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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:02 pm on 21st February 2017.

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Photo of Lord Monks Lord Monks Labour 9:02 pm, 21st February 2017

My Lords, as general secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation for eight years, I was keenly aware of the strengths and weaknesses of the EU. I will pick out a number of quick points. It has been a very successful institution in spreading peace, freedom and democracy in the south and east of our continent after the collapse of the dictatorships in those countries—remember them? We could not do very much for Poland, for which we went to war, in 1939 or in 1945, but since 2004 we have been able to do a lot to help the development of that country and others in eastern Europe. The EU has also built some common labour standards to complement the single market. I am particularly proud of the role of the European trade unions and the TUC in achieving that. It was not always an easy task, given the attitude of British Governments.

However, I readily acknowledge that it has not all been a success. It was swept by a tide of neoliberalism around the turn of the 21st century and it has not recovered from the 2008 financial crisis. Austerity policy has made things worse, here as well as there. I am not starry-eyed about the EU but I am deeply concerned about the terms of our impending divorce from it. I still regard the EU as a noble project, despite its flaws. However, the Bill is not simply about triggering the divorce and those who keep saying it is should think a bit more widely. It is also a de facto endorsement of the Government’s post-Brexit plan: the White Paper and the plan set out in it. If the Bill passes Parliament without amendment, we are giving the Government a mandate for a very clear but very hard Brexit, with the UK outside the best trade deal we are ever likely to get. The risk for jobs, rights and prosperity are enormous. These risks are recognised, not just by me and other remainers, but by some of the leading campaigners of the leave side in the referendum such as Boris Johnson—“I would vote to stay in the single market”—Owen Paterson, Daniel Hannan and Arron Banks. At the last election, the Conservative Party manifesto said:

“We say: yes to the Single Market”.

The White Paper says no to the single market, yet it could be possible for the UK to honour the result of the referendum and stay in the single market, and so reduce the risks of Brexit to our economy. Of course, other EU members might not let us do this. Why not put the onus on them to negotiate us out? Let us not give up, even before talks are under way.

Clearly, the Government have in mind the requirement of the single market to accept free movement of labour. We all recognise that migration was a factor in the referendum result. We could apply new conditions to migration ourselves. In particular, a migrant must have a job to come to. Jobs should be advertised locally and not just in eastern Europe. Migrants should get the rate for the job, not just the minimum wage. Other EU countries do these things; why not us?

The Prime Minister has said that we cannot accept the European Court of Justice continuing to have jurisdiction in our country. Let us be clear. Any comprehensive trade agreement will need an adjudicating body. There will remain a need for our exporters to adopt EU rules and regulations—regulatory equivalence, as I note it has now been called by Ministers in the last few days. This will be a major factor in any new deal.

To stay in the single market we would have to pay but, as we are about to find out, the cost of Brexit will be enormous. It is not just the hefty divorce payment, but all the staffing of the different organisations that we will need, such as more customs staff, more negotiators and more diplomats. There will be new institutes for which we will have to take responsibility, as the work is currently done at EU level. Being only in the single market means that we would have no seat at the top table of the EU when decisions are taken—decisions that would apply to us. This is very uncomfortable. I find it implausible that our interests would or could be trampled on by the EU and its democratic members. It would not be in anyone’s interest for this to happen. So, next week, I will be one of those calling for the UK to remain in the single market and so avoid a colossal act of self-harm.

Finally, being in the single market would help ease the dangerous border issue in Ireland. It would also remove at least one reason for another referendum in Scotland. It would protect supply chains, avoid tariffs and all the consequent delays that would take place in ports. It would be making the best of a bad job. It is the patriotic duty of this House to put the option back on the table and ask the Government to consider it. I do not think that is a constitutional outrage.