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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 2:54 pm on 5th September 2019.

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Photo of Lord Balfe Lord Balfe Conservative 2:54 pm, 5th September 2019

My Lords, I draw noble Lords’ attention to my entries in the register, from which you will see that I am now in my 41st year of appointment in Brussels, with 25 as an MEP and the last 15 in other capacities. It will not tell you that I worked in international organisations for the 19 years before that, from when I left school at 16. I was first in the Crown Agents of the colonies, briefly in a junior position in the Foreign Office, and then working for the Co-operative movement.

My whole life has been devoted to multilateralism, and it has always been a difficult proposition. From the East African Common Services Organisation in 1961—which was the first multilateral body I came across—to today, there have always been opportunities for misunderstandings or clashes of different cultures. However, the important thing is that multilateralism has worked. Multilateralism has been of great benefit in many different areas of this world.

I do not believe that, if we left the European Union, the world would end. We would of course survive—we are a big and strong country—but it would be fundamentally the wrong decision to take. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell, said exactly what I feel very early on in this debate: to quote someone who may be better known on those Benches than these, I see this Bill as a “transitional demand”, because I want to stay in the European Union. I have never hidden that. This prolongs the time that we are in.

Next to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, I see my colleague—my friend, rather—the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, who served with me on the Cambridge Says Yes committee, where we got well over 70% voting to remain. In Cambridge, when we argued for the referendum, I did not argue about money or the fact that we could do this or get that. It was a straightforward moral proposition that it is right to be in a multilateral organisation and co-operate with your friends, and that the pooling of sovereignty is the gaining of sovereignty. You have to realise that. We speak as though it were a one-way street, but it is not. It is a two-way street, and more comes towards us from co-operation than flows away.

Last night, the Labour Party decided that it did not wish to support an election until this Bill is passed. I hope that the Labour Party will support an election when it is passed, because the House of Commons is now ungovernable. The Government are in a minority—by 20, thanks to their own foolish actions—and they cannot get anything through anymore. We have to have an election.

A lot of my friends are among the 20 suspended. Do not just concentrate on them. I am, for my sins, the president of my local party in Cambridgeshire. I would say that roughly 20% of our members are actively on strike or, as we put it, withdrawing enthusiasm. We will be lucky if we get a window bill up. Last night, I spoke to one of them who said, “Well, I’m going to keep it quiet, Richard, but I’m going to vote Lib Dem at the election”. You can see the situation into which this politics of confrontation has pushed our party. It is a tragedy because these are people who, at heart, are Conservatives—often with a small c, rather than a larger C—but they basically believe in the principles of the Conservative Party. They feel they are being forced out of it. Only an election can settle this.

I ask the parties opposite—and the SNP—to come to some sort of agreement as to how this is to be resolved. My personal conclusion is that it probably has to be through another referendum, because the people have spoken once and it would be bitterly resented if the politicians took the decision without consulting them again. On the other hand, if the people were to return a coalition Government, it would have to be part of the coalition programme—and then you could get a referendum Bill through, though it might take a month or two.

I mentioned that I have these jobs in Brussels which give me an office in the European Parliament. I have a staff there, only one of whom is British, so I have a fair amount of international exposure. If the British Government were to ask for an extension to hold another referendum, it would be given. It would not need a Bill in the House of Commons or the House of Lords. The EU would be pleased to grant an extension for the purpose of having a referendum. But it would not be very happy to give an extension so that we could carry on arguing. As they say—and this point has been made on several occasions—nothing is being put on the table. When I go to Brussels, which is generally twice a month, I hear the gossip around: “What on earth are they up to?” “Who is this new Prime Minister of yours who is hell-bent on destruction?” This is the image that is coming across. Colleagues opposite, you have to get your act together, and you have to bring to the election something which resembles a party deal and a way forward for the future.

To conclude, I have said that we could leave the EU. It would be difficult but not disastrous. We are also members of the Council of Europe, where the British Government have played a uniquely destructive role in opposing its budget. The Court of Human Rights has had to be cut back because the British, and Mr Salvini from Italy—now, mercifully, consigned to history—were obstructing even an increase in line with inflation. We must deal better with the multilateral bodies. We should be saying more about the WTO, where the United States is threatening to bring the whole appeals procedure to a halt by refusing to appoint judges. There are so many other multinational organisations to which we belong.

I remember when my noble friend Lord Judd was a Navy Minister. He has probably forgotten, but many years ago we were discussing NATO. I am not sure whether he said to me or I said to him that we could never have a referendum on NATO because it is too central to Britain’s interests to have it tossed around in the political field. I feel that the EU referendum was a fundamental mistake. We have made the mistake, but it is our duty to undo it. You would not go to a hospital and say to the doctor, “I am sorry, let me tell you how to take the appendix out or how to do the heart transplant”. We have to accept that there are some things that the political class may know how to do. On occasions, democracy has to be qualified. This is an unpopular thing to say, but it happens to be absolutely right. You sometimes have to say to people, “I am terribly sorry; I hear what you say, but you’re wrong”.