Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:40 pm on 23rd July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Howarth of Newport Lord Howarth of Newport Labour 5:40 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Heseltine, wondered what Brexit may actually mean. I think it is now very clear that soft Brexit is an illusion. The Chequers statement and the White Paper that elaborates it describe a Brexit in name only. This compromise, the nearest the Prime Minister has been able to get to a soft Brexit, is unacceptable to remainers and leavers alike, and today’s debate has underscored that. The EU has made it clear that it represents unacceptable cherry picking and offends EU ideology.

Martin Howe QC, dissecting the Government’s statement, has explained that the common rulebook for all goods, including agri-food, would be common only in the sense that the UK would have to obey and apply in complete detail the laws promulgated by the EU without having a vote on the content of those laws. The UK would be obliged to interpret the rules in accordance with rulings of the European Court of Justice under a system which would, whether directly or indirectly, bind UK courts to follow ECJ rulings: that was confirmed this afternoon in a significant speech by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead. Moreover, the Government propose that the UK should commit by treaty to ongoing harmonisation in the extensive area covered by the EU rulebook. Parliament’s notional ability to reject future changes to the EU rulebook would be no more real than Norway’s right under the EEA agreement, which has never been successfully exercised. The common rulebook would prevent the UK making new trade agreements with other countries such as the US and Australia, because we would be required to apply EU laws against imports from third countries. This is not taking back control.

This long-awaited White Paper falls far below the level of events, as the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, just suggested. Here is a sample of its prose, from page 19:

“Diagonal cumulation would allow UK, EU and FTA partner content to be considered interchangeable in trilateral trade”.

At such an existential moment in our national life, when the country needs leadership, our Government express themselves in slogans that are contradicted by their policy and in incomprehensible bureaucratic mumblings.

What is to be done now? I am glad to see it reported that the Government may, instead, seek a free trade arrangement with the EU—including services, I trust—based on the EU’s existing arrangements with Canada, Switzerland and South Korea. M Barnier has signalled that the EU may be amenable to such an arrangement. If the EU can negotiate a free trade agreement with Japan, it could far more easily negotiate a free trade agreement with the United Kingdom. However, it is also reported that a deal of this kind is unacceptable to the Prime Minister, because it would mean a hard border in Ireland. It cannot be right that Brexit should be held hostage by the politics of Ireland. Here is an area where compromise is very definitely needed. With common sense and good will there need be no such problem. A system of trusted traders, intelligence-led checks and observation by means of cameras, drones and satellite surveillance would not amount, in any real sense, to a hard border. It is offensive to the Irish to assume that if they are not in a customs union, they will revert to murdering each other. I reject the alarmism of my noble friend Lord Adonis.

If the EU rejects a free trade agreement, we will have no choice but to leave without a deal and move to WTO rules. Let us not be bamboozled into supposing that that will be a disaster. Yes, some growth may be forgone, if forecasts are to be trusted, but we trade very successfully with major partners under WTO rules. Nor need the transition be remotely cataclysmic. We, on our side, can wave the lorries through and continue to operate air traffic control and all the other systems that facilitate movement, extended supply chains and innumerable legal and financial transactions. Even Messieurs Barnier, Juncker and Selmayr, for all their fundamentalism and punitive zeal, would surely not be so pig-headed and destructive as to set up hard borders between the EU and the UK and inflict grievous damage on their own businesses and people. The Government are right to be doing serious work to prepare us for no deal. The Treasury and the Bank of England should now refrain from fabricating fear. They must be willing to boost the economy to take us through the period following our departure.

People want a politics that can make us proud. The passion of leave voters is for our country and our democracy. There is no point in the Prime Minister and her Ministers spending the summer trying to sell the unsellable. She needs to speak to the nation about our future in visionary and compelling terms: in her own style, without rodomontade, she must brace us for some turbulence during the transition, and she must restore faith in those who doubt that we are a great country and that on leaving the EU we can renew our democracy and thrive. At present, however, we are effectively without a Government. Urgent problems of the health service, social care, poverty and inequality, crime, prisons, housing and education are neglected. Brexit absorbs all the energies of Whitehall and Westminster, yet the Government and the House of Commons are unable to rise to this challenge. Ruses such as a second referendum or a Government of national unity would only deepen and further embitter our divisions.

Support for UKIP is rising strongly. Machinations to form new parties abound. Steve Bannon and other US Republicans are fishing in the filthy waters of the far right here and across Europe. Mr Putin has his own ways of stirring the pot. The viruses of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia are infecting our body politic. The chaos at Westminster leaves the field open to the kind of neo-fascist populists that we can no longer assume our native British decency will see off. Salvaging the status quo for the sake of short-term economic comfort would be a wholly inadequate response to this crisis. Let us boldly and confidently accept that it is right for Britain to leave an EU that is economically sclerotic, that generates traumatic social divisions, that represses the democratic aspirations of its peoples and that has no remedy against the advance of the far right. It is absurd to suppose that the peoples of Europe will no longer want to work with us, trade with us, ally with us, study with us, share their lives with us. If their rulers try to stop them, it will not last. Let us grasp our future as a great trading nation and as an independent, strong, self-reliant people.