Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (1st Day) (Continued)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:54 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Northover Baroness Northover Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs) 3:54 pm, 5th December 2018

My Lords, this decision could not be more important for the UK and our children’s future. The noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, set this decision in its massive historical context when the referendum went the way that it did. The noble Lord, Lord Howarth, who is not in his place, identified remainers’ concerns as largely economic, while leavers were concerned about sovereignty. Those who marched immediately after the referendum, or more recently for the people’s vote, would challenge that.

Young people passionately feel European, as, clearly, do others: a non-British architecture student was marching with me and she noted, with delighted astonishment, the noble Lord, Lord Rogers of Riverside. Especially for young people, being European is part of who they are—part of their many-layered identities. As my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire and the noble Lord, Lord Judd, made clear, it is part of how we share sovereignty to greatest effect—for example, in tackling climate change which, as David Attenborough has pointed out yet again, threatens the future of all of us. So we must remember, as the most reverend Primate pointed out, the child born yesterday and remember, too, the children who marched recently with signs saying “Made in EU”—unlike most of us.

I shall focus on the potential impact of Brexit and this deal on foreign affairs at a time of enormous global challenge. Whether we look at soft power for keeping values at the heart of our foreign policy or at our ability to achieve much more through the EU, Brexit undermines Britain’s place in the world. We apparently seek global reach and influence, but global Britain has been dubbed “a slogan in pursuit of a policy”. Many of our partners believe that Britain has retreated into what Edward Luce of the Financial Times has called “inglorious isolation”.

The Governor of the Bank of England’s reports make very clear the economic damage of leaving our biggest trading market, so how would we resource a newly global Britain? We have been able to punch above our weight as a member of the EU. We have very significant soft power assets, including higher education, science and the creative industries. Brexit threatens them all. We are on the UN Security Council, NATO, the G7 and in the EU. That array helps to maximise our influence.

Britain has long claimed to be the Euro-Atlantic bridge. With the threat of Brexit, that is already going. The EU has helped the UK to deliver many of our foreign policy objectives, acting as a force multiplier. Ironically, of course, the UK has held EU external action, and the Union’s common foreign and security policy, at arm’s length. But it was our British colleague the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, who was the EU’s first ever High Representative.

We have had a disproportionate effect in helping to shape the EU’s global role from within, including: the Iran nuclear deal; fielding stabilisation and other missions to Georgia, the Palestinian Territories, Somalia, Kosovo, Bosnia and elsewhere; agreeing sanctions on Syria, Russia, Zimbabwe and in relation to Ukraine, Yemen and elsewhere; and helping to tackle the conflict so recently seen on the European continent, not only in Northern Ireland but in the Balkans. Even stabilising the position of Gibraltar was assisted by the UK and Spain both being EU members.

We have helped the world’s poorest people and those in crisis. We have promoted global stability as the world’s largest development and humanitarian aid donor. We have worked together with EU allies across the globe, including in the WTO, the OECD and the UN Human Rights Council. And of course there were the amazing efforts that our Ministers put in to ensuring that the EU was ambitious and effective in helping to deliver the Paris climate change treaty in 2015.

Our EU membership has given us so much more clout than we would have alone. A small taster of what might come to be was when we failed for the first time to secure a British judge on the International Court of Justice, or a Brit to head the WHO. These failures are widely seen as an indicator of Britain’s reduced status and diminished European support.

So what are the Government seeking to do? We want a “deep and special partnership” between the UK and the EU. We issued a joint position with France and Germany on Saudi Arabia and Jamal Khashoggi. We did not want to go it alone. If we do go it alone, the FCO will need further resourcing: its core budget is already dwarfed by that of the French diplomatic service. However, our economy will not be as strong as it might have been.

In May, the Government spoke about a “deep and special partnership”. In the political declaration, the proposal is for “close and lasting” co-operation on foreign policy, with co-ordination on a case-by-case basis. It is full of “possibles”: we might support each other’s position; we might be invited to meetings, “on an exceptional basis”. There may be dialogue at various levels. I am not going to play with anyone’s name, but “may” does not mean “must”.

We know that leaving the EU will damage us economically and affect how we define ourselves. We can see that leaving the EU reduces our clout globally, which is, of course, why the Government have been arguing for a close and special relationship—it is a pity that we did not do this in earlier years. But nothing is guaranteed; we are examining a withdrawal deal that is noted as inadequate on all sides. Nothing has been set in place for what happens after that, only aspirations with no legal force. We are looking at the gangplank to nowhere, so lucidly described by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, months ago.

This is a turning point in our history. A referendum set this train of events in motion; we should therefore return to the people. Do they accept this deal, or do they vote to remain, now that we can all see what the real choices are?