Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:42 pm on 23rd July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Chair, EU Internal Market Sub-Committee 9:42 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, like the noble Baronesses, Lady Falkner and Lady Noakes—the latter is no longer in her place—and the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, we were all in Brussels last week. We seem to have come to slightly different conclusions, one has to say. However, in view of the time and of the time limitation, I want to concentrate on one big point that I think everybody would agree on. One thing that I came away from there with is that we are running out of time: these negotiations are closer to collapse than I think many noble Lords recognise.

I have had occasion over the past few months to draw attention to the inadequacies of both the UK and the EU negotiators. I speak as someone who has observed negotiations in many contexts over the years. There are many prime rules of negotiation which have been lost on those who are supposed to be our official negotiators. In recent days I have sensed something even worse, which is, as I say, the imminent collapse of these negotiations. In negotiations, when it becomes clear that one party no longer has the confidence of those they are supposed to represent—as appears to be the case with Brussels and the European capitals in the case of our Government—then negotiations are close to collapse. When one side, or in this case, both sides, start to threaten to abandon agreements that were made in principle pending the full settlement, then you know you are close to collapse. And when one party starts trying to appeal behind the backs of the front-line negotiators, as appears to be the case with our appeals to the capitals of the 27 at the moment, then you also know that negotiations are close to collapse. When you are running out of time, then you certainly know it.

Only a couple of weeks ago, both Mr Davis—remember him?—and Monsieur Barnier were saying that the withdrawal agreement was 80% concluded and agreed, and we had green marks across the text circulated to our committees. Now, not only is Mr Raab threatening not to pay the agreed budget figure, but the European Union is threatening not to observe the agreement on citizens’ rights. That also suggests we are close to the precipice.

Several noble Lords have rightly said that this is the kind of document which should have been produced 15 months, 18 months ago, maybe even before we triggered Article 50. I do not disagree with that, but the question is: what is its status now and what can we do with it? Does it represent a sensible, good arrangement for UK industry and is it likely to be acceptable to the EU 27? I am afraid that the answer on both counts, as many noble Lords have indicated, is no. The document does not provide a secure basis for our future trade with Europe, in particular for our services sectors. It is also full of wishful thinking on the customs agreement; meeting the aspirations for frictionless trade in our goods sector will be hugely complex.

It was already clear to us in Brussels that you cannot get an agreement with Brussels which appears to fragment the single market: which cherry picks, in their terms, how we treat different services and sectors, and breaches the four central freedoms. That has become apparent. It is also clear that our day-to-day participation in EU agencies—from aviation and medicines through to Europol—is unlikely to be conceded if we stick to the approach of the White Paper. Had this document been produced 15 months ago, all sides could have regarded it as a basis for negotiation. Instead, given the problems within the Cabinet, the Conservative Party and Parliament, it is now being seen as our text, from which the Prime Minister will find great difficulty in departing. It is therefore a real problem for us domestically to agree to further concessions, and it is difficult for the European Union to use that document as a negotiating text. That is a real problem in developing the future relationship. Regrettably, it is worse than that because the withdrawal agreement depends on us having some idea of where we are going on future trade relations.

We will not solve the Northern Ireland border question unless we have an idea of where we are going. Regrettably, the Northern Ireland border, for the EU’s own reasons, was put on the list of things we had to agree within the divorce settlement. We are nowhere near to agreeing it and until there is some light at the end of the tunnel on the future trade agreement, it is difficult to have a long-term solution to the Irish border question. Instead, the tension around that is rising. You only have to read the British press’s reaction to the Irish Government’s position and the remarks of the Taoiseach himself about British airlines. Probably most pernicious of all is the DUP’s deciding that it will be the defenders of hard Brexit—which, I remind the House, is not the view of the population of Northern Ireland, a majority of whom voted to stay in the union.

It is unfortunate that, in these episodic times, as a result of the last general election our Government are somewhat hamstrung by being dependent on the vote of the DUP, most of whose members—but not most of their electorate—are hard Brexiteers. At this very difficult time, the one thing I would advise the Government to do is to resolve the problem of not having reached agreements on Ireland. Also, given the very limited time to reach a settlement on the trade arrangements, they should ask the EU 27 for more time. It difficult to ask for more time on the leaving date, but not impossible. It is easier for us to ask the EU to agree to a lengthier transition period, which, in reality, is not a transition period but negotiating time to establish all the details of our future trade and security arrangements. It will not be easy to do that, but I would advise the Prime Minister—who I understand is today flying to various capitals and sending her Cabinet Ministers around— that, rather than trying to divide the EU, they should be uniting it. They should get it to agree that we need more time to resolve what is an existential crisis for Europe as a whole, and to deal with the terrible possibility of no deal between ourselves and the European Union.