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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:32 pm on 14th January 2019.

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Photo of Lord Jay of Ewelme Lord Jay of Ewelme Chair, EU Home Affairs Sub-Committee 5:32 pm, 14th January 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Shipley. I have spent about 25 years of my life involved one way or another with the UK’s membership of and participation in the European Union. I have always believed that Europe is better off with the European Union than without it—think just of 1870, 1914 and 1940—and that both the European Union and the United Kingdom have benefited hugely from our membership. That is why I voted to remain.

The EU is, of course, imperfect. Relations within it are often fraught, as now, with immensely difficult issues of migration, the eurozone and the politics of its eastern European members. But all that has always seemed a reason why we should have the confidence to use our influence to help mould the European Union, as I believe we have over the years under successive Prime Ministers since Margaret Thatcher, so that it reflects and promotes our own interests. But we are where we are, or as the noble Lord, Lord Deben, said on the day after the referendum, “We are where we are but no one has the faintest idea where that is”, which is, alas, truer now than ever.

The present draft withdrawal agreement is imperfect, but it is not likely to be changed. The political declaration on the UK’s future relationship with the EU was never going to be much more than an annotated agenda for future negotiations, which will be long drawn-out, difficult and held with a new Commission, a new European Parliament and leaders of member states whose attention will be elsewhere. This is not an attractive prospect.

Even less attractive is leaving without a deal, which is surely far too risky to contemplate, as many have argued cogently and, in my view, rightly in this debate. The debate and vote that matters is in the House of Commons tomorrow. If the Commons cannot agree on the Prime Minister’s proposed agreement and cannot agree on another course either, I agree strongly with the noble Duke, the Duke of Wellington, that the right course would be to postpone the 29 March departure date to give the Government and the European Union more time. If that is not possible, the best option would be to have another referendum, although I do not say that with any huge enthusiasm.

Finally, I will say a word about Ireland in the light of recent visits as part of your Lordships’ European Union Committee to Dublin, Belfast, Derry/Londonderry and the border. Paragraph 11 of the Government’s recent paper on Ireland says:

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK with a land border with an EU Member State, and the free and unfettered movement of goods and people across that border is vital to the lives and livelihoods of the people on both sides of the border”.

I agree entirely, and I applaud the Prime Minister’s determination to ensure that that unfettered movement continues. I hope that her ambition will not in any way be whittled away. I applaud too the Prime Minister’s continuing commitment to the Good Friday/Belfast agreement, which has, over 20 years, led progressively to what those of us in the rest of United Kingdom would regard as a normal life. But what worries me greatly in this ghastly Brexit saga is the deteriorating relationship between London and Dublin. I would be very grateful if the Minister, in replying to the debate, gave an absolute assurance that a continuing, constructive and close relationship with the Irish Government remains as important now and for the future, whatever it holds, as it has for last 20 years.