My Lords, as a country we are split right down the middle. There is an unbridgeable divide between, on the one hand, passionate nationalists craving freedom and independence and, on the other, those who for reasons of culture, security and prosperity want the UK to remain at the heart of Europe. Those divisions have thus far haunted the whole process of negotiating an agreement with the EU, a process that began with the shooting of the most capable messenger around, Sir Ivan Rogers. The European negotiating terrain was always going to be challenging as we came face to face with fervent belief in Brussels in the European ideal and with the understandable self-confidence of the world’s most powerful economic bloc outside the United States.
Whatever you think of the withdrawal agreement, its application is temporary. The more critical document, the accompanying political declaration covering future relations for the next period of our history, is skimpy and, oddly, full of sentences without verbs. It falls far short of being a framework. Even if the declaration is only in essence an agreed agenda, though, the sense of it is at least positive. Its import is of a Britain that has only ever been half in the EU moving to a point where it will only be half out. The line in the declaration that there will be no tariffs, fees or quotas for goods offers a ray of hope, even if none of it is agreed and working through that monumental agenda within two years is a very tall order indeed.
Any deal of complexity in any walk of life involving multiple parties requires compromise and will leave everyone involved—including me, in this instance—uncomfortable with many aspects of what has been agreed. Taken in the round, this agreement is preferable to a car-crash Brexit in a few months’ time, with the shock to our economy and social harmony that that would trigger. If, however, as seems likely, the House of Commons fails to endorse this deal—if, indeed, it is unable to muster a majority for any option—the only way forward at that point would be to put back to the people the triple choice of leaving on WTO rules, accepting the deal or remaining in the EU. After years of bad-tempered debate and disunity, we should then accept the better informed choice of the British people and make the very best of whichever option they finally decide to take.