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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:37 pm on 5th September 2019.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 2:37 pm, 5th September 2019

I want to move on to the European theme and the question of negotiation. The scripts spoken to yesterday by a number of noble Lords contained the familiar argument, which the Prime Minister has been using extensively, that the legs would be knocked out from under his negotiating strategy if no deal was taken off the table. I have spoken on this before and I do not want to bore the House, but I believe that is completely untrue. Saying, “If you don’t give me what I’m asking for in this negotiation, I will shoot myself”, is not a credible threat.

We know that the pain is asymmetric; although everyone is damaged by a no-deal crash-out Brexit, it is the UK that will be damaged hugely more than anyone else. We know that and they know that. We know that there is a problem of asymmetric preparation. They are better prepared than we are, even though they have proportionally less of a problem than we have.

Everything that I have said up to now I have bored the House with before, but here comes a new point. It is now not possible, or it will very shortly not be possible, to get a new deal agreed at the European Council on 17 October. I think the Prime Minister may listen too much to Mr Cummings, who is an expert on game theory and has studied it very closely; I do not think he has done much international negotiation, but he knows a lot about game theory. I believe that he is playing the game of chicken, which we know from American movies in the 1950s and 1960s, where you put your foot down hard on the accelerator, ideally throw away the steering wheel and drive straight at each other, each believing that the other guy will swerve. There are two problems in applying that theory to negotiation with the EU. One is that it is a union, consisting of 27 member states. It takes them a long time to make a decision to swerve. They need to get instructions in Brussels on whatever you put forward; they need to debate that, send the reactions back and then hear what the Government think.

Today’s papers say that Mr David Frost was saying yesterday in Brussels that the British could not put forward any proposals now because they would be attacked by the ERG, published by the EU and criticised in the Article 50 working group. Each element of that is probably true, but it should not mean that we do not put forward any proposals. When Barnier says “paralysis” and our Prime Minister says “remarkable progress, wonderful progress”, the question of disingenuousness creeps in again. I tend to believe Mr Barnier; I find it harder to believe our Prime Minister, which is a very worrying thing to say. It will take them a lot of time. Any proposals to be discussed on 17 October ought certainly to be in negotiation now with the Article 50 working group.

It is my belief that Mr Cummings, in addition to believing in the game of chicken, does not mind if we have a no-deal crash-out. Given what Mr Farage has been saying, he may actually see benefit in a no-deal crash-out. Mr Farage has said that if the Prime Minister negotiates some new variant of Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement, his party will run against the Conservative Party in every Conservative-held seat, whereas if Mr Johnson sticks to his promise to go, do or die, on 31 October with no deal, various forms of pact, informal or formal, are possible. That is what Mr Farage is saying. I have a theory that Mr Cummings may be listening.

In addition to the problem of trust in respect of the text of the Bill before us, we seem to have a problem of whether it will be interpreted not just in the letter but in the spirit. The Prime Minister, obliged to write the letter that the Act would require him to write if the circumstances set out in Clause 1 arose—the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, confirms that the Prime Minister would feel so obliged—could send it and make sure that the European Union did not agree. The European Union needs unanimity. He could talk to a friend in, let us say, Budapest; as a classicist, he could also put his oral presentations in a “num” rather than a “nonne” way; by adding threats and undertakings of what we intend to do, he could make sure that we do not get from the European Union the extension that we have required him to seek if the circumstances arose.

The problem of trust is quite a big one. It would be good if the Government in responding to this debate said that they will not only act on the law but do so in the spirit in which the House of Commons passed it. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown, suggested that we would be going cap in hand to the European Council and who knows what terms we could obtain. That is a bugbear. Honestly, either you are in the European Union or you are out of it; there is no middle position that we could be put into. The noble and learned Lord implied—perhaps I got him wrong—that for the period of any extension the terms of our membership would be for the 27 to decide. No, sir, we are either a member with the full rights of a member or we are not in. I am very sad that we are not exercising the full rights of a member any more; I am very sad that, from 1 September, there are important working groups, important meetings of COREPER and important councils in which the British are following the policy of the empty seat. It did the French no good when General de Gaulle tried it; it will do us no good. Wherever we are going to be—in or out, close or far from the European Union—it must be in our interest, until the last possible moment, to exert as much influence as we can on the direction and legislation of the European Union.

That is my answer to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Brown. We can put ourselves in a half-in, half-out position, but the European Union cannot. However, I am nervous that we have not necessarily solved the problem with this Bill—for which I shall vote—because it seems to me that, in addition to the risk that the Government will not act on the Bill, there may be a bigger risk that they will act on it in a disingenuous way and that the purposes set out in it may therefore not be achieved.