today lies broken by the recent earthquakes and falls of snow. But we will rebuild it, and do so with confidence in the future as committed Europeans.

Naturally, I wish it had been clarified that EU citizens resident here and UK citizens in the EU will stay—but this was refused by others. One hopes that they will soon come to their senses, for the idea that in my small comune in Italy, where live British, Germans, Romanians, Dutch, Albanians, Belgians, Macedonians and Russians, there would ever be a rastrellamento to drive out the British, while letting others stay, is quite preposterous. Let the blockers of this deal relent—and until they do, we do not need a divisive campaign to pin blame for this uncertainty on our Government, who want the matter cleared.

I will vote against that and all amendments to this Bill, for each and every amendment is, in my judgment, an attempt to bind the will of the people in coils of silk. That includes the proposal by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, to give, as I heard it, an effective veto on the details of the UK settlement with Europe to an unelected House that largely supported remain.

The British people decided by a majority of 1,269,501—a figure which is not so very small, being more than the populations of Sheffield, Manchester and Leicester combined—that Britain should leave the European Union. We must therefore leave, for better and for worse—and there will be both—and this Bill is the first step in that process. This House should not stand, at any stage, against delivery of the clear will of the people, supported by the elected House.

Nor, I submit, should this House now send a message to the British people that your Lordships so little respect their decision that we already want a second referendum. That would be seen as exemplifying the stubborn refusal to listen to the people that has brought political establishments and the EU itself into growing disfavour.

I also plead for an end to the political rhetoric that sets generation against generation. Young people are just older people in waiting, and older people, if they are wise, hold close to the idealism of youth. We are made of the same stuff. No class, age or place voted monolithically in the referendum. No one betrayed anyone. No one failed to think of the future. The great British people came together in numbers never seen before and issued a collective wisdom that we should all respect.

I voted in 1975 to stay in the EEC. I saw the free trade side of the coin and missed the protectionism. I saw the co-operation and missed the drive for harmonisation. I respect those who still cherish that idealism. But, as a child of the Sixties who marched for freedom, I must say that I would not march with enthusiasm today to stay under what an unreformed Brussels has sadly become—remote, sclerotic, undemocratic and the slowest creator of prosperity in the developed world: the landline in the digital age.

When we hear, as we did from the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, that the future is uncertain, and when we hear time and again that the future will be bleak outside the EU, I have to say that for millions, as the noble Lord, Lord Howarth of Newport, said so compellingly, the grass is not greener on the inside. The catastrophic euro project is grinding southern Europe and squeezing life out of the small businesses that are Italy’s lifeblood. Italian GDP has shrunk since 2011 and living standards are no higher than they were when Italy joined the euro in the first place. Those, too, are facts. That is the real “lost generation”. It is not what may be to come post Brexit but what is in the book—what has been done.

Youth unemployment has more than doubled in 10 years in Italy to over 40% and Greece’s condition is worse, yet the establishment clings to its euro project, sacrificing a young generation on the altar of a flawed currency ideology. They call it “internal devaluation”; I call it profoundly immoral. The EU has shown itself utterly incapable of dealing with the challenge of half a million illegal immigrants who have been landed in Italy in the last three years, drawn by the prospect of winning asylum under the aegis of the ECHR.

At all this the average Italian looks on with a sense of impotence and despair. Once, with no loyalty to a malfunctioning state and with a self-seeking and unaccountable political caste, Italians were the most enthusiastic in Europe in looking to the European Union as a guarantor of legality and stability. Far fewer feel that way now. The great majority still wish to stay, but it has not taken the earthquakes to make many people feel that years of sacrifice under the burning sun have been in vain and that they are drifting back to the poverty of the past. Increasingly, voices are raised against Brussels—and Berlin. An Italian small businessman said to me, “Europe was fine when we all sat at a round table. Now we sit at a very long, very bare table, with Germany at its head”.

Not only is coming out uncertain: staying in is uncertain, too, and we should remember that balance in this debate. As one who is no less European now than I was last June, I say with reluctance that, as the EU has now become unwilling or unable to reform—as David Cameron found to his cost—the British people were right. They took the correct decision and I support the Bill.