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My Lords, I am grateful to noble Lords on all sides of the House for assembling on a Saturday for the first time in 37 years. I know that this has involved sacrificing personal time, time with families and, of course, missing the end of England’s World Cup quarter final, although the result is looking quite promising. On behalf of us all, I thank all parliamentary staff and the police who have made this sitting possible. I shall open this debate by replicating a Statement on the new agreement with our European friends made in the other place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.
Noble Lords will need no reminding that this is the second deal and the fourth vote to be held in the other place—three and a half years after the nation voted for Brexit. During those years, friendships have been strained and families divided, and the attention of both Houses has been consumed by a single issue that has at times felt incapable of resolution. But this is the moment when we can finally achieve that resolution and reconcile the instincts that compete within us.
Many times in the last 30 years, we have heard our European friends remark that this country is half-hearted in its EU membership. It is true that we have often been a back-marker, opting out of the single currency, not taking part in Schengen and trying to block some collective ambition. In the last three and a half years, it has been very striking that Members on all sides have debated Brexit in almost entirely practical terms, in an argument that has focused on the balance of economic risk and advantage, rather than calling for Britain to play her full part in the political construction of a federal Europe, ever closer union, ever deeper integration or a federal destiny. There is a whole side of the debate that you hear regularly in other European capitals that has been absent from our national conversation, and that has not changed much in the last 30 years.
But if we have been sceptical, if we have been anxious about the remoteness of the bureaucracy, if we have been dubious about the rhetoric of union and integration, and if we have been half-hearted Europeans, it follows logically that with part of our hearts—with half our hearts—we feel something else: a sense of love and respect for European culture and civilisation, of which we are a part; a desire to co-operate with our friends and partners in everything, creatively, intellectually and artistically; a sense of our shared destiny; and a deep understanding of the eternal need, especially after the horrors of the last century, for Britain to stand as one of the guarantors of peace and democracy in our continent—and it is our continent.
It is precisely because we are capable of feeling both things at once—sceptical about the modes of EU integration but passionate and enthusiastic about Europe—that the whole experience of the last few years has been so difficult and divisive. That is why it is so urgent for us now to move on and build a new relationship with our friends in the EU on the basis of a new deal—a deal that can heal the rift in British politics and unite the warring instincts in all of us. Now it is time for all sides in both Houses to come together and bring the country together today, as we believe people at home are hoping and expecting, with a new way forward and a new and better deal for both Britain and our friends in the EU.
That is the advantage of the agreement that we have struck with our friends in the last two days, because this new deal allows the UK, whole and entire, to leave the EU on
As a Government, we pay tribute to our European friends for escaping the prison of existing positions and showing the vision to be flexible by reopening the withdrawal agreement and addressing the deeply felt concerns of many in both Houses. One of the most important jobs of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been to express those concerns to our European friends. We shall continue to listen to all Members in both Houses throughout the debates taking place today, to meet with anyone on any side and to welcome the scrutiny that Parliament will bring to bear if, as we hope, we proceed to consider the withdrawal agreement Bill next week.
Today, Parliament has an historic opportunity to show the same breadth of vision as our European neighbours and the same resolve to reach beyond past disagreements by getting Brexit done and moving this country forwards, as we all yearn to do. This agreement provides for a real Brexit, taking back control of our borders, laws, money, farming, fisheries and trade, amounting to the greatest single restoration of national sovereignty in our parliamentary history. It removes the backstop, which would have held us against our will in the customs union and much of the single market. For the first time in almost five decades, the UK will be able to strike free trade deals with our friends across the world to benefit the whole country, including Northern Ireland.
Article 4 of the new protocol states:
“Northern Ireland is part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom”.
It adds that,
“nothing in this Protocol shall prevent”,
Northern Ireland from realising the preferential market access in any free trade deals,
“on the same terms as goods produced in other parts of the United Kingdom”.
Our negotiations have focused on the uniquely sensitive nature of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and we have respected those sensitivities Above all, we and our European friends have preserved the letter and the spirit of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and upheld the long-standing areas of co-operation between the UK and Ireland, including the common travel area. As my right honourable friend the Prime Minister told the other place on
But in this agreement we have gone further by also finding a solution to the vexed question of customs, which many in both Houses have raised. Our agreement ensures,
“unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to other parts of the United Kingdom’s internal market”.
