European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:06 pm on 4th April 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Deech Baroness Deech Crossbench 8:06 pm, 4th April 2019

My Lords, not only is the procedure relating to this Bill unacceptable and unconventional, but the Bill too has its faults. It is unnecessary because the Prime Minister has said that she will seek a delay, and this ties her hands. It makes us subservient to European Union timing. Clause 1(6) and (7) give any European Union extension priority over what we might want. According to the Bill, if some hypothetical date that the EU puts forward is accepted, there will be a Motion in the Commons taking the form of subsection (2). That subsection has dots where a date would be; it does not refer to subsection (3).

The other thing that puzzles me is the wording in Clause 1(2). It says,

“for the purposes of section 1 of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019”.

I looked it up, and there is no such Act. After much puzzling, I decided that this was a reference to the Bill, but the Bill is called the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Bill, and presumably, if it becomes an Act, it will be the European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 5) Act. Therefore, I hope that that can be corrected, or maybe there is already a European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2019 that I am unaware of. I found that reference puzzling and I hope that the Minister will be able to clarify it or make sure that it is corrected.

I also wonder why this House would not be involved if such a Motion for an extension were passed. Why would only the Commons be involved? I think that subsections (6) and (7) of Clause 1 should be deleted. I do not see why any priority should be given to European Union timings. It should be for our Prime Minister to say that she has received a suggestion from the European Union about certain dates and that is what she wants. I do not see why the European Union should make that decision. I also wonder what European Union procedures there are to make those dates firm. We have already had extension dates bounced on us, and we have been told that they are part of an international treaty. I do not know whether we are part of that, how it came about or whether we ever agreed to it.

The root of the trouble, in retrospect, is the Miller case, where a random member of the public who could afford it brought a case to ensure that Parliament was involved in triggering Article 50. I was glad to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, has now found a good use for the royal prerogative and suggests that Mrs May be allowed to use that in questions relating to the date. However, it may be that in years to come the diminution of the royal prerogative by the Miller case comes to be regretted.

It is also the case that there are problems with Article 50. As I said on Twitter, this is:

“A clue to the source of Brexit trouble”,

and these are not my words but the words of Professor Collier, who wrote in the New Statesman a week or two ago:

“Article 50 was designed (by a clever British civil servant of yesteryear) so as to strip any country wanting to leave of all negotiating power”.

I hope that in years to come the defects in Article 50 will be recognised.

The reason why we are in this trouble is that from day one those who voted remain, or many of them, have done what they can to block an orderly exit. Indeed, Brexiteers in the other House were misguided in refusing to pass the withdrawal agreement—not that I hold any candle for it but I do not think there was anything better, and we would not be in the situation if they had voted for it. I can therefore conclude only that the overriding motive of those who are pushing this Bill is to avoid Brexit or to have a softer Brexit. The noble Lord, Lord Finkelstein, helpfully spelled it out in the Times a couple of days ago in an article that he said was addressed to the European authorities. This is what to do, he said to them in his article, if you want to stop Brexit: give Britain a delay. Give it more, more and more delay. Do not impose conditions, just delay and delay, and the whole thing will eventually dribble away in the sand. That is what the noble Lord said.

On the other hand, there is the question of no deal. There might be chaos, although we do not know, but two particular advantages of no deal have emerged recently. First, suddenly Mr Varadkar is talking about sensible ways to get around the Irish hard border issue. Suddenly he has come forward with what he says might be acceptable technical ways to do this—a miracle. Secondly, I think no deal would force the European Union to negotiate. It would jump-start it into negotiating, which is its duty under Article 50 and which it has neglected. All the EU has said is, “No, we will not reopen the withdrawal agreement”, and, “No, we will not change anything”. So one wonders really what the delay is for. If Europe will not reopen the withdrawal agreement, why are we delaying? It will say to us, “What’s your new plan for the future?”. Even if we were to say, which I hope we will not, “A customs union”, what guarantee is there that Europe would agree to it? Probably it will just say no to anything that we ask for so that the delay goes on and on. An extension as mandated in the Bill would not end the possibility of no deal, because if no deal happens because there is no deal then no deal is what we will get. So I do not see that there is any reason for the delay.

Lastly, on the notion of a second referendum and people changing their minds, I rather wonder whether remainers have changed their mind. What did they think they were voting for two or three years ago? Were they voting for what we see now across Europe? Were they voting for the collapse of French security? Were they voting for the high level of Belgian intelligence? Were they voting to see more fiscal indiscipline within Italy, higher unemployment in Greece and less philanthropy and sharing of burdens by Germany? Were they voting to see more authoritarianism in Hungary, less respect for the rule of law in Poland or increasing expenditure, sometimes unaccounted for, in Brussels? Were they voting to see a Europe that is unwilling to support NATO as it should? I hope that they will think again. Facts have indeed changed over the last two years, for the worse.

I hope the Minister will respond to my points about drafting and reply as to why we need the Bill at all.