My Lords, I am delighted to follow the balanced and considered speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. I would have expected nothing less from him and I congratulate him on it.
It was Michael Bloomberg, the American media mogul, who said about the referendum result that it was the,
“stupidest thing any country has ever done”.
He based this harsh judgment on the underlying reasons for Britain’s pre-referendum prosperity: the UK’s massive trade with other member states and its 40% share of the EU’s inward investment, with foreign companies coming to the UK as a base for trading within the EU, and with the UK, like Germany, using its membership of the EU to facilitate its entry into other global markets. As my noble friend Lord Anderson—he is not here now—said, the recent fantastic trade deal between the EU and Japan is a good example of what EU membership can bring. It is interesting that it has been hardly mentioned in the Eurosceptic press.
The UK’s position within the EU has been buttressed by special opt-outs, the prime examples being on the single market and Schengen. If Bloomberg is right, the main purpose of our Brexit negotiations should be to mitigate as far as possible the loss of these great advantages. Instead, Mrs May’s negotiating strategy has so far—I hope that she will improve in the future—been to try to buy off the hard-line Brexiteers in her own party rather than negotiating realistically with the EU to achieve the best possible deal for the UK.
Mrs May in her Lancaster House speech of
“no deal … is better than a bad deal”,
and talked airily about a “Global Britain”. In short, to win over her Eurosceptics, she became a prisoner of their Eurosceptic “red lines” and she has been a prisoner ever since.
The White Paper, which, as my noble friend on the Front Bench said, should have been produced long ago and certainly before Mrs May triggered Article 50, is at least an attempt to row back from Lancaster House—to that extent it is an improvement and should be welcomed—but we are still no clearer on what the Government really mean on a number of key issues, including the Northern Ireland border and the customs union.
As Alex Barker pointed out in the FT, within the space of a year Mrs May has floated five variations of a customs union: a customs union associate membership, a highly streamlined customs arrangement, a new customs partnership, a temporary customs arrangement, and now a facilitated customs arrangement. This is surely carrying circumlocution a bit far. It enables Monsieur Barnier to claim that he is mystified by the Government’s position, and I see his point.
For there to be any realistic chance of a good deal, we will have to accept that we should remain a member of the customs union and probably the single market as well. That in itself is no bad thing. It was Sir Martin Donnelly, Liam Fox’s former Permanent Secretary, who remarked that leaving the single market and the customs union was like,
“giving up a three-course meal … now, for the promise of packet of crisps in the future”.
He is right. It is also the case, of course, that no trading deal that we can now achieve with the EU is better than our existing one as a member of the EU. Indeed, in the two years since the referendum it has become ever clearer that leaving the EU, especially at this time, is a dangerous, high-risk strategy. By contrast, the case for remaining in the EU is gathering force by the day, which is why the Brexiteers are so vocal.
Maybe we will leave the EU, I do not know; I do not have the certainty of the spokesman of the Liberal Democrats. I hope that it will be with a half-sensible deal, a so-called soft Brexit, which to some extent will mitigate the cost of leaving the EU. Even if that happens, I for one am increasingly certain that at some stage in the future, maybe during the so-called transition period—I am not absolutely clear what this is for—or not long after, a new consensus will emerge in the UK for a return to the EU, perhaps in a new form but certainly as a member. If I am right it will be on the conclusive, unanswerable grounds that a medium-sized European power such as the UK must act together with its continental neighbours, not only for its own good and the good of its citizens but also for Europe as a whole.