It ensures that there should be no tariffs on goods circulating within the UK customs territory—that is, between Great Britain and Northern Ireland—unless they are at risk of entering the EU. It ensures an open border on the island of Ireland, a common objective of everyone in both Houses. It ensures that for those living and working alongside the border there will be no visible or practical changes; their lives can carry on as before.
This Government believe that this is a good arrangement, reconciling the special circumstances in Northern Ireland with the minimum possible bureaucratic consequences at a few points of arrival into Northern Ireland. It is precisely to ensure that those arrangements are acceptable to the people of Northern Ireland that we have made consent a fundamental element of this new deal, so no arrangements can be imposed on Northern Ireland if they do not work for Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland will have the right under this agreement to express or withhold their consent to these provisions by means of a majority democratic vote in their Assembly four years after the end of the transition. If the Assembly chooses to withhold consent, the provisions “shall cease to apply” after two years, during which the joint committee of the UK and EU would propose a new way forward, in concert with Northern Ireland’s institutions.
As soon as Parliament allows the process of extracting ourselves from the EU to be completed, the exciting enterprise of building our new relationship with our friends can begin. We do not wish that to be the project of any one Government or party but rather the endeavour of the United Kingdom as a whole. Only this Parliament can make the new relationship the work of the nation, and so Parliament should be at the heart of decision-making as we develop our approach. I think the whole House would acknowledge that in the past we have not always acted in that spirit.
So, as we take forward our friendship with our closest neighbours and construct that new relationship, the Government will ensure that a broad and open process draws upon the wealth of expertise in every part of both Houses, including Select Committees and their chairs. Every party and every Member who wishes to contribute will be invited to do so, and we shall start by debating the mandate for our negotiators in the next phase.
The ambition for our future friendship is contained in the revised political declaration, which also provides for Parliament to be free to decide our own laws and regulations. The Government have complete faith in both Houses to choose regulations that are in our best tradition of the highest standards of environmental protections and workers’ rights. No one believes in lowering standards; we believe in improving them and seizing the opportunities of our new freedoms to do so. For example, free from the common agricultural policy, we will have a far simpler system where we will reward farmers for improving our environment and animal welfare instead of just paying them for their acreage. Free from the common fisheries policy, we can ensure sustainable yields based on the latest science, not outdated methods of setting quotas.
These restored powers will be available not simply to this Government but to every future British Government of any party to use as they see fit. That is what restoring sovereignty and taking back control of our destiny means in practice. Our first decision, on which we believe there will be unanimity, is that in any future trade negotiations with any country our National Health Service will not be on the table.
The Government believe that an overwhelming majority in this House and the other place, regardless of their personal views, wish to see Brexit delivered in accordance with the referendum. In that crucial mission, there can no longer be any argument for further delay. This Government passionately believed that we had to go back to our European friends to seek a better deal. With this new deal, the scope for fruitful negotiation has run its course. They said we could not reopen the withdrawal agreement and that we could not change, never mind abolish, the backstop. We have done both. It is now our judgment that we have reached the best possible solution, so those who agree that Brexit must be delivered and who prefer to avoid a no-deal outcome must abandon the delusion that this House can delay again.
We must tell this Parliament in all candour that there is very little appetite among our friends in the EU for this business to be protracted by one extra day. They have had three and a half years of this debate. It has distracted them from their own projects and ambitions and, if there is one feeling that unites the British public with a growing number of EU officials, it is a burning desire to get Brexit done. Whatever letters they may seek to force the Government to write, it cannot change our judgment that further delay is pointless, expensive and deeply corrosive of public trust. People simply will not understand how politicians can say that, on the one hand, they want delay to avoid no deal and, on the other, they still want delay when a great new deal has been done.
Now is the time to get this done, and all Members should come together as democrats. Let us come together as democrats behind this deal, the one proposition that fulfils the verdict of the majority, but which also allows us to bring together the two halves of our hearts. Let us speak now for the 52% and the 48%.
Let us go now for a deal that can heal this country and allow us all to express our legitimate desires for the deepest possible friendship and partnership with our neighbours, a deal that allows us to create a shared new destiny with them, and a deal that also allows us to express our confidence in our own democratic institutions, to make our laws, to determine our own future and to believe in ourselves once again as an open, generous, global, outward-looking and free-trading United Kingdom. That is the prospect that this deal offers our country. It is a great prospect and a great deal. I beg to move.