My Lords, etiquette is very important in foreign affairs, especially in war and peace. In the case of the EU Brexit treaty, there has been a breach of etiquette. Our Prime Minister has been negotiating with the wrong people. She has been dealing with the staff—EU officials and civil servants below her pay grade. It is the equivalent of the American President coming on a state visit to Britain to meet the Permanent Secretary at the Foreign Office. The US Government would never allow that to happen, but we did. Now we need a straightforward conversation between grown-ups, the people in charge, the only people who matter—our Prime Minister, the French President and the German Chancellor. We need a real conversation with the right people. There is not much time left—it should take place tomorrow.
“Prime Minister: Don’t.
Them: Don’t what?
Prime Minister: Don’t be angry with me.
Them: Why not? You haven’t been very charming. You haven’t been understanding. You haven’t even been conversational.
Prime Minister: I’m sorry. Really I am. But lately, it seems that we can’t talk without arguing. I’d be lost without you—that’s the truth.
Them: So what now?
Prime Minister: We need to have a little talk, that’s all.
Them: About what?
Prime Minister: We’re through. Out. You know that.
Them: We don’t really care whether you come or go. All we care about is that you don’t set a precedent for anyone else.
Prime Minister: What about the Irish border problem?
Them: Northern Ireland? Where is that again?
Prime Minister: We want a deal.
Them: Of course—trade deals. My assistant will book a conference call.
Prime Minister: I know it annoys you to set a precedent. I’m not asking for any exceptions for us—just a few changes in the EU for the benefit of all fellow members.
Them: All members? From you? You think only of yourself. You’ve been sulking for years. Variable geometry! Two-speed Europe! Opt-outs!
Prime Minister: Yes, sorry about that.
Them: Well, what is it you want?
Prime Minister: We don’t want anything. We’re leaving anyway. But you keep saying how very sad you are to see us leaving.
Prime Minister: So I’ve got only one question for you. What if we were to remain?
Them: That would be different.
Prime Minister: How different? What would you offer us?
Them: What would you like?
Prime Minister: I thought you’d never ask! Well, now you mention it, only two things.
Them: Go on.
Prime Minister: We want equality—to be equal to you in voting rights, not to be a subordinate or a junior member. We don’t want you to boss us around, and we don’t want to boss you around. We want equality—with you.
Them: What else?
Prime Minister: We want to recognise free movement of people but also legitimate concerns among members about uncontrolled immigration.
Them: Is that it? Anything else?
Prime Minister: No, nothing else. That’s it. You could call it remain-plus.
Them: Then you’d stay?
Prime Minister: Yes.
Them: And what do we get out of it?
Prime Minister: You get what you always wanted. Unity. No breakaways. No precedent for anyone else. We all stick together. Peace. Security. And for the EU to be a vanguard force. A frontier spirit. An economic power to rival America and China. What say you?
Them: OK! Done! Let’s go! When do we start?”
We need that conversation now, because, as other noble Lords have said this afternoon, none of the current least worst options will heal our relationship with the EU and with each other—everyone will be a loser. A new approach is necessary; another 585 pages of codicils, protocols and appendices will not do the job. New creativity is necessary. Without achieving that, there will always be a perpetual EU crisis of war and conflicts, and none of us will live in peace and tranquillity.
We can do it; it is called remain-plus, and it means that we will have won a lot for our years of political anguish: equal voting power to France and Germany and a reasonable control of immigration. Lead, not leave: we would take our rightful place as at least one of the big three in Europe. That would make it all worth while, would it not? If anyone says to your Lordships that the EU would never accept that, here is Manfred Weber, who is the leader of the biggest parliamentary group in the EU and the front-runner to replace Mr Juncker as the President of the EU Commission. He says:
“Brexit is absolutely an example that people can see in reality … why our main message … is that it’s better to reform the European Union where we need a reform, than to leave or even destroy it”.
Remember that the Chancellor of Germany and the French President have a big motive. In France, 40% of the population is interested in Frexit and Austria, Greece, Italy and France will apparently all express their unhappiness with the current EU set-up in the forthcoming European elections.
We are at an historic moment of maximum power in Europe. I repeat: this is a moment of our maximum power in Europe. Now all we have to do is use it: one conversation to change history. We can do it.
I was very pleased to hear my noble friend say that the Government welcome our contribution. Your Lordships’ House has been here, is here and will always be here, playing our usual constructive role. But there is another example of poor etiquette: this time between the House of Commons and the House of Lords. I am told that it is something to do with the democratic mandate.
Like all humble people, we do not mind looking up to our superiors in another place as long as we are not taken for granted, but so far we have been the dog that did not bark in the night, with not even a growl. We have the expertise—we all know that—and we have the power, as confirmed by the Library, which confirmed to me that the usual powers of the House of Lords would apply to the passage of any Act of Parliament to do with Brexit.
I encourage the House not to be satisfied with these take note Motions. We should not accept that the other place is voting on the historic choice facing our nation tomorrow while today we are debating only a take note Motion. That will not help us on the day of judgment, when we have to stand responsible for what we have done in this House.
I am very proud of our House—as your Lordships know—and what it can do. I would like it to end the current dismal choice between the least worst options that nobody wants. Let us give the people of Britain and Europe something they both want. It is ready and waiting, I can tell you: it is in the Printed Paper Office and on page 19 of today’s Order Paper. It is the EU Membership Bill, and I hope that your Lordships will consider it. We might then hear, loud and clear, what we want to hear: the Clerk’s immortal words in the House of Commons, “Message from the House of Lords”.