Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:09 pm on 23rd July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Cope of Berkeley Lord Cope of Berkeley Conservative 7:09 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, that was a constructive speech, even if the last sentence or two differed from the earlier part of it—in an attempt to be helpful, it seemed to me. The noble Lord always makes a thoughtful and useful contribution to our debates.

The Chequers White Paper encouraged me, because of its indication that the Government really want to get down to negotiating in detail on all these complex matters—and, like the noble Lord, Lord Birt, and others who have spoken, I hope that the EU will respond. I, too, agreed with the excellent speech by my noble friend Lord Bridges, who described the White Paper as a pragmatic approach to negotiations, and went on to the considerations that followed.

Some decades ago I was involved in negotiating in the Council of Ministers as a Minister of State in various roles—on health and safety issues involving the Department of Employment, and later on the EU budget and indirect tax on behalf of the Treasury, and so on. My previous enthusiasm for the EU took some knocks during those years, because of the difficulties of the negotiations—and that was when there only 12 members, not 28 as there are now, for the moment at any rate. Looking back, I see that the important negotiations at that time were really with the other countries sitting round the table, and not so much with the Commission itself. There is an important lesson in that for our present negotiators, and also for those who comment on such matters—that they should not always take Mr Barnier’s word as the only possible word to come out of the EU. I should add that I was greatly assisted in some of my time dealing with such matters by the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, in his then role as the United Kingdom’s representative.

One important aspect that has been referred to several times this afternoon in apocalyptic terms is the Northern Ireland border—which I, like the noble Lord, Lord King, came to know during a spell in the Northern Ireland Office. The land, sea and air borders between the EU and the UK have long been important fiscal borders, and VAT and excise duties vary widely in scope, coverage and amounts across all those borders. VAT was supposed to be harmonised across the EU some years ago, but of course it was not, and will not be—and nor will excise duties.

The financial incentive for smuggling is therefore, as one would expect, considerable across all those borders, and the anti-smuggling work is consequently vigorous. But the tax involved—the same will apply to any customs duties that come in—has long been collected well away from the borders, through accountancy, which these days is entirely digital. Most companies want to comply, and digital collection, as VAT and excise duties show, does not require a hard border with customs posts.

The Republic of Ireland will clearly suffer more from Brexit than we will, more or less whatever happens. The end of our contributions to the EU will affect all the countries, but on trade the Irish have every self-interest in negotiating an agreement on customs facilitation, whatever problems that may give the theologians in the Commission. The best thing would be to sit the British and Irish customs teams together in a room, and they would work out a solution. Then we should do the same with France—allowing personal shopping to continue as normal across all these borders, both the Northern Ireland border and the channel border, and involving trusted trader arrangements. Dublin politics are more difficult than usual at the moment, but the technical problems are soluble, and the self-interest is strong and mutual, so a deal can be done—and in the end, the EU must accept that.

The Commons debates last week were depressing, but the Recess is coming. The zealots at both ends of the spectrum suspect the motives of their opposite numbers, and both ends build up the scare stories and read difficulties into any wording that is chosen—and all that weakens our negotiating position. My right honourable friend Dominic Raab should do his best to ignore them and get on with detailed negotiations. He has a reputation as a hard worker and a pragmatist, and he needs to be both. He and his colleagues, both Ministers and officials, must talk to all the countries, businesses and interests involved across the EU to reach agreement. The message is that summer holidays are cancelled.