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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:34 pm on 31st January 2018.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Chair, International Relations and Defence Committee 1:34 pm, 31st January 2018

My Lords, that was a speech of concentrated expertise, which I certainly will not try to follow. For those of us who seek to be in the reasonable middle of this very polarised debate, and who anyway believe we should have fought for serious and fundamental EU reform before rushing into bilateral negotiations of any kind, space is rather tight, narrow and limited. It is difficult to decide which side is the more unappetising: the extreme Europhiles who believe, in rather a quaint, old-fashioned way, that it is the UK’s destiny to remain totally tied into the obviously outdated EU integrationist model, fed by daily doses of gloom from the Financial Times, or the extreme Brexiteers in their nirvana of taking control and sovereign independence, regardless of the world’s colossal and growing interdependence and connectivity and their “dancing on a head of a pin” arguments about hard and soft Brexit.

What seems not to be very well understood is that the Bill is part of a vast and elaborate process, as my noble friend Lord Strathclyde said yesterday. It is one course in the long menu of taking powers back from the EU Commission after all these years, handing them first to the Government and then back to Parliament and the people. We are trying to transfer four decades of law, influenced by its Roman and Napoleonic code antecedents, into common law, the law of Britain and the Commonwealth. We are taking it, so to speak, from Napoleon via Henry VIII—neither of them exactly models of democracy—as much as we can to Parliament and the people.

I do not fully understand how the legal experts, whose voices we have heard, imagine that this colossal enterprise can all be done in one Bill plus a sheaf of amendments. I do not understand their ambition. This is going to be a task and a continuing struggle for years to come; in fact, in the age of popular empowerment it may well intensify. We will certainly need the sort of new instruments that the noble Lord, Lord Cameron, was talking about a few minutes ago. Yet we seem to hear impatient voices, and even some constitutional experts, calling for every course in the menu to be served and devoured at once—for every stage to be done and sorted.

We always want to see, and will have to fight for, a better balance of powers between the Executive and Parliament. However, as some in this House will remember, it took 20 years to get into the old EU—the European Community, as it was—and, frankly, it is bound to take quite a few years to disengage and correct the balance again. Meanwhile, we have a great army of lawyers, judges, academics and, I am afraid, some of your Lordships all calling for more legal certainty and more clarity for judges. Of course they would say that. We all want certainty, but a bit of patience would be welcome all round, as well as a little more reading of the works of Karl Popper. I would like to hear the word “gradual” coming from the legal authorities a bit more often. What is the phrase? “A broadening down from precedent to precedent”—is that not the tradition on which we have been educated over hundreds of years? Businessmen are always calling for more certainty but I have to say that there has always been uncertainty and always will be. The judges will just have to do their best, as I am sure they always do.

As for the idea that we transfer back into British law the whole EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, memories seem to be pitifully short here. Do your Lordships not recall how, in our long debates on the Lisbon treaty, we showed up clearly all of the charter’s inadequacies? I can remember a decade ago standing at the Dispatch Box night after night trying—and obviously failing—to explain some of the sillinesses in this overloaded document, which is far inferior to our own protection of rights and our own commitments to the human rights of the citizens of this nation. Excitable legal experts seem to have forgotten all of that.

The case for the old 20th century EU integrated bloc idea grows weaker every day and the case for a new, more flexible and intelligent kind of European co-operation and co-ordination, in the completely transformed digital and big data age we are now in, grows stronger. Nothing is static. Patterns and networks of trade are being revolutionised even while we speak. The Bill is just one stage in preparing us for these totally transformed conditions and the sooner that we allow it through, modestly improved, the better for all.

Sitting suspended.