Further Developments in Discussions with the European Union under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:32 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Hannay of Chiswick Lord Hannay of Chiswick Crossbench 4:32 pm, 11th March 2019

My Lords, I am delighted to be following the noble Lord, Lord Saatchi, because, despite some misgivings in the early stages of what he said—the feeling that nature abhors a vacuum and some pretty odd things then dash in—he ended up, as far as I understand him, by saying that he believed we ought to remain.

We have not had a series of take-note debates, we have had a series of debates on Motions voted through by substantial majorities in this House in January and February, which deal with all the main issues being considered in another place this week. We considered the Prime Minister’s deal that she agreed last November and believed that it would leave the UK less prosperous, less secure and less influential than it is now. That is pretty clear. We urged that exit with no deal should be categorically rejected—that is pluperfectly clear—and we called for adequate time to put in place all the legislation required before exit, which now, on 11 March, one can say cannot conceivably be achieved before the end of the month. Those positions have not changed since we voted them through, and the Government’s take-note Motion at the end of this debate does not seek to change them. They stand on the record.

As to the legal writhings in Brussels over the Irish backstop which have dominated reporting over the past few days, one can pay tribute to the perseverance and grim determination of the Prime Minister and her team while regretting that those qualities were not devoted to a rather better cause. All this has been necessitated by a fundamental contradiction built into the Government’s position at the outset between one objective, which was to avoid any new border controls in Ireland, and the other, of leaving the EU single market and customs union and operating an independent trade policy. That contradiction was fashioned by the Prime Minister, not Parliament, and remains completely unresolved.

For all its warm words and fancy phrases, what looks like it is being described as a joint interpretative note—if it emerges—will change nothing in what was already on offer in the November deal and the conclusions of the European Council in December. The Government say that they cannot accept the backstop provisions being of “indefinite duration”. That is slightly odd because they started by saying that they could not accept them being permanent, which clearly they are not. They now take issue with “indefinite”, but that is surely the nature of the role of an insurance policy. It is conditions-related and not arbitrarily limited in time or exitable by one party to the deal.

So where should we go from here? Clearly, we must wait for the outcome of the votes in another place, all three of which could well be described as meaningful. If the Prime Minister’s deal does not get a majority, leaving without a deal is ruled out and more time is demanded, we will be in what the Prime Minister described correctly as “uncharted waters”. Personally, I would advocate a substantial extension of the 29 March deadline: one sufficient for a proper rethink of the whole process, not just to organise a third, even more desperate, attempt to get the November package through; and one that would provide sufficient time to consult the electorate on an outcome which has no resemblance whatever to what they were promised in 2016. Clearly, there are complications over the European Parliament elections in May, but that is a matter for all 28 countries, not just us, to resolve. We can hope that it will be handled with sensitivity and common sense.

Apart from that, a prolongation will not be very different from the transition period in the Prime Minister’s deal, except that we will remain in the EU’s institutions with a voice and a say during a period when much of what is important to us, whether we are inside or outside the European Union, will be under discussion. Is the possibility of remaining in those institutions during a so-called transition period to be spurned just because it is unappealing to those on the wilder shores of Brexit, with their desire for instant gratification?