Brexit: Negotiations - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:38 pm on 20th November 2018.

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Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice) 9:38 pm, 20th November 2018

Let us be clear: if during this implementation period—this transition or time-limited period—we are to have the continuing benefits of membership of the single market and the customs union, and of the other institutions during that two-year period, then there is a price to be paid. In addition, EU obligations have been incurred—for example, those in respect of Turkey. Having undertaken those obligations we will, as a matter of international law, meet them. I reiterate: it is not a price but a matter of discharging our obligations.

With regard to Northern Ireland, as part of our solution to ensure that no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland emerges, in the unlikely event that more time is needed to finalise the future relationship, there are two options: the implementation period could be extended for a limited time, or we could bring in the backstop. The backstop as now agreed replaces the EU’s proposal for a Northern Ireland-only customs “backstop to the backstop” with a UK-wide solution, respecting the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom.

The withdrawal agreement legally commits both sides to use best endeavours to ensure that the backstop is never used. If either side fails to do so, this could be referred to an independent arbitration panel. I stress that it is an independent arbitration panel; it will comprise five members, two selected by the United Kingdom, two selected by the EU and a fifth, wholly independent arbitrator, selected by those parties, to resolve any dispute in that regard.

I would also observe, and I will come back to this in the light of a question from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, that as he observed, the use of the term “best endeavours” gives rise to an obligation. It may be regarded as a good faith obligation, but it is an enforceable obligation. It may be breached, and it may be determined by an arbitration panel. That mechanism is, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Anderson of Ipswich, observed, a fair means of seeking to resolve disputes with regard to the backstop.

I turn to some of the observations that have been made during the course of the debate and the questions raised. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayter of Kentish Town, said that no one believes that the agreement will get a majority in the Commons. With great respect, the noble Lord, Lord Desai, either as a realistic optimist or a realistic pessimist, observed that he anticipated that it will pass. Of course, much of that lies in the hands of the Labour Party in the House of Commons. If the Labour Party wishes to avoid a no-deal Brexit, it has the means to do that by being prepared to see this final agreement on withdrawal pass through the Commons, so the answer lies in the hands of Labour as much as it does in the hands of any other party in the House of Commons.

As regards the suggestion of further negotiation that the noble Baroness referred to, that, as my noble friend Lady Altmann observed, is fantasy. It is not going to occur and indeed, I believe my noble friend Lord Cormack made the same observation.

With regard to the future relationship, it cannot at this stage be taken beyond a political commitment. The EU 27 are not, prior to our leaving the institution of the European Union on 29 March 2019, in a position to conclude an agreement with regard to the future relationship, so what we have is a statement of political intent, a political statement or undertaking. The noble Baroness said that this is a political statement without guarantees. Of course, that is a truism because political statements do not come with guarantees. That is why they are called political statements. That is where we are at present as we take that matter forward.

I think it is fair to say that the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, did not have a good word to say about anyone on this side of the House, but it seemed to me that she fundamentally confused the objective of the withdrawal agreement with the issue of our future relationship. At present, we are concerned with the withdrawal agreement, not with the final determination of the future relationship.

The noble Lord, Lord Dykes, began by saying very candidly that we should not leave and then he suggested that we should have what a number of noble Lords referred to as a people’s vote, which is another term for a second referendum. He said that the remain option should be an option in that second referendum. I remind the noble Lord that the remain option was an option in the last referendum.

The noble Lord, Lord Morrow, addressed issues with regard to Northern Ireland. Clearly there are sensitive issues here. He suggested that we should leave the EU in the same way that we joined. There has been a span of 45 years since we joined the EU, and a great deal has happened in both the politics and the economics of the island of Ireland in that 45-year period. I do not accept the suggestion that Northern Ireland is somehow going to be subservient. It will be subject to those elements required to maintain the open border in Ireland. I do not believe that anyone would wish to see that open border threatened. In my submission, it does not indicate, as he suggested, that Dublin or Brussels holds a veto on the backstop. The backstop is one of two alternatives, and the backstop itself is subject to the dispute resolution process in the withdrawal agreement, subject to the obligation of best endeavours. I again emphasise the use of term obligation in respect of best endeavours. My noble friend Lord King of Bridgwater pointed out, and I entirely concur, that a second referendum is not a realistic prospect. It simply does not engage with our democratic process.