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Moved by Lord Lea of Crondall
39: After Clause 37, insert the following new Clause—“Future relationship: EEA alignmentIt shall be an objective of the Government to secure an agreement with the EU that aligns as closely as possible with EEA member status, having regard to Article 184 of the withdrawal agreement (concerning ongoing commitment to the political declaration).”
My Lords, the President of the European Commission indicated last week that there was no way that the Government’s open-ended agenda—I stand to be corrected about the detail of the shopping list for the rest of this year—could be dealt with by the end of this year. Indeed, it is seen in Brussels as simple wishful thinking; Boris Johnson will think of another wheeze in time to keep the show on the road.
Instead of “Get Brexit done”, the real question is “Let’s get Brexit real”. At the moment, we assume that the starting point was something like the withdrawal agreement and political declaration of October 2019, but we would like to see a credible programme of what the Government will try to negotiate by the summer or autumn in order to meet the commitment made by the Prime Minister. It is in that connection that we could have something like EEA/EFTA as a point of reference—a tick-box, if you like—for many of the questions that will arise. We have just heard an interesting debate about Erasmus, but there are 20 or 30 such subjects, all of which will need decisions, including in many cases on their compatibility with free trade for the rest of the world—all that work has been done over many years since the Stockholm Convention of the late 1950s and Britain’s participation in EFTA and, eventually, the EEC in 1973-74. We have now therefore to set out where we want to be on the whole range of things where we have alignment at the moment.
The Government often say “We have alignment at the moment”, so why not say the next thing? If we are taking some comfort in the fact that we have alignment at the moment, is not the question surely why we want to move away from it? Do Her Majesty’s Government have some ideological reason for moving away from alignment? At the end of January, we will be putting out the flags to say Brexit is all done—it has hardly started, as we know.
The EFTA and EEA agreements have other consequences as well. I am not suggesting that we would enter into them, given the short title of this Bill, but they include the very important questions of jurisdiction of settlements of disputes, the arbitration panel and so on, all of which are important if we want to continue to attract foreign direct investment into Britain. As the Financial Times charts, this is going down very rapidly, partly because these rather straightforward decisions have yet to be made. If they are not made very soon, there will be an assumption that the Government have not thought through how these Brexit-related issues will be resolved.
To remind ourselves, the EEA agreement provides for a free trade area covering all the EEA states. It does not extend the customs union to the EEA/EFTA states. The free trade area also abolishes tariffs on trade between the parties, but there are still border procedures. This is a model that I hope the Government will not run away from simply because it was not their idea in the first place. To get Brexit real, these become very serious options for consideration, and I hope that the Minister will agree that we should look at all these questions on their merits and at having a framework for the compatibility of them all. Looking at each question one by one is not necessarily the most helpful way to see how a framework can be agreed. Surely, by the end of this year, the notion is not just that we will have a number of separate agreements on everything under the sun but that we will have some sort of framework, because there are consequences between the different silos in any framework. I hope the Minister appreciates that—I say it in a constructive spirit—because it is, unfortunately, against the background that we will have left the European Union, possibly to rejoin the EEA at a later point. That is another question, but it is not something that the Minister should balk at simply because it sounds like a stalking horse for rejoining the EU. It is a perfectly good shopping list for the Government. I would like to know when the Government’s framework concept for the negotiations in the next few months will be published, or will the Government just keep all their cards up their sleeve and not publish such a thing?
Take the question of jurisdiction: it is very odd indeed that we should now want to attach more importance to jurisdictions where we have no judge, as we do in the European Court of Justice at present. During the transition and under the future envisaged in the political declaration, does the Minister agree that we will have to accept that it will be for the ECJ, without a UK judge, to present the authoritative view in any imaginable case between the EU and the UK before the new arbitral tribunal?
We know that there are issues that do not necessarily fit within the framework that I have just described, such as the free movement of persons and mutual recognition of diplomacies. There are limits to how far one wants to go in putting everything in what we might call a framework agreement but, again, a lot of work was done in the EEA negotiations. If we are going to shadow anything to see what works and what does not, that would be an excellent place to start. It would be far more effective than a one-off set of negotiations on a whole range of things one at a time. I hope that, in that spirit, the Minister will agree that there could be value to the Government in looking at such a framework.
