My Lords, the clock is ticking—so said Michel Barnier in the early stages of negotiations and I must give credit where it is due. The only fundamentally unchanging point throughout all of this process has been the slow running-out of our precious negotiating time.
I backed the Prime Minister through her Florence and Lancaster House speeches, and the Chequers plan—with tweaks—could work. However, I fear we are giving far too much up. Throughout this, we have moved closer and closer to the EU’s position without it respecting a number of our red lines. In fact, it has actively attempted to politicise a number of issues which could have been achieved through bureaucratic or legal means. The border in Ireland is by far the most important.
The former Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union made a number of key points some time ago in his speeches on the customs Bill, some relating to the border. I am inclined to believe him when he says that the border was progressing smoothly until the Commission made it into a political issue. The insistence on full UK rules and an entirely frictionless border can only mean the whole of the country is forced into rules we do not have a say on. This is a client state of affairs and not the correct path for this proud trading nation.
While there was no manifesto or unified platform that people voted for, we can reasonably say that several policies are quite plainly necessary. The most important is that voters want to regain full control of our borders. Barnier, Juncker, Merkel, Macron, Tusk, all agree that the four freedoms are inseparable. This is their prerogative. The internal market is a fine achievement but, as the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, noted some time back, there is no fundamental reason why freedom of capital and goods must be accompanied by people. Yes, there are some advantages in liquid labour markets, but voters have the final say on how porous borders should be, and those on the losing side of the argument cannot blithely battle on in defiance of democracy. The Chequers plan is far too vague on this topic and I expect a full plan and enforcement strategy to be laid before the other place in short order.
I see a trap ahead. If we come to the end of our negotiations without a deal, we will not in fact go to no deal. As a country, we will be forced to go into the plan set out in the Northern Irish backstop. This provides an extremely favourable deal for the EU. We would pay in, obey the rules, fail to diverge and not have robust borders. Much as Article 50 has an institutional bias to the EU, so does the backstop. It would be in the EU’s interest to take us to the wire and then force the emergency backstop. Such a move would rob us of our essential sovereignty and fail to respect the terms of the vote. This must be avoided at all costs.
I welcome the call of the new Secretary of State to intensify negotiations. We must renegotiate the backstop so that it cannot be used against us in an underhand way. I hope that the Minister appreciates the need for such a reappraisal and I ask whether this is the Government’s policy or whether he thinks that the backstop is acceptable as it stands.