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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:36 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne Liberal Democrat 6:36 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, it is my turn now. I apologise for my earlier mistaken intervention. The latter part of this afternoon has been a little confusing.

As a former Member of Parliament and a former Member of the European Parliament, I feel strongly that the voter has spoken and the bell has tolled. I believe powerfully that, in this Chamber and in the House of Commons, it is our duty to put through Brexit in whatever way is best for the United Kingdom. I see here colleagues who have studied the political declaration more closely. Yes, it has some significant black holes. There is no doubt that one feels fearful about the position of Gibraltar, for example, and about the unexplored deep black hole of data protection.

For example, we wish to have a major trade deal with the United States of America, and that is contra-indicative to the United States’ approach to data protection. The European Union has a very significant data protection position, drawn from its experience in the last world war and delving deep into what happened in Germany with data then. Although today’s international electronic world rather gives the lie to data protection —we only have to see what has happened in Germany this week, with the data of the German Members of Parliament and political aficionados displayed everywhere —there is nevertheless a profound belief in the European Union about data protection and the protection of the individual. That is very different from the USA’s position.

We wish to have a strong and powerful deal with the USA and as near a free market agreement as we can have with the European Union. Both things are going to be difficult, and naturally they have therefore not been tackled in the rather rapidly drawn political declaration and draft agreement. I say rapidly because, having been fortunate enough to have worked on such agreements when I was in the European Parliament, I know they take years to put together.

Article 50, which I believe one of our colleagues on the Cross Benches, the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, was heavily involved in, looks exactly like a scribble on the back of an envelope which really does not make sense. It is very short. The treaty of Lisbon, which was not even signed by the British Prime Minister, is desperately weak. That is where the European Union started to unravel in 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

I suggest that the central purpose of the European Union is one that we need to think about very carefully indeed. I am sure we will be leaving. The lunacy of a second referendum would dramatically undermine the primacy of the other place which should be omnicompetent in our system, but will not be any longer if it keeps having referenda.

Once we have left, we will need to consider very carefully how we support the European Union that we leave behind. The original purpose of the European Union is still there. It is not completely fulfilled, and that may be why so many people feel a sense of loss in advance of leaving. The very strength of Germany alarms the rest of Europe, most particularly in its eternal differences with France, which is the weaker partner. That has enlarged and heightened the fragility of the European Union, along with continued land issues: between Poland and Germany, between Hungary and Romania, within and beside the Balkans, between Spain and the UK—I have already mentioned Gibraltar —let alone the continuing disputes within the individual member states, such as between Spain and Catalonia, and within the neighbourhood of member states, of which Cyprus and North Cyprus is a very clear example.

The European Union has successfully held the ring for a growing EU population to live and work in peace. It has enabled France and Germany to meet and reach agreement on a near-daily, and sometimes a near-hourly, basis. In consequence, both nations—perhaps for the first time in hundreds or thousands of years—now work in partnership and not in conflict. This in itself is, I suggest, a truly magnificent achievement—one of which we too should be rightly proud as we played our part therein.

Yet, commanded by the British people, our Government are struggling with the complex manner of us handing in our EU membership and becoming a third-party state outside of the EU, albeit with high-level benefits. Certainly, the withdrawal agreement, which the Prime Minister has painstakingly agreed, is perhaps the best we can expect today. We should be proud of the large body of civil servants who have spent months working on this, in partnership with fellow members of the European Commission secretariat, another fine body of professionals. We should be very proud and grateful to them for their work, even if we do not firmly endorse the outcomes that they have reached.

But what next? What concerns me is, once we have left, a huge and continuing piece of work approaches for us: forging new relationships, opening up fresh trading opportunities, exploring distant horizons and refining relationships nearer to home. We in Britain are indeed up for the job. Our nation has never been so successful nor so at ease with itself, since the last world war ended, as we are today.

So why is this dramatic change required? Why should we pursue this tricky and perilous alteration to our European status? The most reverend Primate the Archbishop fears that it will harm millions and all end in tears. The reason, of course, lies within the European Union itself. It has grabbed competences far wider—more intrusively invading and destroying rights and privileges, customs and local ways and means—than ever before. Its legislation is a daily diet that is both detailed and proscriptive. Massive centralisation has overwhelmed the original and praiseworthy concept of Europe of the regions against Europe of the nation states. It is far away from the founders’ creation of an intergovernmental body, on the lines of those post-war institutions which did not set out nor plan to become a model of democracy. No parliament was foreseen, nor was the creation of any legislation at all anticipated. The opposite took place, and we now have this enormous centralised body; and it is right, therefore, that today the European Union should be our partner but not our owner.

I support leaving. I do not foresee an easy ride, but I hope we will end up with the most powerful solutions that fit our nation, as well as our future relationship with Europe.