My Lords, what distresses me most about the Brexit debate is the defeatism and pessimism that run through it. It is for me a very un-British thing—the very opposite of what I have always admired about this country. We have behaved as if we were defeated from the start. If I have heard it once, I have heard it 100 times: “The people did not know what they were talking about or voting for”. “We are bound to be overwhelmed by a union of 27 nations”. “After over 40 years of membership, it is all too difficult to disentangle”. These are the beliefs of those who refuse to accept the referendum result in defiance of our duty to implement it, as David Cameron and the leader of the Opposition pledged at the time. These are the beliefs that propel the demand for a second referendum—a referendum of unknown outcome that would prolong uncertainty and deepen still further the rift in our society. I know that some of your Lordships say that it is unfair that young people did not vote, but there will always be young people. Of the next referendum, we could say that the next generation two years down the line also did not vote. It would be a national catastrophe.
I regret to say that such defeatism and lack of self-confidence have contaminated the agreement itself. They have been the worm in the apple of negotiation. It is no wonder that it is so difficult for some people to support the withdrawal agreement and political declaration. They fall far short of the mandate given to the Government and Parliament by the referendum result. As many here have pointed out, the worst thing about the agreement is the open-ended backstop; the Attorney-General has confirmed it. No self-respecting nation, independent for a thousand years, can or should accept indefinite subordination to a foreign authority.
The Government and the EU tell us to take the deal because it is the only one on offer, but there is always another one on offer if we are more self-confident, recognise the EU’s manifest weaknesses and deploy the sticks and carrots of skilful negotiation. To say that it is impossible before even trying is sheer defeatism. We are told that no one has come up with an alternative, but the landscape is littered with alternatives—they have just not been entertained by the Government. Do you know what worries me most? It is that, if we approve this deal, the 17.4 million people who voted to leave will feel that they have been cheated. I dread to think what their reaction will be. We have only to look across the channel at the violent demonstrations all over France to see what happens when the political class and its leadership lose touch with the people. Do not think that it cannot happen in this country. We must obtain an end date for our release from the backstop or we must pursue another course. With political will there is still time.
Incidentally, there is no such thing as “no deal”; there is a spectrum of potential deals. Even a bare-bones agreement, under WTO rules, does not deserve to be called “crashing out”. Of course, there will be a period of adjustment, but it is worth paying the price if we safeguard our sovereignty. The British are the most adaptable people. You need only to go to Germany, where I lived for seven years, or to France, of which I hold a passport, to realise how flexible and adaptable this country is by contrast. This is the moment for our country to rise up from its defensive crouch and to dig deep into its history. It is time to stiffen the sinews in defence of our nation’s sovereignty.
We can look forward to a new era of sovereignty and alliance with our many friends around the globe, including in Europe. Leaving the European Union does not make us any less European. I am a European; I am the symbol of one. I firmly believe that we can do better for our country. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, spoke about a French person living in his constituency who has decided to leave the UK because of Brexit. Well, I say to her, “Good luck!” I wager that she will soon be back when she has seen that in France unemployment is high and the country is in a complete mess. I know of French people who have been and are already back in the UK.
We should stop re-running the referendum; we should stop the negativity. People and businesses in this country want closure. We should not be afraid. We should believe in ourselves. Even if it comes to what people call a “no deal”, we can handle it.