My Lords, I have not spoken on this Bill so far, because I was not able to attend the closing speeches at Second Reading, though I have followed most of the Bill proceedings. I added my name to the amendment moved by my noble friend Lord Lea because I felt that it was a way of raising the issue of how close we manage to stay to the European market after Brexit. The amendment of course raises the importance of alignment. We have already heard several times from Ministers today that we are not leaving Europe even though we are leaving the EU, yet in so many ways we are putting obstacles in the way of our ongoing relationship with Europe. In terms of alignment, there is much emphasis on having freedom to make our own standards, but this seems quite an illusory freedom in many ways, which is probably not in our interests. Obviously, there may be some rules within the EU that we do not particularly like, but most of the rules we have agreed over the years are as part of the single market, which the United Kingdom very much pushed for in its early stages. Most of those standards and rules concern such things as consumer safety, environmental standards and sensible trading arrangements: we must not forget that as we move forward. In many ways, we actually made those rules: we were the prime mover in making those rules in the European market.
One of the arguments against being too close to EFTA was that that would make us rule-takers rather than rule-makers. Of course, that argument already concedes the fact that we have been rule-makers in the past. Within the EFTA arrangements, there are certainly ways in which we can influence the rules, which will not be the case if we do not follow any kind of close alignment after Brexit.
I have been struck in the course of our debates by how the issues I have been raising have been translated into vivid examples in different parts of the UK. I was very struck by the remarkable debate that took place quite late on Monday night about Northern Ireland, about the importance of the single market to Northern Ireland’s relationship with the Republic and how vital unfettered access to the UK market is to Northern Ireland. In particular, my noble friend Lord Hain made that point very powerfully, and there does not seem to be any easy answer. I cannot understand, and nobody has been able to explain it to me so far, why the arrangement consists of trying to assess whether goods that go into Northern Ireland from the UK may, or may be likely to, end up in the Republic of Ireland. I have no idea how that system of assessment is going to work. It seems unworkable and the debate in your Lordships’ House on Monday night underlined that point very strongly.
We also know that Scotland is very keen to keep as close to the European market as possible and is concerned about the Government’s trading stance. In my own part of the country, the north-east of England—the Minister will not be surprised that I mention it, because I always do—a higher proportion of our trade goes to the European market than any other region of the UK. When the Prime Minister visited the north-east recently, before election day, I was very much hoping that someone would ask him whether he accepts the figures of his own Government that the north-east is going to lose out in so many specific ways. He was never asked that but I would have liked to ask him whether he accepted those figures or, if he did not, what his own figures were. Perhaps the Minister will give us some clarification of that now. Certainly, our future trade arrangements will be vital to the future of the north-east economy.
There is a political point that needs to be made. We know that the referendum result in 2016 was narrow and that, despite the Government’s handsome majority of seats in the House of Commons now, none the less those people who voted for parties who either wanted a second vote or were in favour of remain comprised 53% as opposed to 47%. That is a contrary picture to that in 2016 and for that reason, while the Government have a mandate in terms of seats to go ahead with Brexit, they also have a responsibility to work towards a solution that will at least not seem totally antagonistic to what the other part of our population actually thinks. For that reason, a compromise would be to stay as close to the European market in as many constructive ways as we can.
We have just had a fascinating debate about Erasmus: that is a very good example of the kind of thing I am talking about. I urge the Government to look at this whole issue of alignment and staying close to the European market in a much more positive and constructive way than they have up to now.
My Lords, the EEA relationship has been, and, indeed still is, one that suits its member states exceedingly well. It enables certain non-EU member states to take full advantage of their geographical proximity and their historical trading and cultural relations with the EU to the benefits of both sides of the various borders. It is a model, as we have heard, that our negotiators would do well to follow, not necessarily on the exact detail, which is, after all, tailor-made for the various parties, but in its aim: to retain the alignments that foster trade, and to build on our different natural resources, strengths, patterns of exchange, labour needs, service expertise and investment potential. The negotiations should build on those strengths, just as the EEA has managed to achieve. That, we think, would be to the benefit of the EU as well as ourselves.
My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who took part in the debate, but we have been very clear in the political declaration, and indeed in our election manifesto, on our vision for the UK’s future relationship with the EU, which is based on an ambitious free trade agreement.
As I always do, I enjoyed the contribution of the noble Baroness, Lady Quin. We share an interest in the north-east of England. She is an experienced former Minister, doing some aspects of the job that I do now, and I always listen very carefully to what she has to say because she speaks a great deal of sense. She asked about the impact on the north-east of England, something I am of course very interested in. The answer will depend on the future trading arrangements that we negotiate, so I say: come back and ask me again at the end of this year. We have been very clear that we want an ambitious free trade agreement. We want trade to be as free as possible and we will be negotiating hard to bring that happy state of affairs about.
