Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:50 pm on 23rd July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Wigley Lord Wigley Plaid Cymru 4:50 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, this debate has been superseded by events since the Chequers meeting two weeks ago, when the White Paper was supposedly agreed by a united Cabinet.

No one can oppose the objective of a White Paper. Parliament, citizens and our European partners have a right to know how the Government see the Brexit process moving forward and to know the choices the Government have made and for what reason. But why on earth has it taken so long to appear, and what benefits were obtained by such delays? After two long years of preparing for this moment, we are in real danger of taking a path that leads us to a no-deal Brexit. For the Government to have set, over a year ago, a Brexit deadline of 29 March 2019, and not until now to have spelled out their intended course to meet that deadline, reflects incredible indecision. In addition, for the former Brexit Minister David Davis to have been engaged directly in negotiation with Michel Barnier for less than five hours—yes, five hours in two years—borders on a dereliction of duty.

If it was possible for the Welsh Government to have produced their own White Paper 18 months ago, why on earth has it taken the UK Government so long? That paper, entitled Securing Wales’ Future, accepted the reality of Brexit but spelt out the essential safeguards needed for manufacturing industry, tourism and agriculture. It was quickly recognised by European Parliament negotiator Guy Verhofstadt as providing a realistic basis for negotiation. Had the Welsh White Paper been adopted by the Government 12 months ago, we would now have a potential Brexit deal which would satisfy manufacturing, industry and agricultural exporters, and it would have provided a solution to the Northern Ireland border and Gibraltar issues. It would have been accomplished within a timescale that enabled other challenges to be addressed: aviation, security, Euratom, healthcare, citizenship, and an acceptable compromise on the movement of people. It is now increasingly unlikely that agreement can be secured within the Government’s self-imposed deadline of 29 March next year, and that we shall consequently crash out without a deal.

The White Paper recognises the need to provide tariff-free access for UK manufactured goods and agricultural products into the EU market, and for this to be frictionless so that supply chains can work without hindrance. This is as pressing a requirement for UK exporters as it is for those trading across the border in Ireland. The White Paper recognises that there will need to be common standards and safeguards to ensure that one partner does not steal a competitive edge, and it recognises the need for a mutually acceptable judicial process. Yet, despite recognising these factors, it steps back from the obvious solution of maintaining a single market and a customs union—a framework endorsed by this Chamber when the Brexit Bill was before us, and which was rejected in the Commons last week only by cheating in the pairing system. We are told that such a single market and customs union agreement would jeopardise the claimed benefits which await us from trading with the rest of the world. Yet this week the EU has concluded a trade deal with Japan as good as the UK could expect to negotiate on a bilateral basis. The White Paper proposes a convoluted system of mutual charging of tariffs on goods entering the UK from the rest of the world, which are sold on into EU markets. We are asked to opt for a pig in a poke, via a complex, bureaucratic customs arrangement.

This nonsense has to stop. Unless people wake up and demand a confirmatory vote to boot this disastrous course to oblivion, progress must be on the basis of a customs union and single market participation. We should seek a sensible compromise on freedom of movement which recognises workers’ rights to move to fill job vacancies but accepts limitations on open-ended population movements, which might cause economic or social problems. There is widespread sympathy within the EU for such an approach, and the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, focused on that issue very effectively.

Such a sensible Brexit is achievable, but it is not on the agenda because the Government are in hock to the extreme Brexit wing of the Tory party. I do not usually read the Sunday Express, but I could not help but notice its headline yesterday:

“Brexit: Time to Start Again”.

To start again—in all seriousness! David Davis is quoted as saying that the Brexit negotiating process will have to “start again” and that it would not be the end of the world if Britain left the EU empty-handed. That confirms the worst fear of many of my colleagues: that it never was the intention of Mr Davis or Boris Johnson ever to have any deal, and that they have spun it out for two years knowing that at this late stage it will be impossible to secure a deal ahead of the 29 March deadline. This means that we are heading for a crash. If that is not the Government’s intention, let the Minister confirm that changing the 29 March date is under consideration. We need clarification on this before Parliament adjourns for the Summer Recess.

To fail to allow adequate time to negotiate a practical Brexit will confirm our worst fears that a no-deal Brexit has now become the Government’s expectation. In that case, the sooner the better that this Government are replaced by a cross-party Government, pledged to secure a Brexit based on a customs union and single market engagement. The sensible majority in both Houses should take control of these matters and steer these islands away from the disastrous cliff edge towards which we are heading, and for which the ordinary working people of these islands will most assuredly pay the price.