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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:50 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 7:50 pm, 25th March 2019

My Lords, it is always somewhat daunting to follow a Cabinet Secretary in this House. May I begin by reminding noble Lords of my interests as chairman of the voluntary pension fund of the European Parliament and a number of other jobs in Brussels? The noble Lord, Lord Lilley, has disappeared, but I assure him that I do not subscribe to the calamity and catastrophe scenario. I think that we should stay in the European Union because it is the right thing to do. If we left we would, of course, survive. We are the seventh biggest—or eighth biggest, depending on how you count—economy in the world. There would certainly be difficulties, but they could certainly be overcome. The argument for Europe is not an argument about whether we can get bananas through ports; it is an argument about what is the right place for Britain in the European world.

The right place for Britain is at the heart of Europe, and in the European Union—something, incidentally, that we have never been. I have lived through 25 years in the European Parliament and a subsequent 15 years doing jobs in Brussels. This is my 40th year in Brussels in one capacity or another, and I have never known a full-hearted endorsement of the European Union, save by two people. One was Edward Heath and the second was John Smith. They were the only two party leaders whom I met who were really committed to building the sort of Europe that I want to see. Sadly, John Smith never got the opportunity to do it. I think he would have turned into one of our great Prime Ministers—but let me move on.

I am appalled by the people on the Brexit side who talk about us renouncing our bills. These are debts that we incurred sitting around a table and voting for them. We incurred them by sending some of our brightest and best civil servants to international organisations. Are we seriously suggesting that we are going to say to the British staff in the UN, the WHO, NATO and all the other international institutions that a British Government can turn round and abandon them? Is the Government going to renege on all the promises they made and leave them without a pension? Is this the modern face of Conservatism?

I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, is not here to hear that, because he needs to hear it. I read in Hansard that Dominic Grieve said:

“I have never felt more ashamed to be a Member of the Conservative party”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/3/19; col. 1123.]

When I hear the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, I feel that way. This is not the party I joined. The party I joined is one that behaves honourably—as, in fairness, does the Labour Party. The Labour Party also behaves honourably: we honour the commitments that we make.

The European Council has not changed its position very much. Its statement says that it,

“agrees to an extension until 22 May 2019, provided the Withdrawal Agreement is approved by the House of Commons next week”— in other words, by departure day, 29 March. The Council says that, as long as we approve the agreement by the date we set to leave, it will give us an extension—which it has little option but to do—to tidy up the legislative framework. Otherwise, if that does not happen, the European Council,

“expects the United Kingdom to indicate a way forward before”,

12 April.

Not voting on the deal is not going to end the matter. The European Council expects us to indicate a way forward. It does not say, “The House of Commons can have indicative votes and people can say that they do not really count”. We—our Government—have to come to a conclusion and put it forward to Brussels. I suggest to this House that the only logical proposal would be an indefinite extension of Article 50. I do not think that there is a mood to revoke it, but it is no good extending it for a matter of weeks; Europe is about to go into its five-yearly cycle of reconstitution.

There will be no European Parliament after 15 April, until 2 July. Immediately after the European elections in May, the European Council will select a new president to replace Donald Tusk—or perhaps his term will be extended. There will be a new foreign affairs supremo to replace Federica Mogherini—or perhaps she will continue in office. Then every country will be asked to put forward a candidate for commissionership, and all through the autumn the European Parliament will hold hearings on the candidates, asking them what their policies are—probably confirming most of them but, as it likes to do, rejecting a couple of them, because it will want to demonstrate that it has the power to do that.

So do not imagine that we in the United Kingdom can come up with a plan and people will then say, “Oh, that’s good, we’ll drop everything and do that”. Nothing worthwhile will happen in the European Union between roughly 12 April and 31 December. The new Commission will take office on 1 January, so there will be a long interregnum. I suggest that the only way of dealing with that is to have a long extension of Article 50—and the only long extension worth having is, as some of my European colleagues in Brussels have suggested, an indefinite extension, which would take all the pressure off the different dates.

We in the United Kingdom have been very self-indulgent. Our European colleagues are fed up to the back teeth with the Brits. At the last Council meeting, Mrs May did not, shall we say, distinguish herself. There was a feeling at the end of it that people still did not know what exactly Britain wanted. That is why they have offered this little package, which adds up to virtually nothing. So we need a period of reflection, and we probably need a good period to work out exactly what we want. At the end of that period, Article 50 may well be revoked. Many people would like it to be—although, incidentally, some people in Europe would not.

Do not think that the French Government are necessarily unhappy at the prospect of being the only one of the P5 in New York. Do not think that the French diplomatic service is necessarily unhappy at the thought of being able to lead political co-operation, as it did before we joined. There is not unalloyed joy at the idea of keeping Britain in. But our traditional friends—in Scandinavia and the rest of northern Europe, the Dutch and the Danes—badly want us to stay, because we provide a balance. This is all too often forgotten.

Decisions in Europe are made by qualified majority voting, and if Britain and the northern European countries take a position, we can normally form a blocking minority. If we are absent, that can be done only with the assistance of Germany. A German Cabinet Minister once said to me: “When you object to something, you are just a nuisance. When we object to something, our Chancellor’s picture is on the front of every paper with a moustache drawn on her face—so we need Britain there because you are the common-sense country that helps to drive this project forward and keep it on an even and sensible keel”.

For all those reasons, I hope that the other place will come to the conclusion that it wishes an indefinite extension to Article 50. I think that is probably the most sensible option for this country and the best way forward, and I commend it to the House.