The election has clearly shown, in my view, that the public support the vision that we put forward. It was extensively debated in the election campaign and we won our majority on that basis. To answer the question of the noble Lord, Lord Lea, directly, I say that it is only by leaving the single market that the UK will be able to obtain an ambitious free trade agreement and to strike new trade deals with new and existing global partners. Attempts to remain in the EEA agreement beyond exit is by no means a simple as many noble Lords would have us believe. The EEA is an arrangement that exists at the moment between the EU and a number of EFTA countries—
I emphasise for the third time that this amendment is not about rejoining or staying in: it is, as my noble friend Lady Quin said, about alignment. Indeed, it is, if I may use the phrase, shadowing some of the rules that we have at the moment. Will the Minister comment on the fact that he has said many times that we are beginning from alignment? Why leave alignment, as a theological requirement?
I do not think that I said that. However, the noble Lord is right—although I did not say it on this occasion—that of course we are starting from a position of alignment. I do not have his amendment in front of me, but I think it refers to the EEA: it is the purpose of the amendment he has tabled, which is why I was exploring the issue.
The point I was going to go on to make is that the EEA is an agreement between the European Union member states and a number of EFTA states, and it is not open to the UK just to be able to join that agreement. We will leave it when we leave the EU part of that agreement, but the EU would almost certainly want to renegotiate it, because it was never designed for a country the size of the UK. That is if we did want to join it, but as I will shortly set out, I do not think it is desirable that we should. It is not a simple case, even if we wanted to, of happily trotting off and joining the EEA agreement: there are a number of other countries which are in at the moment that would no doubt have some observations on that.
My point is that attempts to remain in the EEA agreement beyond exit would not deliver control of our borders or our laws—two of the main three pillars of our argument for why we need to leave the EU. On borders, it would mean having to continue to accept all four freedoms of the single market—I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Lea, that we could perhaps pick and choose which ones we wanted to abide by or align with, but I suspect that the EU might have something to say about that. However, we would of course have to accept free movement of people. On laws, it would mean that we would have to implement all new EU legislation—as the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, said, we would be rule-takers. The noble Baroness was not in her place last night, but I quoted Mark Carney, the Governor of the Bank of England, who said how dangerous it would be, as we seek to manage one of the largest and most complex financial markets in the world, to turn ourselves into rule-takers, whereby the rules were set by another jurisdiction. Despite Mark Carney’s views on EU exit, which are well known, he made it clear that he thinks that it would be an unacceptable state of affairs for us to proceed with. It would mean that the UK would have to implement all new EU legislation for the whole of the economy, including services, digital and financial services.
We do not believe that that would deliver on the British people’s desire as expressed in the referendum to have more direct control over decisions that affect their daily lives. Rules would be set in the EU that we would then have to abide by. The public want the Government to get on with negotiating this future relationship, which was set out in the political declaration, without any further unnecessary hurdles, and that is what the Government will do.
I am listening carefully to what the Minister says, but he is responding to something that the amendment does not say. It does not say “rejoin” or “join” EFTA or the EEA but simply that we should have a look at what is happening in that process and look at areas where we would want to align with it.
The amendment refers to the EEA, and the noble Lord, Lord Lea, indicated earlier that he would be in favour of joining it, so I was making the arguments against that. However, we have also explored the arguments on alignment at different times in the past, and it may well be as a result of the negotiations that there are some areas of EU legislation that we may wish to align with or put in place an equivalence procedure. That is all for the future negotiations.
As we have said on many other amendments, we do not believe that it is a sensible tactic to set out our negotiating objectives in statute, or that setting a negotiating objective along the lines of that advocated in the amendment would be what the public voted for in the general election or in the original EU referendum. Our manifesto at the election was explicit about the Government’s intention and determination to keep the UK out of the single market. On that basis, although I suspect that I have probably not satisfied the noble Lord, I hope that he will feel able to withdraw his amendment.
To align is something that we can do unilaterally or with agreement, but the amendment does not say “join”. I am sorry—I am not trying to be pedantic; we both know where we are, but that is what the amendment says.
To conclude, I hope that the Minister and the Government will generally reflect on the fact that, if they want to get Brexit real rather than just saying “Get Brexit done” as a slogan, they will have to see how a framework can be approached which will have certain common principles that will then be understood by the President of the European Commission. At the moment, she is baffled about whether the Government know what they are doing when they say that we can get all these things done one by one—scores of them all done and dusted by the end of this year. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
Amendment 39 withdrawn.
Amendment 40 not moved.