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Amendment to the Motion

Part of European Union: Negotiations (European Union Committee Report) - Motion to Agree – in the House of Lords at 4:43 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Lord Kerr of Kinlochard Crossbench 4:43 pm, 16th March 2020

I bow to the noble Lord’s experience in financial matters. I usually find the usual channels as baffling as the Sibyl of Cumae, but on this occasion we have to congratulate them on arranging such a prompt debate on the Select Committee report. We must also congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, on producing such an excellent, analytical, factual report—a good trigger for the first test of what we mean by Section 29 of the Withdrawal Act. I declare an interest: I sit on his committee, which is why I suck up to him.

As he spelled out, the report brings out the striking contrast between the detailed negotiating mandate put forward by the 27 and the terse assertions of the Government’s White Paper. Of course, these are only opening positions but the gap is quite wide, particularly in the four areas where it seems to have arisen because our Government’s position has changed.

On architecture, we no longer believe in an overriding institutional framework, which is what we agreed to in the joint political declaration of 19 October. Instead, we now want only a free trade agreement

“supported by a range of other international agreements, all with their own appropriate and precedented governance arrangements”— all, presumably, with different governance arrangements.

The EU mandate sticks with what the political declaration said, and still wants “an overarching institutional framework”. I suspect that this reflects the EU’s unhappy experience with Switzerland and the unsatisfactory multiplicity of separate EU-Swiss agreements. We were one of many member states to agree that the Swiss experiment should never be repeated. I expect the others still feel the same.

Secondly, on the level playing field, as the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, reminded us, we agreed in October that:

“Given the Union and the UK’s geographic proximity and economic interdependence, the future relationship must ensure open and fair competition, encompassing robust commitment to a level playing field”.

That is still in the EU mandate, but it seems that we have changed our minds on that too. We now say that we will not agree to any obligations for our laws to be aligned with the EU’s. That could have consequences. In October, we agreed that the “precise nature of” level playing field

“commitments should be commensurate with the scope and depth of the future relationship”.

That works both ways. If we will not provide convincing assurances on competition and the other topics, any free trade agreement is likely to be rather shallow and narrow in scope.

Thirdly, in October we wanted “ambitious, close and lasting co-operation” on foreign policy, sanctions, security and defence. The EU mandate now covers the same ground in broadly the same terms, but our White Paper is completely silent on the subject. I note that, according to the press, we have rejected the Commission’s idea that one of the negotiating groups working to Mr Frost and Monsieur Barnier should cover external relations topics. I am not clear why our position has changed. Perhaps the Minister could tell us.

Finally, the White Paper robustly rejects the idea of any role for the Court of Justice. Mr Gove, giving evidence last Wednesday to Mr Benn’s committee in the other place, spelled out that this extended to any organisation—say, REACH, the chemicals regulator or the European arrest warrant—that was under CJEU jurisdiction. This, too, would seem to indicate a preference for narrowing the scope of any eventual agreement.

I draw two observations from those four facts. First, I am not sure that our continental friends will fully understand that the election has changed everything, as the Prime Minister, Mr Gove and Mr Frost have maintained in their recent speeches. October’s joint political declaration is not, of course, a legally binding text, as the noble Baroness, Lady Noakes, reminded us—I was delighted to hear something I could agree with—but it is an international agreement. It is not legally binding—it is not part of the treaty—but it was an agreement that emerged from a negotiation involving mutual compromise.

I do not think it follows from Mr Johnson’s election victory that his 27 colleagues will accept that the balance of the declaration can now somehow be changed, with the UK cherry-picking the bits we like best and dropping the other bits, and their having to acquiesce. The thesis seems to be that the political situation in the UK is now different, so we can just pick and choose the bits we like. Perhaps the foreigners may accept that; I am not sure.

Secondly, on the other hand, it must be true that by aiming low and going for a narrow agreement and a more distant relationship with continental Europe, we increase the chances of getting something agreed by the end of the year. If it does not extend beyond trade in goods, as seems plausible on the basis of the opening position, it probably will not need national ratification in 27 capitals with the delays that inevitably entails. I thought it rash of Mr Johnson to rule out any extension to the negotiation period—perhaps coronavirus will now change his mind—but I am not one of the those who argue that it is impossible to secure a deal by December. I am certain that, if the Prime Minister sticks to his timetable and to the brusque autarkic assertions of his White Paper, the best we can get will be a narrow deal, a shallow deal and a very bad deal—but if that is what we want, I think it is possible.

