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European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill - Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 5:39 pm on 13th January 2020.

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Photo of Lord Howell of Guildford Lord Howell of Guildford Conservative 5:39 pm, 13th January 2020

My Lords, I join in the congratulations to my noble friend Lord Barwell, who spoke succinctly and excellently illuminated where we go next in this whole great saga. I also congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Mann, on both his generous tribute to Mrs May, which she deserves, and his fight against sickening anti-Semitism.

It is impossible not to feel some emotion on this occasion, having spent well over half a century of my life discussing the future of Europe and the UK’s role in it, ever since the editor of the Daily Telegraph sent me to Brussels in 1962 to find out about, as he put it, “this Common Market thing”. Now at last comes this gateway—and it is only a gateway; I see many challenges ahead—confirming the replacement of the European Communities Act 1972, although of course by virtue of this Bill, rather than as an EU member state, we will still be under ECA provisions for another 11 months.

However, I find it a little sad and extraordinary that the debate publicly, and to some extent in the other place in the last few days, continues in an extraordinarily one-sided way. It is all couched in terms of what Britain can and cannot do in face of the supposed EU juggernaut, about solidarity and how difficult it is going to be to fit it all into our 11-month schedule. One would never guess from all this debate that things are changing just as fast on the other side of the channel—if not in Brussels, then deep in the heart of the EU member states—as they are here. People constantly talk about our being in a Westminster bubble and being out of touch. There is a Brussels bubble as well, which is in many ways just as out of touch with what is really happening, and we seem to hear sadly little of that.

The President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, spoke at the London School of Economics the other day. Her words were full of good will and friendship, but she spoke of the fear of Britain undercutting regulatory standards and the need for alignment and a level playing field. What neither she nor others seem to grasp is that global technological forces far bigger than Brexit are already undercutting—one should say overcutting and making utterly redundant—many of the EU’s standards and controls, which belong to a past age, whether we are talking about workers’ rights, conditions and benefits, consumer protection, the environment, financial services, taxation methods and state aids or other forms of protection.

To take one specific example, there has been a worry all along—raised in this House last week—about our energy situation. Will that be constrained by the withdrawal agreement and the Bill we are now discussing, given that we get 6.6% of our electricity supply every day through interconnectors in continental Europe? Actually, the withdrawal agreement which this Bill will enact fully protects our continental energy supplies and the excellent diversity of sources they provide; and under the protocol agreement for Northern Ireland, Ulster remains part of the all-Ireland system within the so-called internal energy market anyway. The point I am trying to make is that this is typical of a mass of regulations. We are right to question whether it is sustainable and whether it anything like matches our much higher standards. Frankly, the chief results of energy and climate policy throughout the EU so far has been more Russian gas reliance, extensive and very dirty coal burning, increasing unreliability of supply at a cruelly high energy cost and a miserable overall emissions performance.

These are the very last so-called standards and regulations with which we want to be aligned, dynamically or otherwise. Good Europeans, in my view, should be fighting for superior standards now in all these areas, ones that are truly relevant to the new world economy. If I may say so to my Liberal Democrat friends, if they had stuck to this line of EU reform, instead of trying to revoke and drag us back into the thickets of outdated EU controls, they might have done a lot better in the election. I hope they are not going to become like the Jacobites after the Hanoverian succession and spend the next 60 years fighting vainly for their cause, because that would be very tiresome—not that I shall be around.

The truth is that markets and trade flows around the world in the digital age are going through deep and radical transformation—as are patterns of business everywhere, financial services, data handling, agriculture and many other sectors—in ways with which the EU and the Brexit debate, and many commentators and self-styled experts, have simply not caught up. I am glad a new employment Bill is coming along. I hope it will be really radical. Worker and employee ownership of new wealth is still disgracefully low in this country; we can set the pace for the whole of Europe.

Finally, when it comes to foreign policy, while of course we must always co-operate on security, we certainly need to be well clear of cumbersome EU decision-making—or non-decision-making. As my noble friend Lord Lothian said in the Queen’s Speech debate last week—incidentally, I regard my noble friend as the best Foreign Secretary we never had—this is indeed the opportunity for a new British foreign policy, and defence and security policy as well, which take full account of the transformed and fluidised pattern of world power and international relations that has now emerged. Once out of the EU we can play our own game, agilely and with really skilful diplomacy.