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 6:19 pm on 11th March 2019.

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Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 6:19 pm, 11th March 2019

My Lords, I liked the way my noble friend Lord Sherbourne introduced his speech. He reminded us that the purpose of the referendum was to settle the question of Europe once and for all. All it has done is divide the country more and more over the past two years. I voted to remain because I believed that the case to leave the EU had not been made and that we could do better by staying within the tent and trying to reform the EU from within. I have slightly changed my mind on that.

I hoped when the result of the referendum was announced that we would discuss both the leaving of the EU and the next stage: the trade deal. Certainly, that was what we were led to believe when I was on the EU sub-committee of this House and we took evidence from respected people. They thought that the whole thing would be dealt with together rather than be separated. That separation is causing immense problems. The noble Lords, Lord Rooker and Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, said exactly that: this is a long drawn-out affair. But it is rather like having multiple fractures on one arm. We have one arm and we are about to go into the second arm but, as both noble Lords said, that will take even longer and there will be more multiple fractures. Having spent some time in hospital over the past three years, multiple fractures are ghastly. A clean break is so much easier. It heals more quickly and your body gets better; relationships can be restored.

Inevitably, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, blamed the Prime Minister and the Government for the mess that we are in, but this is a negotiation. I stand back a little from that view and blame both sides. Neither side has come out of the past two years with any credit. When Nelson Mandela came out of prison, he was asked what his red lines were in a negotiation. After 27 years in prison he said that everything was up for negotiation—we are prepared to negotiate on anything and everything. That is not the situation with the EU. The EU is far too legalistic a structure to bend or to adopt that approach.

This leads me on to the point about remaining in the EU that the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong, and my noble friend Lord Saatchi mentioned. That is a position I would have liked to adopt, but I now believe that, having gone through this period, if we were to stay in the EU there would be only one choice for the UK: to become part of a fully integrated EU. It is inevitable that, in order to survive, the EU will have to get much closer together, and President Macron is driving that. The legal structure of the EU prevents it treating Britain as an equal partner. So I believe we are now faced with a choice: if we stay we will have to become part of the eurozone and to commit fully to a much more federal Europe. We do not have any provisions in our legislation to have referendums on any treaty change—that was abolished soon after the referendum took place—so there is a stark choice. We would not go back to exactly the same position we were in three years ago.

The situation in the country since the referendum was well encapsulated by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hope of Craighead, who said that the country is frustrated, bored and irritated with the process. I believe that is a correct summary. The more I talk to people, the more people have said to me, “Let’s just get on with it, one way or the other”.

That takes me to the three options that confront the other place, possibly in the next three days. I start with the last: the delay; the postponement of Article 50. I firmly believe that would cause only more irritation and frustration. Yes, it has been a mess and we are in a mess, but the extraordinary thing is that I do not think there is any other country that could have gone through what we have gone through in the last two years without people taking to the streets. I believe people will take to the streets if there is a further delay to Brexit. The way this country has behaved will put it under strain and it will break, so to delay Article 50 would be quite wrong.

Let us move on to the no-deal Brexit. I believe the criticism of that has been wildly overblown. Two years ago I firmly believed that a no-deal Brexit would have been a terrible disaster. I do not believe that any more. I do not like it as an option, but it does give us a clean break and a chance to allow businesses to decide what to do. For the past two years, businesses have been waiting for the Government to make a decision. That is why they are not investing or performing as they should. It is perhaps the least good of the two options.

So we come to the Prime Minister’s deal. The latest information I can get from the news is that the Prime Minister is on her way to Strasbourg at the moment. Let us hope she can pull something out of the bag. If she can change her deal—which I do not believe is a very good deal—and get the reassurances, it is the duty of the MPs, who in my view have so far behaved rather badly, to come behind the Prime Minister and say, “Yes, this is a way forward that takes us out of the EU and fulfils the decision of the referendum”. Then we can get on and businesses can build up a new and better Britain.