European Union (Withdrawal) (No. 6) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 1:17 pm on 5th September 2019.

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Photo of Lord Mandelson Lord Mandelson Labour 1:17 pm, 5th September 2019

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Baroness, with whom I have seen eye to eye on almost all business questions—certainly the majority of them—in the past.

Before I comment briefly on the Bill itself, I shall make two preliminary remarks. The first is that, as a former Northern Ireland Secretary, I strongly endorse the remarks and arguments made by my noble friend Lord Hain. He was not indulging in hyperbole. This is reality; it is real-life politics in Northern Ireland. There is an enormous amount at stake and any of us would be very ill-advised if, for the sake of boredom with the subject, including the backstop, we were simply to pass over what he has said. There are genuine risks involved in relation to peace in Northern Ireland.

Secondly, I will comment on the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Hayward. From the discussions I have had in national capitals and in Brussels, I can confirm that he is absolutely right that no proposals have been made by the British Government that are negotiable and would lead to a deal being concluded in October, November, December or any other month. However, certain ideas are being canvassed which concern the sectoral coverage of the backstop, its possible duration and the conditions surrounding both those aspects of it. The reason in my view that they have not been tabled is that a judgment has already been made that they will be unacceptable to those with whom we are going to negotiate. They involve a compromising and an undermining of the backstop which would negate its purpose and effect.

Therefore, the chances of what is being considered in Whitehall and was taken to Brussels by David Frost —who is a credible interlocutor and diplomat representing the British Government—being accepted in Brussels are hovering on zero. That is why we cannot take at face value the Prime Minister’s statement that he is negotiating in good faith. I do not believe that he wants to negotiate a deal. I think he would like to present, as it were, a fait accompli—something that he would ideally like to see—but not to negotiate. That is simply not going to happen.

I support the Bill for one reason, which is that crashing out of the European Union on 31 October without a deal would be, to put it mildly, highly sub-optimal for our country. It would prevent us from securing the continuity of our enforceable trade rights in what is our biggest export market in the world; it would prevent us from securing the continuity for many businesses operating in the European market of their enforceable business contracts. There are a host—a waterfront—of pacts, agreements and laws that underpin our commercial and related relationships with the European Union that have been built up over half a century, all of which we would be unable to guarantee the continuity of from the stroke of midnight on leaving the European Union without a deal.

I am not saying that aircraft would fall out of the sky or that many of these agreements would simply disappear and dematerialise before our eyes. However, over time they would come to be contested. There would be people, for a variety of reasons, wanting to pull threads and then pull a rug from underneath a variety of these pacts and agreements. If we were to leave without securing their continuity, we would create the risk of huge damage and jeopardy to our commercial relations, and therefore to our economy and to the jobs, livelihoods and investments of hundreds of thousands of people in Britain.

It would also do something else: it would destroy what lingering goodwill exists in Europe towards us. If we were to crash out and leave in such a disorderly way, it would inflict great damage not only on our own country but on all member states of the European Union. Such an act would make their willingness and our ability to negotiate a future free trade agreement between ourselves and the European Union infinitely harder to achieve. For that reason also, we should avoid crashing out without a deal.