Brexit: Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration - Motion to Take Note (Continued) (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 9:41 pm on 14th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Keen of Elie Lord Keen of Elie The Advocate-General for Scotland, Lords Spokesperson (Ministry of Justice) 9:41 pm, 14th January 2019

I hear the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, saying that that is a good idea, but of course it has no comparison with the present situation, if we want to reverse the decision made in a referendum when it has never even been implemented. That is why people would regard it as something of an outrage.

As my noble friend Lord O’Shaughnessy observed, there are issues with the call for a second referendum. Indeed, many people would regard it as a charade, because those calling for it, or at least many of those calling for it, do not want the people to decide. They want the people to give them what they regard as the correct answer, because they did not give it last time. And there is no reason they would not ignore a second leave vote just as readily as they ignored the first leave vote. Of course, they seek to dress it up as the “people’s vote”. Who do they believe voted in the first referendum—sheep? It was the people’s vote.

I come back to the issue of trust. We have the withdrawal agreement and the backstop, which are and are intended to be temporary means for us to actually exit the European Union and do not, by themselves, determine our future relationship. That is outlined in the political declaration. If we do not trust the party with whom we are engaging, then all forms of agreement and negotiation are simply worthless. At the level of international law you cannot—short of war or gunboat diplomacy—force a nation or an international body to implement a promise or obligation if it decides not to do so. Whether it is an oral promise, a written assurance, a solemn undertaking, an international treaty or something written in blood on vellum, if they are determined to lie to you, to mislead you, to change their minds, you are simply going nowhere.

We hear references to the EU wishing to punish us, wishing to put us into a triple lock, wishing to hold the backstop in perpetuity. Yet the European Union says, entirely candidly, that it wants a fruitful future economic, security and social relationship with the United Kingdom, so why would it want to punish us? It does not want to enter a backstop and if it does, it wishes to do so for the shortest time possible. Nobody appears to have acknowledged that, in fact, great advances were made over the backstop in the negotiations. It was proposed originally for Northern Ireland only, which would have had the most profound consequences for our constitutional situation in the United Kingdom, but that is no longer the case. It embraces the entirety of the United Kingdom and by doing so it breaks the four freedoms that the European Union said would never be broken and produces the very cherry picking that it said it would never contemplate.

In addition, the European Union has made it clear that it wants to implement the terms of the political declaration as soon as possible. If we do not believe it, we should stop now, but if we trust it, then we can place faith in these expressions, whether in a formal treaty, a written declaration or correspondence from the President of the Commission and the President of the Council. If we trust the integrity of our interlocutors, we may better understand the motives of those with whom we negotiate and the extent to which they are truly willing to compromise. We often see the European Union as concerned with economics, social policy and politics, but in reality I suspect that it considers its priorities to be political, social and economic. That is one reason so many people in the United Kingdom chose to leave: they were against the notion, that underpins even the original treaty of Rome, of ever-closer political union.

The withdrawal agreement and political declaration have to be read together and in good faith. We have to trust the promises that are made in good faith and understand the need for compromise on both sides.

Looking to ourselves, we perhaps need to remind ourselves that the referendum was not a choice between good and evil or between ruin and redemption. My noble friend Lord Forsyth of Drumlean suggested at one point that the most reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury had implied that all those who voted leave would go to hell. I do not believe that he suggested any such thing.