Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:03 pm on 23rd July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Ricketts Lord Ricketts Crossbench 11:03 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, and to agree with every word he said. I spend a lot of time outside your Lordships’ House and I want to bring noble Lords news from abroad. Our friends around the world are looking on with dismay at the political system breaking down under the weight of Brexit. They see political parties consumed by infighting and efforts to have a mature debate drowned out by lies and personal abuse. They do not recognise the United Kingdom in this as the pragmatic, common-sense country that they know.

However, two years on from the referendum, we now have a position. I pay tribute to my former colleagues in the Civil Service who have twisted themselves in knots to reconcile, as best they can, the Prime Minister’s red lines with the imperatives of close co-operation with our nearest neighbours and business partners. In particular, the name of Olly Robbins has come up in the course of this debate. He is a civil servant of the highest competence and personal integrity and I think he has done his very best in this White Paper. However, like many others, my own judgment is that it will not work. The first reason for that is that it is unnegotiable in Brussels and other noble Lords with greater experience than me have explained why. The EU negotiators will continue to insist that we come off the fence and make a choice between either staying in the single market with all the disciplines—the Norway model—or leaving it completely based on the Canada model, with all the implications that has for borders.

The second reason that the White Paper will not work is that it is not a basis for this country’s future relations with Europe. I do not see this Parliament continuing, decade after decade, to align with every change of regulation in trade policy in Brussels. It is bound to unravel and it will deliver the next crisis on Europe in a few years’ time.

The third reason is that there is no time now to negotiate a document of this complexity. The White Paper goes into completely uncharted territory as far as the EU is concerned, and it is also full of phrases that, to an old civil servant like me, ring an alarm bell—“appropriate mechanisms” will be needed, and we will “explore options”. That shows that the civil servants have outlined where they want to get to but have no idea how they will get there. We have 12 weeks of negotiating time left, so I think we are very likely to find ourselves in the position that the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, described earlier on, with the EU demanding that we sign the withdrawal agreement, including paying our debts, but offering us no more than a very vague political declaration about the future framework. Will that pass muster in the other place?

I conclude that we are in a mess and I am not the first in this debate to say that. As time ticks away, the risk of no deal rises. I find it deeply irresponsible to talk as if that might be a solution to the mess we are in. It would be an absolute catastrophe for this country, as becomes clearer day after day and as businesses and individuals start to face up to it. One service that the White Paper has done for all of us is to show how fully Britain’s economy and way of life is enmeshed with that of our European neighbours, as the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, has just said. All those interconnections would be disrupted by a no-deal Brexit.

There is also the risk, not much discussed in this debate this evening, to our national security. If we had a sudden halt to law-enforcement co-operation so that our police services could not access the European databases which are regulated by European law, they could not work through Europol or extradite people through the European arrest warrant. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, asked, what has happened to the UK-EU security treaty? I did not find it in the White Paper—it seems to have done a disappearing act.

No deal would leave hundreds of thousands of British and EU citizens in doubt about their rights to residence in the other EU countries. As many noble Lords have said, this disaster of a no deal cannot be allowed to happen. The international order out there is troubled enough without the UK disrupting it further with a disorderly Brexit. On this, I find that the Foreign Secretary agrees with me. For those who have not been checking their Twitter account as assiduously as they should have been this afternoon, I will read his tweet. Having met the German Foreign Minister today, he said:

“Excellent discussion with … @HeikoMaas about the unintended geopolitical consequences of no deal. Only person rejoicing would be Putin”.

I agree. Faced with the choice between the unnegotiable and the unthinkable, there has to be another way. Ideally, that would be the Government recognising that the national interest requires us to stay in the single market and customs union, at least while longer-term issues are worked out. But since the political process seems to be broken, and there does not seem to be a majority for any option in the other place, perhaps the only option is to put the issue back to the people before we take any irrevocable step to leave the EU.

The EU has its faults, but at this time in the evening it may be worth reflecting that it is not a “mafia-like” state. It is a group of prosperous, tolerant, law-abiding countries, sharing our values and our world view. In my view, it is where we belong.