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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:43 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Baroness Bowles of Berkhamsted Liberal Democrat 4:43 pm, 5th December 2018

My Lords, I do not support the Prime Minister’s agreement, but I agree with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, said this morning: she has tried to deliver to a set of red lines derived from major planks of the winning side of the referendum. The problem is that something had to give, because the collective set of red lines turned out to be an impossibility, and what has given is customs. It might be called temporary or a backstop, but an arrangement based around a customs union with an accompanying fudge for Northern Ireland is the only thing left if you prioritise against freedom of movement and the direct effect of the European Court. I know because I have tried it myself. I went around and around the loop back in 2016 after the referendum: how would I negotiate it? To my chagrin then, I ended up with something remarkably similar to the backstop.

The way it happened in the real negotiation was that the backstop was agreed to unlock talks about trade. That did not really happen and it was, at best, talks about talks—or rather, constraints on talks. All we have is a declaration to use best endeavours to come to a real deal and to replace the backstop solution, under a protocol that embeds all the difficulties and red lines of each side that have prevented progress so far. The protocol is more of an obstacle course than a route map and requires more concessions than would be needed without it. We would be locked in, as eloquently described by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith.

Moreover, I do not see how we can expect to line up trade deals with other countries while relying on the protocol because they will still say, “What is the relationship with the EU?” That will go on and on. We may escape Brexit on the news and we may escape news about trade agreements that are going on in secret, but the fact is that there is still a never-ending round of negotiations.

I understand businesses backing the withdrawal treaty, especially when told that the alternative is no deal. Many do not mind who makes the rules between us and the EU. They are not hung up on sovereignty and prefer to have just one set of rules. The potential for up to four years of implementation—you can rest assured that lobbying for the two-year extension will start soon—gives stability over the immediate cycle. Indeed, UK chief executives spend an average of only 4.8 years in the top job, so an awful lot of them will be out of their jobs and their horizon is not particularly long-term—a common grievance that we have against our businesses. Their horizon is not the for ever that this treaty would put us in, and I say “treaty” to point out its permanence. Businesses want time to adjust their arrangements, maximise their use of assets in the UK for the time being, and have a bit longer to figure out where to move what. But in the political and broad economic sense, we have certainty over nothing.

I can remember when just-in-time supply lines were a political issue—on the one hand foreign firms sought to invest, and on the other there were concerns over the environmental effect of all the additional transportation. But it has boomed, and so too has all the other ease of business that followed on from the single market. Thanks to the withdrawal negotiations, everyone now knows more about the depth of our integration in the EU and how our trading relationships work. Moreover, it is not just us who know more; it has surprised many in the EU, too, including the leaders and Ministers of other member states. There is no shame or humiliation in admitting that we did not know it all; neither did they.

I recognise that some people consider the Single European Act to have been a mistake, but the reality we now see is that we cannot turn the clock back, and reversing out of 40 years of integration makes for a worse mistake than they considered that first Single European Act to be. Our young people are growing to voting age and will make it clear what they think of those who robbed them of their opportunities. Baby boomers took and enjoyed all the assets, and now they are stealing their children’s opportunities to study, work, love and marry with the freedom that they enjoyed. That is the rift already breaking down intergenerational solidarity; it cannot be fixed by agreeing a bad treaty that makes us all poorer. Being poorer through the years of austerity has not brought the country together.

We now have the facts about the consequences of withdrawal and knowledge of the deal, or non-deal, on offer. We know that it is a simple matter to reverse Article 50, so it has to be time to ask the people to choose.