My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, and I agree with many, although not all, of the points that she made. I declare my role as a former MEP.
It is not overdramatic to say that this country is facing the worst crisis since the Suez crisis of 1956, and arguably the worst crisis since the Second World War. At least in the case of Suez, the run on the pound was mercifully short, and the change of Prime Minister was smoothly executed as Macmillan succeeded Eden. Yesterday, for the first time in British history, a Government were found in contempt of Parliament, which I think shows how the body politic in the UK is in collective meltdown at the moment.
It is also clear that the UK’s exit from the EU on the basis of the withdrawal agreement before us will have severe ramifications for many years, perhaps generations, to come. To take another historical analogy, and following on from the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, who gave some historical examples, the withdrawal agreement resembles a set of terms foisted on a defeated nation, rather like the Treaty of Versailles. As the Government’s published legal advice shows, the UK will have no unilateral right to end the backstop or exit the single customs territory. As a crumb of comfort, we have been told that the withdrawal agreement says it is intended to apply “only temporarily”. However, the reality is that Brussels will have no incentive to release the UK from the Irish backstop.
The political declaration is in my view meaningless, containing 26 pages of vague aspirations which have no legal force, unlike the withdrawal agreement itself. It will take very many years to negotiate a proper future relationship with the EU, and the declaration is full of vague, non-committal phrases, as has been said many times in your Lordships’ House today.
The Brexit negotiations have been a shambles, not helped by the disarray in the Government. They have, frankly, been a national humiliation. Anyone competent on the negotiating team has either resigned or been sacked. Meanwhile, Brussels appointed a capable Frenchman to run rings round the British negotiators and poach financial services from the City of London, with Paris blatantly wooing our companies to relocate.
The question for your Lordships’ House and Her Majesty’s Government is: what do we do now? The EU has made it clear that the deal cannot be renegotiated, and even if the political declaration is tinkered with, that will not do the trick. As oft repeated by noble Lords, the British people voted for Brexit but they did not vote to be worse off. The Prime Minister says that the options are her deal, leaving without a deal, no Brexit or going back to square 1. We have to hold our hands up to the British people and say that after over two years we are just not ready to leave the EU on
We need time as a Parliament and as a country to sort ourselves out. We need to extend or revoke Article 50—a point that, again, has been raised a number of times in your Lordships’ House—and use the time to negotiate a different deal, scrapping the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration in their entirety. The EU says that it will not renegotiate the agreement: fair enough; let us look at an entirely different model. This could, for example, be a customs union, allowing for real frictionless trade in goods and services, restrictions on freedom of movement and the ability to sign our own free trade agreements. That would also solve the Irish backstop issue and there would be no need for a hard border. Such a deal can be negotiated; they just did not try.
The EU also understands that attitudes on the continent towards untrammelled freedom of movement have changed since the UK’s referendum, especially in Italy and central and eastern Europe. Before the referendum, when David Cameron came back from Brussels with no meaningful agreement on curtailing freedom of movement, both he and the agreement were doomed. That was the EU’s big mistake, in my view. It reminded me of when Mikhail Gorbachev was refused vital loans from the West in 1991, and he and the USSR were overthrown in a matter of weeks, with tanks rumbling on the streets of Moscow; and Gorbachev knew it was coming.
The British people voted leave in the referendum for two main reasons: to end uncontrolled immigration and to restore our sovereignty. The proposed withdrawal agreement deals with the former to a limited extent but fails on the latter. Theresa May should not make the same mistake with this half-baked deal as Cameron did in 2016. It will damage the economy and trap the UK in a form of single customs territory, where we will have no say over our future. We need to restart this process with the EU from the beginning, if necessary, and if that requires fresh legislation from Parliament so be it. There is no point in holding a second referendum unless freedom of movement is addressed; the result would likely be the same. All this may not be ideal, but any idea of the UK exiting the EU on time and in an ideal way is long past.