Brexit: Preparations and Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:09 pm on 23rd July 2018.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Chair, International Relations Committee 11:09 pm, 23rd July 2018

My Lords, having the last slot as a Back-Bench speaker at this late hour is marvellous for attracting an audience—it is amazing to see how people are coming in—but it is misery for thinking of something fresh to say after 66 speeches. However, let me try this.

At the risk of being labelled an absurd optimist, I am in some ways very encouraged by the debate that we have been conducting all this afternoon and evening. Why? It is because it has made all the dead ends, blind alleys and disaster scenarios which lie ahead much clearer. It has therefore made the need—the absolute necessity—for a compromise of some clever kind much more essential and clearer as well. That was obvious not only from the negative speeches about the White Paper, of which we heard plenty, but also from the positive ones such as those from my noble friends Lord Bridges and Lord King, the noble Lords, Lord Boswell and Lord Taylor, and several others. Theirs were voices of logic and common sense on the point that we have been driven to amid all the cascade of criticism and inspissated gloom, from every angle and viewpoint, which we heard regularly throughout the debate.

My second reason for being encouraged instead of cast down is that whatever the diehards and extremists on either side tell us about the EU standing rock-solid firm, about how its four freedoms cannot be challenged and how it is bound to reject the White Paper, I hear the real voice of Europe sounding a very different note. This morning, we heard a German Minister saying how the Chequers plan was a step forward and how Germany was anxious to meet it. Last week the Financial Times, where most stories are usually slanted almost comically against Brexit, carried a letter from a Polish authority reminding us of the reality: that the famous four EU freedoms and principles are certainly now much more an aspiration than a reality. That article in the FT said:

“The European Commission states that unfree services amount to almost 40 per cent of Union gross domestic product. Capital flows are famously imperfect, myriad barriers block the free exchange of goods”,

within the EU.

As for the free movement of labour, we now see borders being closed between member states—so much for the freedom of movement—in the face of impossible migrant pressures, which my noble friend Lord Heseltine rightly pointed to. Central Europe and now Austria simply rejects Brussels’s rule. Why is that important and should one draw any cheer from it? It simply tells us that those who insist that the EU will never, we are told, accept the British plan and will not compromise its sacred freedoms when confronted with a clear British compromise, as it will now be, are likely to be quite wrong. This kind of view takes no account of the immense changes, disruption and challenges going on now inside the EU—about which your Lordships have today been remarkably quiet, except in one or two cases—nor of the immense changes in recent years in the whole pattern and nature of international commerce.

Technology is racing far ahead and leaving politics far behind. The proposed common rules, which have been causing the hard-line Brexiteers so much agony, cover a relatively diminishing area of UK-EU trade, of which in turn only a tiny proportion—4% at the most, if that—will be checked for tariffs and destinations at border posts under the proposed plans. As for the so-called EU single market in services, which was so worrying to the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, whose speeches I usually enjoy so much, in all the 40 years that we have been in the European Union that has never really taken off. The rules governing services, data and digital exports are anyway global, as is the market for them. The White Paper is quite right to keep them clear of EU restrictions, except of course for financial services, where a special arrangement to help not just London but all European interests—because of all the funds that are raised in London on behalf of a prosperous Europe—is entirely achievable.

The talk of Britain becoming a vassal state or colony, or in limbo, gets the situation completely upside down. It implies that the EU is an empire to which we would be in vassalage. Right now, with the EU in fact hard pressed to hold together at all, this is just about as far from the truth as one can get. Not only that, it seriously downgrades and underestimates the capacities and strengths of the British nation, which anyway has not been a vassal since the time of King John and never will be again. The whole concept is a ridiculous notion which we have had to endure.

In a totally transformed international order, Britain now needs a sensible, friendly and constructive accommodation with continental Europe, which we have been deeply engaged with, on and off, for the last 1,000 years. There never was a prospect of a clean break with Europe—that really was a dream—any more than there was a prospect of a permanent break with the Commonwealth network back in the 1970s, to which we are now at last mercifully returning as we realise where our true friends and our markets are going to be and as we find new networks to take us deep into booming Asia, rising Africa and, above all, China.

My hope, which I believe is well within realisation, is that Brexiteers and Europhiles alike—and all those on the Benches opposite who want to put, in the fine words of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, national interest ahead of party interest—will come to their senses. That wise advice from the noble Baroness applies just as much to her own party as to ours. This should now be matched by compromise on the other side of the channel which the EU authorities, member states and the great economies and great peoples of Europe would be foolhardy, to put it at its mildest, not to buy into and accept. That is the optimistic note on which I wish to end this evening from the Back Benches. Let us now see whether we hear the same optimism from the Front Benches.