My Lords, I declare my European interests as detailed in the register. This debate is on the Prime Minister’s Statement last Thursday, which I was able to witness from the Gallery in the other place. My first and overwhelming reaction was that, in the national interest, we must support the Prime Minister. I have been dismayed over the past five days to see attacks on the draft withdrawal agreement from all parties and persuasions. This is probably the most difficult negotiation which the country has faced since the Second World War. We are leaving the European Union next year and the unenviable task for the Prime Minister over the past two years has been to negotiate terms to enable us to leave without too much damage to the economy.
It is clear to most people who do not allow ideology to overcome common sense that leaving without a deal would be catastrophic. It is also not understood by many commentators and politicians that our negotiating position with the other 27 member states is not as strong as they like to imagine. We are indeed the fifth or sixth economic power in the world but, as a bloc, the EU 27 is a much greater market and has much more economic power than us, as well as more important concerns than the effect of us leaving. So whoever became Prime Minister after the referendum faced a herculean task.
It has been a torturous process and has gone on longer than anyone would have wished, creating damaging uncertainty that has certainly affected the economy. But we have now reached a point where the Prime Minister has negotiated a text with the European Union of more than 500 pages. It would be astonishing if many people did not have objections to or disagreements with one or more aspects of the deal, but, whatever our party, and whether we voted to remain or leave, we must consider the national interest.
The alternatives are to leave without a deal, which would create untold damage, or to hold a second referendum, which I do not support. I hope that a calmer debate can take place over the next few weeks. The proposed deal is a compromise, as it was always going to be, and covers only our withdrawal and the implementation period. It will take many years to negotiate new trade agreements with third countries. We will need a lot of time to negotiate our new relationship with the EU. In fact, I am starting to doubt whether a transition or implementation period of 21 months will be long enough.
But the supreme point is that we will leave the EU next year; we must leave on the best possible terms; and then we must negotiate a close and enduring relationship with the rest of the European Union. Even to contemplate at this moment a change of government or Prime Minister, or another referendum, cannot possibly be in the national interest. I urge Members of this House and the other place to support our nation’s Prime Minister and the interim deal she has so painfully negotiated.