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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:21 pm on 9th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Chidgey Lord Chidgey Liberal Democrat 8:21 pm, 9th January 2019

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Hutton, on his robust speech and reassure him that I too will be supporting the Motion in the name of the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, although not necessarily for entirely the same reasons.

I make no apologies for being a committed European, for fundamental and, in my view, irrefutable reasons. In short, through the European Union, we are able to address issues that recognise no national boundaries on a global scale. As a committed European, I founded the Hampshire branch of the European Movement, way back in 1989. Much later, as an elected parliamentarian, I served on the European Convention on Human Rights, and on the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe—both very informative.

For over a decade, I was the UK member of the advisory council of the Association of European Parliamentarians for Africa, working with parliamentarians primarily from other EU countries, managing programmes for capacity building, accountability, and transparency, among our counterparts in developing countries throughout Africa.

Introducing and managing the process of parliamentary accountability, where Governments are subject to the sovereign will of Parliaments, in representative democracies, was a massive step for many, and from current events here in the UK, one that we seem to have almost discarded. Here I agree with the earlier comments made by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, on parliamentary responsibility in the democratic process.

I would like to put a personal slant on this. Before entering Parliament, I had the good fortune to enjoy a successful career as a partner and director in one of the UK’s leading international consulting engineering practices. I was responsible for the business development and project management of our interests throughout much of francophone Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Working with African clients, ruled by Marxist politicians, whose engineers were trained in Russia, and administered under a French bureaucracy with little knowledge of English was particularly challenging. The fact that the funding agencies based in Saudi Arabia insisted on communicating solely in English made it even more so.

I calculate that at today’s prices the capital value of this portfolio would have been some $2.5 billion. Much of this business was won in the face of fierce and implacable competition, including dire financial and occasionally personal threats. I mention this in passing, because it taught me just how difficult it can be to win export business, even in our established markets and traditional areas of expertise. In due course, I was invited to join the board of a major UK utility with over 2,000 employees and a turnover of around three-quarters of a billion pounds as its global director for business development and exports.

Noble Lords will not be surprised that this background gave me an extensive network of contacts across Africa, Europe, the Middle East and south-east Asia. Since the referendum, not one has said to me: “What a jolly good wheeze it would be for the UK to leave the EU to venture into the supposedly unclaimed markets across the sunlit uplands of the developing world”— not one. Without exception, each and every one who has talked to me believed that we had lost control of our senses, forsaking a major part of our export income lying just on our doorstep for intangible, unpredictable and, in many cases, inaccessible world markets.

The world outside Europe is not queueing up, eager and expectant, waiting for our re-entry into the markets that we abandoned so many years ago. For example, at the recent London CHOGM, the then Australian Foreign Minister, Julia Bishop, said to the gathered crowds: “We are considering trade talks with the UK, but we are in negotiations with the EU”. Apparently, we have to leave the EU to access China’s market. As the noble Lord, Lord O’Neill, pointed out, how is it that Germany is already China’s fourth largest trading partner, with total trade rising to €187 billion in 2017, up by nearly 10% from 2016? In India, the WTO ranks Germany sixth, while the UK is a lowly fifteenth. There has been some increase in our trade figures in some cases, but nowhere near enough to fill the huge financial chasm that a post-Brexit situation would create.

For example, Belgium, Germany and Ireland are the second, fourth, and eighth largest traders in Nigeria. While UK trade increased by 23%, trade with France increased by 57%. This is not Project Fear. These are trading facts from the WTO. Is it not time that we started to face up to the facts? It was John Maynard Keynes who first said:

“If the facts change, I change my mind”.

But the facts have not really changed. It is just that they have now been revealed, warts and all.

The obfuscation, the misleading data, the fake facts, the targeted multimedia propaganda, the illegal election expenditure in the campaign, all stripped away to reveal that, in economic terms, we will be better off staying in the EU rather than leaving. Leaving the EU will make this country poorer and those who are least able to will bear the greater burden.

In this debate, we have had a wide range of quotes. May I add some of my own about parliamentary democracy versus delegatory plebiscite? When Edmund Burke was defending representative democracy, he said:

“Your representative owes you not only his industry, but his judgment and he betrays instead of serving you, if he sacrifices it to your opinion”.

Today, it seems as if governance by plebiscite will eventually come to depend on the number of likes on Facebook. Nevertheless, a people’s vote is becoming the least worst option for getting out of the bind that we are now in.

Finally, nationalism is beginning to grow again in our western democracies, driven by austerity, poverty and exclusion. Surely if we are to defeat this and lift the burden from the shoulders of the poor and the resentment and hatred that accompany it, it will be through the nation states of Europe working together for the common good under the umbrella of the European Union.