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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:02 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Bilimoria Lord Bilimoria Crossbench 6:02 pm, 11th March 2019

My Lords, today is Commonwealth Day, with a Commonwealth of 53 countries and 2.4 billion people—India makes up more than half of them with 1.25 billion people. A big part of the leave campaign was about global Britain doing more trade with Commonwealth countries. The reality is that 9% of our trade at the moment is with Commonwealth countries, versus 50% with the EU and another 17% through EU trade deals, now including that with Japan which has just been formed, the biggest trade deal in history.

Recently, I taught a negotiating class at the Cambridge Judge Business School, on which I chair the advisory board. It was on negotiations, with Brexit as a case study of how not to do it. As Sun Tzu says, every war is won or lost before it is even started. The starting point of all this was a 52:48 narrow position, whereas the previous two national referenda we had were won by two-thirds majorities—quite conclusive. The next thing is that we rushed into it. Prime Minister David Cameron went to Brussels and came back empty-handed, especially on the emergency brake on migration, which was a big issue at the time. Why has no one spoken—why did he not speak—about the EU regulation in 2004 that allows every EU country to repatriate EU nationals after three months if they cannot show that they can support themselves? Other European countries, including Belgium, use this regulation to control EU migration and have repatriated thousands. We have never done that. Finally the Government acknowledged that to me, but will the noble and learned Lord tell me why it has not been brought to the notice of the public? In 2015-16, immigration was one of people’s biggest fears—the migration crisis, the sad, sad stories that we saw. Today, concerns about immigration are the lowest in more than 15 years.

It is now almost three years since the referendum. The world has changed: we have Trump, trade wars—I could go on. People did not know much about the European Union three years ago; now everyone knows much more. Northern Ireland was barely mentioned in the referendum; now it has become the Achilles heel.

As has been said, we were told that a trade deal with the EU would be so easy to do. In reality, the Government rushed into imposing Article 50, one of their biggest bargaining points, and we have wasted two years on this withdrawal agreement. What is the withdrawal agreement? Agreeing to citizens’ rights between the EU and Britain? We cannot have people used as bargaining chips. To me, it was obvious that we had to sort that out. As for the £39 billion, what is £39 billion in the context of Britain, which has a £2 trillion a year economy in the long run? It is an immaterial figure in the bigger picture. Finally, there is the backstop. That is it. That is all we have done. We were meant to roll over all these EU deals; we are ready to roll over only six of them, including with the Faroe Islands. We have had three Brexit Secretaries.

The biggest difference is that Europe negotiated properly: it negotiated the process first and substance later. What did the Prime Minister do? Set red lines: no more customs union, no more single market, no more ECJ, no more free movement of people. On top of that, the EU had a clear mandate from 27 countries and one negotiator: Michel Barnier. It said very clearly: “You cannot have your cake and eat it too. You cannot have the same terms as you have now”—rightly so—“and you have already had the best of both worlds. You are not in the euro, you are not in Schengen, you measure your roads in miles, you pour your beer in pints. Now you want to opt out and want all the opt-ins”.

The EU has been united throughout this period, whereas we have a Prime Minister without a majority, reliant on the DUP. We have both major political parties, the Government and the Opposition, split. The EU and the world are looking on this great country saying, “Why are you shooting yourself in both feet with both barrels?” The noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, with his years of experience, used the term a “sense of shame”.

This deal is a blindfold Brexit. It will be to infinity and beyond. It is the worst of all worlds. It is bad regardless of the backstop; it is the worst of all deals. If it is voted down, as logically it should be unless something miraculous appears overnight, Parliament must then take no deal off the table. No deal is causing uncertainty. The CBI’s chief economist, Rain Newton-Smith, said:

“With Brexit stuck in stalemate, this only means growing damage today and a weaker economy tomorrow. Growth is at a near standstill and investment is evaporating; the economy is undoubtedly slowing down … the spectre of no deal is holding them back from investing in new factories, new overseas markets and new jobs”.

The next thing we as a Parliament must do is seek an extension to Article 50. That would give the Government, the Conservative Party and the Labour Party a chance to compromise on a Norway-style deal. Remember: we had a vote over here during the withdrawal Bill. I was one of the signatories to the amendment when we voted overwhelmingly that the EEA option was the least bad option.

Putting the decision back to the people would be the best option by far. As the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, pointed out, 2 million more youngsters—including my younger son, who will be 18 on 21 March—are now eligible to vote, at least 75% of whom would vote to remain. Sadly, about 1.5 million older voters have left this world since the referendum, most of whom voted to leave. Look at the demographics: 1.5 million versus 2 million. On top of that, the youngsters who did not turn out in June 2016 regret it. How many times have we heard, “Respect the will of the people, the 17.4 million”, in debates? Which 17.4 million? One and a half million of them are not even here. What about the others? Today’s electorate and democracy—the reality of today—matter.

I conclude with a point on the essence of it all. In a recent debate, when the Minister pointed out that the Prime Minister’s deal would leave us 7% better off than no deal, I asked him whether he agreed that the best option for our economy by far would be remaining. Why are we forcing ourselves into this position? In a business, you go to the shareholders, who make a narrow decision and say, “Go and do the deal”. The board of directors and managers then try to do the deal, but if they find the deal so bad that it might destroy the company, do they still implement it? If they go back to the shareholders and say, “Are you sure you want to do this deal? It will destroy our business”, do the shareholders say, “We made the decision. You’ve got to do it”? That is the reality. Why is our country doing this? The British people, the people of this great country, deserve better. We deserve to take back control. Ironically, the best way to do that is to remain in the European Union.