My Lords, however people view Brexit and the controversy surrounding it, we have now certainly reached a critical phase in the Brexit undertaking. We have moved a long way since the referendum, in what has proved to be a tortuous and highly charged process. But let us just remember a few things. We were threatened with huge increases in unemployment, a major recession and a flight of capital. Conversely, we were told that because we import considerable numbers of cars from Germany, businesses in the rest of Europe would push their Governments into responding to our demands unhesitatingly. The simple reality, for those of us who sit on EU committees, is the sheer complexity of what this process has involved, the way that we have integrated so much of our activity with the European Union in bringing businesses, investment and employment into this country, and how complicated the divorce process is. Many businesses that located here simply as an entry point to the single market have put further investment on hold.
I should like to examine some of the elements of the withdrawal agreement that need to be further refined and clarified. The checks and balances of this agreement, under Article 164, are in effect to be controlled by a Joint Committee. Its main function is to keep, with qualification, the withdrawal agreement under review, but its decisions equate to the same legal effect as the agreement itself. It will oversee some specialised committees, which may be added to, during transition and for a period of four years thereafter, so it has the potential for real power and influence. For those of us who fear opacity, some clarity about oversight is certainly needed and we should not overlook this.
We have a proud and long-standing network of relationships forged in our history but also, more latterly, through our membership of the EU. In areas such as security and defence, sanctions and overseas aid, our relationships with the EU have enhanced the reputation and capability of the EU and indeed ourselves.
The political declaration expresses the intention to co-operate closely at a bilateral level and within international organisations when and where the interests of the United Kingdom and the European Union are shared. The political declaration talks of consultation and dialogue in respect of foreign, security and defence policy. But the actual process is unclear and appears to preclude the United Kingdom even requesting attendance at members’ meetings when clearly appropriate. So perhaps I may express the hope that as our relationship post Brexit evolves, the unqualified offer made by our Prime Minister on these matters achieves a more clearly definable form. Frankly, the attitude of European members as regards the Galileo project has made no sense in this context.
I happen to chair the British Ukrainian Society. The appalling aggression recently of Russia in the Sea of Azov, and spilling over into the Black Sea, simply reinforces the need for us to co-operate intensely with our European neighbours and, for example, to undertake sanctions together in our mutual interest wherever that is appropriate.
The question of the backstop is one that has understandably greatly exercised your Lordships. It is certainly a matter of the most profound regret that the question of the border on the island of Ireland has in my view been so mishandled. Of course, at the last minute there was a hiccup but essentially the issue of Gibraltar’s relationship with Spain was quietly and efficiently resolved. By contrast, the loud running commentary surrounding the Norther Ireland border question has led to considerable tension and mistrust within the United Kingdom, and of course particularly in Northern Ireland. There are those who believe, however, that the European Union may not wish to see the backstop operating for any length of time, if at all.
It is worth noting that in the backstop part of the withdrawal agreement, level playing field rules cover various sectors, but in only one are we are required to maintain future EU rules—namely, state aid, which on the face of it seems perfectly legitimate. There are, additionally, those who believe that while we have tariff-free access to European markets without paying money, there may be a considered view among some European countries that the United Kingdom would have a competitive advantage over their own country and their own economy. But it is very unclear at this time and the politics of the situation—I say this as a unionist—are very difficult indeed. I hope that this matter can be somehow revisited and changed if we are to move on successfully. Certainly, the parliamentary arithmetic dictates that.
I conclude with an expression of hope for our future. Almost all industrialised countries are riven by division, much aggravated by anonymous social networks. Whatever one’s view of Brexit, it is wrong that individual civil servants and judges, and even the Governor of the Bank of England, have been criticised so personally. I hope we can move beyond the current stage quickly, so that we can get on to trade negotiations. I should just add, as one of the Prime Minister’s trade envoys, that there is now nothing to prevent us pursuing commercial activity abroad. I see for myself the ferocious competition between us and other members of the European Union but, all being well, the next stage will be trade negotiations. They are one of the two key elements of our departure from the European Union; namely, to be able to secure direct and comprehensive trade deal arrangements abroad to ensure our future.
I can only hope that we will move on to the next stage, in whatever form it takes, free of the rancour that is certainly alien to our traditional standards of debate. But as I have seen in my export promotion role, there is enormous affection for this country, considerable admiration for the resilience of our Prime Minister and high regard for our parliamentary processes. The deal we have struck is certainly imperfect, but in essence it is probably, in my view, what we could have expected and we should now move on accordingly. That is my great hope for what will happen in the weeks and months to come.