Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:47 pm on 23rd July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Boswell of Aynho Lord Boswell of Aynho Chair, European Union Committee, Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Deputy Speaker (Lords) 5:47 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, I shall contribute as chair of your Lordships’ European Union Committee and I shall be as short as I can. I shall focus on the Government’s recent White Paper on the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. As many noble Lords will already be aware, the EU Committee published its report, UK-EU Relations after Brexit, on 8 June, and the House debated it on 2 July. Our six sub-committees are now all considering relevant sections of the White Paper, and I hope that the results of our collective work will appear after the Summer Recess. In the meantime, I shall briefly set out my own sense of how the White Paper measures up against the five principles we set out in the report I have referred to.

First, we said that the White Paper should focus on achieving benefits from the future UK-EU relationship, rather than on defending red lines. In this respect the White Paper is muddled, as exemplified by the proposition on page 14 that the new economic partnership sought will “end free movement”, thereby delivering on one of the Government’s red lines. It is not the economic partnership that will end free movement but the act of withdrawing from the European Union, as a result of which its treaties, on which the concept of free movement rests, will cease to apply to the United Kingdom. Setting aside the prospect of a transition period, it is a legal fact that free movement will end on 29 March of next year.

The aim of the future economic partnership, in contrast, is to deliver certain economic benefits. The first thing the Government need to do is to identify and quantify them before making a pragmatic, evidence-based assessment of the extent of our reliance on European Union labour, and thus of the trade-offs that may be necessary or appropriate if we are to secure the benefits. On all of this, the White Paper is disappointingly silent.

The committee’s second principle was that the White Paper should build on areas of mutual UK and EU interest. Here it is a mixed picture. In some places it does quite well, for example in addressing aspects of the security partnership and the need to avoid operational gaps in law enforcement. In others, it pays only lip service to mutual interests without building on them. For example, the paragraphs on climate change on page 40 acknowledge a shared interest, but no joint approach is proposed and no reference at all is made to emissions trading. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that the pace of policy development has not been consistent: some areas are well thought out and detailed while others are still half-cooked.

Our third principle was that the White Paper should be realistic. It should acknowledge that the benefits of a new relationship will come at a cost, requiring compromises and trade-offs. Again, the White Paper is uneven. I will not labour the issue of the Government’s proposed facilitated customs arrangement, other than to report that when the Select Committee visited Brussels last week—talking to Michel Barnier, among others—nobody outside UKRep saw the proposal as without problems. Instead, I will give a much more specific example—reciprocal healthcare—where the White Paper simply says that the Government want UK and EU nationals to continue to be able to use the EHIC. That is all it says. Here is mine—go or no go after 29 March next.

I find that, having overseen the extraordinary efforts of the 70-plus members of our committee and its 25 staff over the last two years to respond to the Brexit challenge—which has led to the production of over 30 thorough evidence-based reports on different aspects of Brexit—that this effort does not really strike me as a realistic starting point for negotiation in this area. I do not do it invidiously for that particular department—there are other areas of lacunae.

Finally, the fourth and fifth principles in our report were that the White Paper should present an inclusive vision of future relations, commanding broad support, and that it should use the language of partnership between the UK and the EU. Noble Lords will have their own thoughts on the first of these principles, particularly given last week’s events in the House of Commons. As a non-affiliated officer in this House, I will resist the temptation to comment further, except to say that European interests read our language and are well aware of the psychodrama that has been taking place here.

As for our partnership with the European Union, the Government’s support for an association agreement, long championed by the European Parliament, is welcome, and I hope it will change the tone of the negotiations. That of course depends on the other European Union institutions, in particular the Council, which ultimately calls the shots—but they have to react in the same spirit.

In summary, the White Paper is a curate’s egg. It represents progress and the change of tone is welcome, but it is far from the finished article. There are still worrying holes in the Government’s policy—and, of course, the need to agree an Irish backstop, to which the Government committed in last December’s joint report, has not gone away. Time is short and my deepest fear is that the Government might now imagine that time in fact is its ally—that, as the deadline approaches and the threat of no deal looms ever larger, the EU will be first to blink.

If that is the Government’s view, I submit that it is a delusion. As we said in our report last year, Brexit: Deal or No Deal, it is difficult to imagine a worse outcome for the United Kingdom than “no deal”. This is borne out by the Government’s and others’ economic analysis. We know that no deal would be disastrous, and the European Union knows that we know it. This is not the time to be playing chicken.