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Brexit - Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:03 pm on 19th October 2019.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Saltaire Lord Wallace of Saltaire Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 3:03 pm, 19th October 2019

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, has just said that remainers do not admit that the EU is not just an economic project. The European Union has always been a political project. The memorandum presented to Harold Macmillan in 1961 made it very clear that it was in our political interests to join the European Economic Community and that the Washington Administration were strongly of the opinion that Britain should do so. In Sir Alec Douglas-Home’s speech moving the Second Reading of the European Union accession Bill, he also spelled out that there was a political dimension to it. It was never the case that we were never told that it was more than just a common market. This is a peace project. It is how we deal with our neighbours, and it is important that we do deal with our neighbours.

This has been a long debate. I have listened carefully but have found it extremely difficult to hear any positive arguments for the deal. The arguments are mainly of exhaustion—“let’s get Brexit done”—or that there is too much uncertainty and at least this will end it, or that at least it is better than no deal. Another argument is, “It’s not too damaging economically. Well, it’s a bit damaging but not as damaging as some of the economic forecasts have suggested”. So what are the Government promising us that we will gain in return for these economic costs, whether they are modest or severe?

Here, I fear that we enter a looking-glass world in which facts and evidence are turned on their head. I heard Jacob Rees-Mogg on the radio yesterday saying that leaving the EU with this deal will strengthen the UK. No one in this debate has agreed with that idiotic remark. Many of us are deeply concerned that this is the beginning of the break-up of the United Kingdom. It takes us towards the potential reunification of Ireland, and certainly it takes us further towards the independence of Scotland. As the son of a Scot and as someone who has a son currently living in Edinburgh, this is a matter of personal, as well as national, concern.

We are told that we will regain sovereignty over regulations and standards but it has not been explained why that is so important. We are also assured that we want not to lower any of the standards but to raise them. However, perhaps we want to raise them idiosyncratically so that we have different good ones compared with those of the European Union and America. Why that is so important, the Government have totally failed to explain.

The Prime Minister says in his Statement that,

“the greatest single restoration of national sovereignty in our parliamentary history”,

is part of the aim. I much prefer what was said by Geoffrey Howe—a man I much admired on the Conservative Benches—when he talked about the need for Britain to learn how to share sovereignty and how we would hold on to greater influence over our own affairs if we learned to share with our natural friends and partners. After all, we do not control our future prosperity. That lies in the hands of companies such as Hitachi, Nissan, Tata, Mercedes-Benz and Airbus, with their headquarters outside this country. When, and if, we leave the European Union, we will discover whether they are willing to stay committed to this country. If they move out and if foreign investment dries up, we will be in deep trouble and the economic assessments will prove to have been too modest in their gloom.

Then we are told that we can negotiate our own free trade agreements to our greater advantage. With whom? With India, China, Russia and the United States? Would the United States be more generous to the UK than it has been with the EU? That looks extremely unlikely. The world is at present moving away from free trade, as is the United States, and we in our turn are moving away from the world’s largest free trade bloc and single market.

Then we are told that leaving the EU will free us from bureaucracy. We have heard about the need to have new rules of origin, VAT receipts and refunds, and customs checks. That is a substantial extra collection of bureaucracy on cross-border trade. The withdrawal agreement and the future framework talk about a Joint Committee with a range of specialised committees that will manage our new relationship. We will need very large numbers of extra officials to manage those, as well as doubling the staff in our bilateral embassies because we will no longer be able to negotiate multilaterally in Brussels.

I want to turn to the future framework. I strongly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Lansley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Bull, that there has been a remarkable lack of attention to this document, although it is extraordinarily important. The Prime Minister has offered us no coherent vision of the future relationship. Someone has to look at this to see where we are going. One hundred and forty-one paragraphs of the political declaration cover a very wide range of issues, including data protection; participation in European programmes on science and innovation, culture, youth exchanges and education development; the European Neighbourhood Policy; intellectual property; family law co-operation; transport; energy; fishing; global co-operation on climate change; sustainable development; health and epidemics; foreign policy, security and defence; the UK contribution to joint defence operations; intelligence exchanges; whether we have access to the European Union Satellite Centre; space co-operation, about which it says very little because we have not got very far; cybersecurity; illegal migration, counterterrorism; et cetera. That is all to be negotiated, ideally by December 2020. That is not going to be very easy, but it is at least the intention.

There have been references throughout the debate to our aim of negotiating a Canada-minus as our future relationship. Canada is 4,000 miles away from the European Union, and the European Union is not Canada’s major or dominant trading partner. Britain is much more like Switzerland, so we ought to look at the Swiss relationship with the European Union for the future. Switzerland is after all surrounded entirely by the EU. England is currently surrounded only on three sides by two sea borders and a land border with Ireland and, if and when Scotland joins, it will be surrounded on all sides by an EU border.

There is an uncomfortable dependence for Switzerland on the European Union, with freedom of movement a particularly delicate issue on which the Swiss have had a number of referendums but have still failed to agree on their full relationship with the European Union. There are 140 bilateral agreements between the European Union and Switzerland, negotiated with a good deal of pain and much effort over the years. For the last five years the two sides have been attempting to negotiate a wider framework agreement, which is not yet concluded. If we think we can negotiate a comparable framework agreement in 14 months, we are asking an awful lot and assuming that it is going to be much easier than for Switzerland. The Swiss have particular concerns over issues like pharmaceuticals and scientific collaboration, because they have some extremely good universities, and I am told that the European Union is already being more difficult with the Swiss because it recognises that the concessions that it gives to Switzerland will be concessions that the British will also ask for. So the Swiss sit outside EU negotiations, struggling to modify their impact when they have already been agreed, and then accept that they cannot change them. That is the illusion of sovereignty and the reality of subordination.

I think we also recognise that we are facing a wider crisis of our political and constitutional system. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Judge, hinted at this. Major issues have come up in this debate in the last two years about the relationship between Parliament and government and between government and the law and the courts. We have a Government without a majority and an Opposition without a credible leader, so it is also a crisis of our two-party system. We have an entrenched two-party system in which, if the Government fail, a credible Opposition are supposed to be there to take over, unlike the situation that we have now.

The loss of popular trust in Parliament, the parties and the institutions is something that should concern us all very deeply. We have talked a bit about the crisis of the UK, with Scotland and Ireland potentially leaving. I also feel, as someone who lives in the north of England, that England would be left with its own internal crisis as the manufacturing north would suffer much more from its exclusion from the single market than the financial-services south, and the gaps in terms of regional and individual inequality would widen further.

I read an article two weeks ago that said we should not entirely forget the fate of Argentina, one of the world’s most prosperous and rapidly growing countries in the early 20th century, which fell prey to populism, disintegrated economically and politically and has never recovered. That is an apocalyptic view of where England might end up, but we need to look very carefully at where we are going. The Prime Minister has not told us where we are going, because he does not think like that. He thinks about what we do tomorrow, not the week after.

This is not a good deal, but it is better than no deal. It may be time to reconsider as such. We need to think about resolving not just Brexit but the deep regional and social inequalities of our own union; about our constitutional framework and the weakening of it that we have seen over the last two years; and about the framework of our democracy and what we mean by democracy. We cannot begin to resolve these things without both an election and a confirmatory referendum.