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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:50 pm on 2nd October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour 4:50 pm, 2nd October 2019

My Lords, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Mackay, whom it is always a pleasure to follow, and I shall take up some of his points. It is also a pleasure to come shortly after the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull. I congratulate him on the record for not only becoming the chair of the EU Select Committee but making absolutely crucial points on the future and current roles of that committee in the light of the empty chair decision.

In some ways, I find the usual style of the House of Lords and the rather strange title of this debate rather bewildering. I personally wanted to do more than “note” the withdrawal; I would quite like an amendment that says “regret”. I shall probably weep on Halloween, because I have always regretted the Brexit decision. Immediately after the decision, like many other remainers, I was prepared to take a constructive approach to that situation and look at how we could negotiate our way into a new relationship with the EU. By that we then meant an early fulfilment of the withdrawal treaty, a decent transition period when the arrangements could be sorted out—in the meantime, we would be on a level playing field—and we could then start on the very serious prospect of negotiating a proper future free trade agreement with our largest trading partner. What has happened since then has destroyed that vision. We have had the most appalling negotiations, on which I have previously commented. Any first-time shop steward or negotiator in the commercial world would throw their hands up in horror at the way this British Government have negotiated—I mainly blame the British Government, although I have some criticism of the EU as well.

This is the first time that we have been able—at 10 minutes’ notice—to look at what the Government describe as the “first and final offer” on a change in the backstop. The Northern Ireland situation, specifically the backstop, has largely prevented us from concluding the withdrawal agreement. However, it is not at all clear whether the manner in which the Prime Minister is presenting that agreement is likely to win him many friends in Brussels. While we have had some positive and diplomatic responses from Berlin and Brussels, it is by no means delivered. We will have a chance to debate that document tomorrow.

It is worth noting the point that I have made from the beginning, and that is that including Northern Ireland and the border issue in the withdrawal treaty was probably the first and most profound mistake that David Davis made in his period as negotiating Secretary. In the end, Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland’s relationship and trade arrangements can only be resolved in the context of a longer-term trade deal. We are still dealing with a very short-term situation. It would appear on first reading of the new document that we are doing so in a way that has been objected to by a substantial proportion of unionist opinion in the north. In other words, we are keeping Northern Ireland in the EU single market to a large extent and differentiating the treatment of Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom. I think that was always inevitable, and the resolution of it rests in a long-term trade agreement.

The way the Prime Minister has presented this new solution is designed both to offend the negotiators on the other side of the channel and give cause for concern to many within Northern Ireland itself. The “two borders for four years” proposition is not what anybody in Northern Ireland was looking for. Even if there were a narrow deal and we could move on to the next stage, there are signs in the Government’s attitude that suggest we will be in very serious difficulty. What has been reported, although it does not appear to be in these letters, is that, in addition to the points on Northern Ireland and the backstop, the Government have signalled—in relation to the political declaration, not the withdrawal treaty—that they wish parts of the declaration to be altered so that the commitment to a, broadly speaking, level playing field is omitted. If that is true, it means, as my noble friend Lord Liddle has indicated, that the Government are retreating to a position of not being committed on consumer rights, employment rights, environment protection or a host of other regulations which at present allow us to trade on a level playing field with our trading partners in Europe. In other words, this Government wish to have the ability to cut the rights that exist at the moment and to undercut the European Union in a way that makes a free trade agreement much more difficult.

This is, frankly, what most progressive opinion in Europe has always feared. It is just what will prevent us from reaching a real long-term trade agreement with the EU, and this whole fiasco will drag on and on. We have a debate tomorrow in the name of the noble and right reverend Lord, Lord Harries, on human rights and democracy in future trade agreements. If our first step in that direction is to delete the human and employment rights that we have in our present arrangements with Europe, I will weep on Halloween not only because of Brexit but for the standing of this country in the world.