However, there is a wild card and I turn to it now. It is Northern Ireland and the 131 pages of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland in the withdrawal treaty, which has been in force since 31 January. In Brussels and among the 27, one today detects a growing suspicion that we are not terribly keen to implement the protocol. In Brussels, that is understandably taken rather seriously. The protocol is part of the treaty, and it is legally binding. Were we seen to be resiling from it, the consequences would be grave. I would certainly expect the EU to break off negotiations on the further treaty. I would assume that the nightmare of a hard border in Ireland would be back and the Good Friday agreement in grave danger. The noble Lord, Lord Hain, has drawn attention to the United States repercussions of that.

Of course, it seems wild and outlandish to suggest that this country would ever resile from a treaty obligation, an obligation we have only just taken on, on the last day of January. I hope that the suspicions of Brussels are misplaced, but we are currently not trusted over there, as the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, explained. The Minister has made clear more than once in the House that he believes that the Government will fulfil their legal obligations, and I believe him, but there is a new Attorney-General, who may be more malleable than the previous one.

Why is trust evaporating in Brussels? The issue is the frontier in the Irish Sea and the suspicions spring from what the Government say and from what they do or do not do. First, let us look at the words. Mr Johnson and his new Secretary of State still seem in denial about what the protocol means for trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Under Article 5 of the protocol from 1 January, we will be obliged to collect on the EU’s behalf EU customs duties on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, except for those goods on which the UK and EU agree there is no risk of them moving into the Republic. We agreed that; that is what the treaty says. In Article 6 of the protocol we also agreed that the EU customs code and hence EU export checks will apply to goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, although with controls at ports and airports minimised to the extent possible. We agreed that; that is what the treaty says. In Article 12 we agreed to give the EU the right to monitor and supervise these two-way frontier arrangements. We agreed that. It is in the treaty.

As long ago as 21 October, the then Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, Mr Barclay, confirmed to the Select Committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Kinnoull that there would be two-way checks, but the Prime Minister continues to deny it and, unlike his predecessor, Mr Smith, so now does Mr Brandon Lewis, the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. In this context, the White Paper’s flat rejection of any role for CJEU jurisdiction in this country starts to look, in Brussels’ eyes, very sinister. Seventy-five pages of the protocol consist of long lists of single market laws that will apply in Northern Ireland and will be under CJEU jurisdiction.

Did the drafters of the White Paper just forget about Northern Ireland? Or, as some in Brussels fear, are the Government hoping to forget about the protocol? Giving evidence to Mr Benn’s committee in the other place last week, Mr Gove refused to confirm the description of the Irish Sea frontier, which the Government themselves set out in their explanatory document on the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, published on 21 October. He brushed questions aside, saying that they were a matter for the Joint Committee set up under the protocol, which will, I understand, finally meet at the end of this month. But the Joint Committee’s task, as spelled out in the treaty, is to agree how to implement the provisions of the protocol. It cannot change them—and we have signed up to them.

So much for the words—it is the deeds that worry me most. The Select Committee, visiting Belfast on 25 February, could find no evidence of any central or devolved government action to prepare to implement the protocol. The business community was equally unsighted, and suggested that with five months gone and only eight to go, it would be a “herculean” task to get workable frontier arrangements up and running. I think “herculean” is Hibernian for “impossible”.

We were told that no one from HMRC, which will be responsible for the two-way customs border in the Irish Sea, had, as of 25 February, given the business community of Northern Ireland any indication of what to expect or how best to prepare for it. We were told that 2,500 trucks cross the Irish Sea within the UK every day—850,000 a year—and that for GB-NI movements, 45 questions would probably have to be asked about every consignment. We were told that for NI-GB movements there might be 31 questions, if the precedent of the EU’s Ukrainian-Polish frontier were followed.

I find all this acutely disturbing—indeed, shocking. I can think of few greater infringements of national sovereignty than a foreign-supervised frontier inside our United Kingdom. I am not surprised that Mrs May—and Mr Johnson, before he got to No. 10—ruled it out as something no UK Prime Minister could possibly accept. But he did accept it: it is in an international treaty, and we do not break treaties.

The Government in Dublin are well aware that we are dragging our feet. So, too, is the Commission, whose members have been in Belfast to find out. No wonder there are suspicions in Brussels. If we walk away from the treaty we signed, there will not be another to sign. The worst of all possible worlds would be to leave the people of Northern Ireland in limbo and in the dark, puzzled by the words being uttered and totally unbriefed on the necessary deeds.

I would be grateful if the Minister could confirm that it is not our Government’s intention to seek to reopen or reinterpret Articles 5, 6 and 12 of the Irish protocol, and tell us when the people of Northern Ireland will be informed—ideally, consulted—about the preparations they should make for their resultant new trade frontier with the rest of this kingdom.