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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:01 pm on 5th December 2018.

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Photo of Lord Lea of Crondall Lord Lea of Crondall Labour 6:01 pm, 5th December 2018

My Lords, we all have to be highly selective in this debate but, before I address the central question of where we go from here, as the right reverend Prelate is on his way out, I would like to express my accord with the remarks he made and how many nails he knocked on the head, referring to the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Back in April, a cross-party group of us submitted an amendment to the then European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, calling on Parliament to take back control, in effect—not to negotiate internationally itself, but to provide the Government with a mandate for the negotiations with the EU. It is a great pity that the other place did not adopt it because, however difficult it would have been for the Government then, it could well have helped them now. Parliament was excluded, but if the Government lose the meaningful vote next week, we in Parliament will need to step in with alternatives of our own.

We hear now the return of the dictum associated with Baroness Thatcher: “There is no alternative”. Some of us set out our alternative. I have been involved in producing a pamphlet, which I have here, on how we would return to the EEA through moving from Pillar 1, the EU, to Pillar 2, EFTA. I am afraid that I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Owen, in a speech with which I otherwise had much sympathy, is right about the technical point here, which is that the EEA is in fact a twin-pillar organisation—the pillar of the EU and the pillar of EFTA. One can be in the EEA only if one belongs to one or the other of them. There would be scope for exploring further with the EU and EFTA about what we have proposed in this pamphlet, an alternative to the EU, which would be an evolving role of the European Economic Area. All Members of both Houses should have received one of these pamphlets, and I have further copies if anyone is keen to get this instead of a Christmas card.

We have a better alternative to the Government’s deal, and we must push ahead inter alia, otherwise the working people of this country would not only not be in the single market, with all its industrial aspects, but would be only in what is called a protected position on existing rights under the Social Chapter—that is, rights at work. Given all the evidence of disquiet in the country about where we are with jobs and our industrial future, I hope that this will not be left just for people with a trade union hat on to, as it were, push up the agenda of concern.

It has often been said that the objection to the EEA is that we would be a rule taker rather than a rule maker. But, apart from anything else, we would be in a position in the EEA to address what some of the EU people in Brussels now know has to be a decade of evolution in many of the protocols and workings of the EU/EFTA arrangement. Of course, it was Jacques Delors who, in 1990, established the EEA with a view to an evolution in the medium term. That is very important and would certainly include, de minimis, a strengthening of the consultative arrangements before legislation.

On the attitude of the Norwegian and Icelandic Governments, I will read out two quotes from the past few days to put them on the record. Mrs Solberg, the Norwegian Prime Minister, on the question of whether she would support Britain coming back, said:

“If that is what they really want, we will find solutions in the future. To find a good agreement is important for all European countries and I hope that we will see an orderly deal that doesn’t disrupt economic affairs in Europe”.

I say that because Norway’s biggest trading partner is, of course, ourselves. Norway sells natural gas, fish, and services in particular. The Icelandic Foreign Minister, Mr Thórdarson, said:

“We would be very positive towards the idea of the UK joining EFTA/EEA—you are the ones that started the organisation”.

The proposal that we are making should not in any sense be associated with the terminology used by Nick Boles MP, “Norway for now”—I think he may have rescinded that now. We are talking about a long-term relationship and an evolutionary one, and I think that phrase is not a very polite way to greet potential colleagues in Norway; nor, with great respect, is it a good idea to refer to us having entitlements in that regard. But I think the negotiations would be very constructive.

I was rather disappointed, for once, by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Newby, on the EU/EFTA option. It would make a great difference to the weight of EFTA. I have some knowledge of the background to this, and I think his word “supine” referred to the lack of weight in the EFTA pillar of the EEA. But we are a big elephant relative to the size of EFTA, and that itself would change things. I repeat: there is an appetite in Brussels to see some evolution in these arrangements.

Finally, I believe that in the next few weeks we cannot crash out; we have to find an alternative. We would have to do that in any event if we wish to make progress both with the extension of Article 50 and on the important political declaration to which our attention was drawn by my noble friend Lord Whitty.