Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:30 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hope of Craighead Lord Hope of Craighead Convenor of the Crossbench Peers 4:30 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, it seems to me, too, that nothing much has changed since we began our debate on this subject on 5 December. I said then that I felt trapped in a maze from which there was no way out. It seemed then that, despite the EU’s obvious shortcomings, we would almost certainly lose more than we would gain by leaving it. However, I was, and I still am, willing to respect the result of the referendum and to regard it as something from which there can be no turning back. Nevertheless, I still feel trapped, because there is no way out that is as attractive as remaining in the EU, and because, of the various possible ways out of the maze that give effect to the result, some are distinctly less attractive than others.

I said that nothing much has changed. There was of course last night’s vote in the House of Commons, and another vote this afternoon, but on their own these votes have not moved anything forward. One thing still seems to be just as certain as it was on 5 December: as the law stands, we will be leaving the EU on 29 March. That is the effect of paragraph 3 of Article 50. The treaties will cease to apply to us on that date—that is, two years after the notification—if we have not entered into a withdrawal agreement. Frankly, rather than crashing out of the EU, as it is sometimes put, we will be pushed out—ejected, one might say—by this article of the Lisbon treaty. We are still faced with the same problems.

As matters stand, there seems to be no majority in the other place for the agreement on the table. Personally, I regret that, because of the uncertainty that this situation gives rise to. As I said last time, I sympathise with those members of the public, many in the business community, who are fed up with the process and want to move on and have certainty. It is not just the business community. Many other people, up and down the country, have, quite frankly, given up on all the detail. Some just want a deal to happen so we can move on. They recognise that there may be a price to be paid because the deal has not a few things wrong with it, but they are willing to pay that price and to move on. There are others who wish that the whole issue would go away and who would like to have another vote on it.

Like last time, I am left with three possible ways out of the maze, other than accepting the deal that is now on the table. The first is no deal. I still think that, if leaving the EU with this deal will make us all somewhat poorer, to leave with no deal at all would be far worse. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, that this is simply not an option. Business leaders and the Governor of the Bank of England tell us that it is the worst of all worlds. Furthermore, leaving on WTO terms, which this seems to amount to, would leave so much in this agreement unresolved. To take just one example, the consequences for our security and for judicial co-operation in criminal and family law matters would be very serious. No solution for this problem has yet been devised that can be relied upon, after many months of trying and calling for it in this House and other places. The time to do anything about it is fast running out. For me, this is simply not an option.

One other point we should recognise is that the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, the legislation we are currently seeking to implement in various ways through SIs and so on, was drafted on the assumption that there would be an agreement. It does not begin to address the situation that would arise if there is no deal. Is it conceivable that we could have legislation that does that in place, in time, for all that would have to be done before 29 March? I very much doubt it.

Should we ask the Prime Minister to go back and renegotiate, in the expectation that some significant changes can be achieved? Again, it seems to me to be too much. It would prolong uncertainty with little prospect of success, and it is far from clear how much can be done about the wording of the political declaration at this stage. Article 50 contemplates agreement on what it describes as a framework for our future relationship. The political declaration is far short of what can be described as such, but it is something that looks to the future, and it may well be the best we can get for now. Whatever we do, and whatever may be got out of further discussions with the EU negotiators, is for the future.

Back to the people? Of course, if a second referendum were to reverse the vote, it would open the door to a decision by Parliament not to leave after all—to no Brexit. But we would be deluding ourselves if we thought that this would settle the matter for ever. The last campaign was unpleasant enough. “Project Fear” and all the other slogans would raise their ugly heads again. So would those who are likely to promote trouble so as to get their own way, from whichever side. If the result were to be to remain, there would be much resentment among people who voted the other way. They would feel that they had been cheated. They would not remain silent—and who can blame them? It seems to me that there are real dangers here, however attractive this solution might seem.

It seems to me, after all, that the best way out of the maze, defective though it may be, is to accept the agreement and the political declaration for what they are. Part of me regrets that, because there are aspects of it which I do not like. Let us have a sense of perspective, however. We must be careful not to confuse the shortcomings of those documents with the inevitable consequences of no longer being a member state of the EU, about which we can do nothing. Furthermore, the agreement that we are being asked to look at is a deal about the withdrawal and the implementation period only. There is much more work to be done. We should look to the future and move on to the next stage. We should concentrate our efforts now on establishing a sound basis for our future relationship with the EU through that negotiation process which lies ahead, so that we can create what can truly be described as a framework for our future relationship with the EU. That is what really matters in the long run.

The decision to leave was always going to leave us with less than we wanted. We were always going to have to compromise. What is before us is an imperfect deal, for all the reasons the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, explained to us. But that is all we have. So I am where I was in December. I am prepared to swallow all my misgivings, and to accept the agreement and the political declaration as the best answer to the calamity of no deal.