My Lords, I hope that it will not be regarded as a kiss of death if I say a few words in defence of this agreement. I do not retreat from my belief that a better alternative is to stay within the EU and to give the decision to the British people—but, like the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, I regard many of the criticisms of the deal as greatly overstated.
I take as my text the five objections advanced by the European Research Group, which we heard itemised by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth. The first is that we,
“would hand over £39 billion of taxpayers’ money with nothing guaranteed in return”.
This ignores the fact that the £39 billion represents the UK’s outstanding liabilities when we leave the EU. It has been accepted as money duly owed, whatever terms we leave on, and is a debt of honour.
The second criticism is that we would remain a rule-taker over large swathes of UK law in such areas as social, environmental and employment policy. I agree that it would be better if we remained a member of the EU and had a hand in making these rules. But our acceptance of these rules, with which we largely agree, seems an acceptable price if it leads to negotiating frictionless trade with the EU.
Thirdly, the European Research Group claims that there would be no unilateral right of exit from a backstop to the customs union. We heard this from the noble Lords, Lord Howard, Lord King and Lord Lamont. But we have entered an international agreement designed to protect the absence of physical borders between Northern Ireland and the Republic. I would not expect us to have a unilateral right to abrogate the backstop. The departure agreement provides for an independent arbitration panel in the case of disagreement, and that seems reasonable.
The fourth attack is that the agreement creates internal borders between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. This is the ground for the DUP’s opposition to the deal. The special provisions for Northern Ireland in the draft agreement are necessary to maintain frictionless movement of goods across the border, and there are already different regulations between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK as a consequence of devolution. If the DUP voted against the agreement on these grounds and the result was no deal, I have to say that it would be cutting off its nose to spite its face.
Finally, it is alleged that the European Court of Justice will continue to remain in control of EU laws that are directly effective in the UK. But the ECJ’s role will be time-limited, and for it to be the interpreter of EU law as it affects the UK, and for the UK courts to have to take account of its judgments, seems reasonable.
To represent the provisions of the agreement as making the UK a vassal state seems absurd. If what the critics are saying is that the agreement does not give all the advantages of alleged independence promised in the 2016 referendum, I say: join the club. There are many of us on the other side of the argument who knew from the beginning that it neither would nor could.