My Lords, I declare my European interests as detailed in the register and my membership of the European Parliament for 10 years in the 1980s. I must start by stating clearly that if I were a Member of the other place, I would vote tomorrow for the withdrawal agreement negotiated by the Government. I was due to speak in this debate in December when we were adjourned. It was, I think, a mistake by the Government not to put the deal to a vote then, and, as a result, we have lost five weeks. But the arguments for supporting the deal remain unchanged.
I voted in the referendum to remain but, with great sadness, I have long since had to accept the result. We must recognise, however, that the economy has already suffered. We have not had the investment or growth that we should have had in the past two and a half years. But both major political parties are committed to honouring the referendum result, and we are leaving. The Government have had the unenviable duty of carrying out the narrowly expressed majority view of the British people to leave the institutional structures of the European Union while minimising the damage to the economy and to the finances of the country.
From the beginning of this process, it has been widely recognised that a transition period will be absolutely essential for all the multiple adjustments which our citizens and businesses must make. If there is no withdrawal agreement, there is no transition period, and all but the ultras recognise that to leave without a deal would be extremely damaging to this country’s interests.
There have been many excellent speeches in this House and in the other place urging a cross-party approach to this matter. This is not a moment to indulge in party-political tactics. Whatever our views on remaining or not in the EU, whatever our party, whatever our previous positions on particular parts of the agreement, we must all now accept that our Government have negotiated a withdrawal agreement which allows us to leave on
Of course, the withdrawal agreement contains the now infamous backstop. But it is not widely understood that the backstop is in fact rather advantageous to this country. We have access to the single market; we leave the common agricultural and fisheries policies; we end free movement of people; we make no financial contributions. Surely it is beyond doubt that the EU will not allow us to remain in this privileged position a week or a month longer than absolutely necessary. It is most unlikely that we will ever get into the backstop anyway.
What is so often forgotten in much comment in the press and elsewhere is that a Canada-plus, a Norway-plus or a Common Market II all need a withdrawal agreement before we can even begin the serious negotiation. The European Commission has said, and repeated today, that it wishes to start the process of the talks on the future relationship as soon as possible after the agreement is passed by the other place. So it is clearly in the national interest to agree this deal and move swiftly to the real and much more difficult negotiation on the future.
It is dispiriting to hear so many Members of both Houses criticising the deal. Some are motivated by actually preferring no deal. Some are motivated by wanting a second referendum. I do not support either of those outcomes. If the deal is rejected tomorrow by the other place, it will, I think, become inevitable that we will need to seek a three-month extension to the Article 50 deadline, and a rejection will almost certainly increase support for a second referendum in the country.
Too much of this debate is driven by ideology and not by common sense. This is a moment when we must be pragmatic. We must agree an orderly departure. We must negotiate a very close future economic relationship with our neighbours and most important markets. This House has been most effective in the past when it devises cross-party agreements. As a House, we must be clear that we cannot allow the country to leave the EU without a deal. If, or when, the other place agrees the withdrawal agreement—which in the end it surely must—I hope that cross-party groups or committees from both Houses will make serious recommendations on the best future relationship with Europe.
In the meantime, I urge the Members of the other place tomorrow to abandon their hopes for no deal, for a general election or for a second referendum, and to support this country’s Government at this most difficult time.