Brexit: Proposed UK–EU Security Treaty (European Union Committee Report) - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:51 pm on 16th January 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat 6:51 pm, 16th January 2019

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord West of Spithead, said that this is a timely debate. In some ways it is very timely, and in other ways it feels somewhat out of date.

We have just finished a debate on a report about treating students fairly from the Economic Affairs Committee of your Lordships’ House. It was also published in the summer of 2018, and has aged quite well in the last six months—very little has changed. In terms of the report from your Lordships’ European Union Committee on the proposed UK-EU security treaty, everything and nothing has changed. The noble Lord, Lord Jay, said when he opened this debate that in many ways he was not going to look at the report precisely because so much has changed.

When that report was written, it was very clear that security co-operation was essential, as we have heard from across the Chamber this evening. But it was also clear that security co-operation was not guaranteed. The idea that it is not a zero-sum game is important, but it is also important to understand that the law of unintended consequences—as the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, suggested—is a real risk. In July last year when the report was written, the Government and the committee were working on the assumption that there would be a withdrawal agreement and a transitional arrangement which would take us to the end of 2020. The report, and the Government’s response, were written in that vein.

What we have seen in the last two weeks in the other place suggests that neither of those things may happen; we may not have a withdrawal agreement, and if we do not then we will not have a transitional arrangement. If security needs to be continuous, if there should not be a single minute between the arrangements that we have now and where we are when we leave the European Union, what is the Government’s plan if, on the 29 March at 23.01, we are outside the European Union and we do not have a deal?

I am speaking from the Liberal Democrat Benches, and your Lordships might think that I should not even be speculating that there might be a hard Brexit by 29 March—after all, that is certainly not what we are calling for, and is not what the House of Commons voted for last week. There was a vote that said the Government should not even be preparing to look at a no-deal Brexit—in other words, a no-deal Brexit cannot happen because the House of Commons will not allow it.

However, unless we amend the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, we are leaving the European Union on 29 March. There may not be a majority in favour of a no-deal Brexit, but, unless in the next nine weeks there is some other arrangement, we are going to have a hole in our security. While the noble Lord, Lord West, is absolutely right that the United Kingdom has significant defence capabilities and has been one of the two main defence components of the European Union—along with France—and that it is in no-one’s interest to have a no-deal situation on security, the fact that we want something to happen does not mean that it will. The whole concept of a Brexit on terms the UK wants has already been proven to be somewhat fallacious. The report that was drafted in July 2018 was written at the time of the Chequers agreement—so-called—before the withdrawal agreement—so-called—and before the House of Commons said that it did not want the deal.

Even if a withdrawal agreement of some sort can be salvaged between now and March, what confidence can the Government give us that there will then be a security treaty in place leaving the United Kingdom and EU 27 as safe then as we are today?

Finally, can the Minister begin to tell us how we would get to that situation, given that some of the key aspects, as the noble Lord, Lord Jay, has made absolutely clear would be essential, include the jurisdiction of the Court of Justice of the European Union? That was one of the key reasons the deal was voted down in the other place; it was not just about the Northern Ireland backstop. That is going to be an issue for a security treaty as much as the withdrawal agreement. Can the Government give us any assurance at all that we will be secure?