European Union: Negotiations (European Union Committee Report) - Motion to Agree

– in the House of Lords at 3:15 pm on 16 March 2020.

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The Earl of Kinnoull:

Moved by The Earl of Kinnoull

That this House agrees with the conclusion of the European Union Select Committee, that the Council Decision authorising the opening of negotiations for a new partnership with the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, published in draft on 3 February 2020, and adopted in amended form by the General Affairs Council on 25 February 2020, raises matters of vital national interest to the United Kingdom.

Relevant document: 8th Report from the European Union Committee

Photo of The Earl of Kinnoull The Earl of Kinnoull Chair, European Union Committee, Principal Deputy Chairman of Committees, Chair, European Union Committee, Deputy Chairman of Committees

My Lords, I thank those who, despite difficult national circumstances, have signed up for this debate. I extend my best wishes to those who are, for entirely understandable reasons, staying away from Westminster.

This is the first time that the House is debating a Motion under Section 29 of the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Act. Section 29 imposes a duty and a power on the European Union Committee of this House. This is in addition to the remit already reflected in our terms of reference, which, inter alia, is to help inform parliamentary and public debate on EU-related matters. The new Section 29 comes into play once we have identified a document of “vital national interest”, and leads on to the production of a report, a Motion and a debate in a relatively short timespan. The document we are concerned with today is the Council’s decision that was adopted on 25 February: the EU’s negotiating mandate for our future relationship.

Before I address the detail of the report, I will say how glad I am that the Government have tabled their Motion today, as we had expressed our regret—at paragraph 29 of our report—that the UK Parliament had not had the opportunity to debate these vital matters to date. The fact that the Government also have put down their Motion sets a good precedent. Can the Minister commit to tabling further Motions in government time as and when there are significant developments in the negotiations?

I thank Michael Gove, who has agreed to appear before us shortly. However, we are still trying to establish clarity and structure as to how the Government will work with committees scrutinising the future relationship negotiations and, importantly, the withdrawal agreement’s implementation. As a committee, we have commented on this several times. It is very important to get it right. Will the Minister commit to working with me in agreeing in short order the structure of this engagement for the months ahead?

Our report is neutral, factual and analytical. We have sought to compare the Council decision of 25 February with the Government’s command paper of 27 February on the future relationship and the political declaration that was agreed by both parties in October 2019. A further relevant item is Article 184 of the withdrawal agreement, ratified in January this year. This places a treaty obligation upon both parties to

“use their best endeavours, in good faith and in full respect of their respective legal orders, to take the necessary steps to negotiate expeditiously the agreements governing their future relationship referred to in the Political Declaration”.

The Council decision is structured very similarly to the political declaration, with some texts simply copied over. Naturally, there are areas where the EU has expanded on the political declaration, a number where the emphasis has changed and some that are omitted. Broadly, however, the council decision is a mark-up and development of the political declaration, and this has facilitated our analysis.

Things have been rather more difficult where the UK’s Command Paper is concerned. During the passage of the withdrawal agreement Act in January, we heard from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie, who said:

“The political declaration ... sets out the framework for a comprehensive and ambitious free trade agreement with the EU. The general election result has clearly shown that the public support that vision and we consider that we have been given the mandate to begin negotiations on that basis.” [Official Report, 13/1/20; col. 553.]

This was clarified later by the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, who said that

“the Government’s vision for the future relationship with the EU is already set out … in the political declaration”. [Official Report,20/01/20; col. 1004.]

Yet the Command Paper is a wholly different structure from that of the political declaration and is instead based on existing EU free trade agreements, such as its Canadian and Japanese ones. This makes it very difficult to conduct a line-by-line comparison with the political declaration, or to trace and explain changes to the Government’s position since the political declaration was settled in October last year.

At paragraph 26 of our report we said:

“It would be helpful if the Government, without prejudicing its negotiating position, could publish a comparative analysis of the Political Declaration and the Command Paper, explaining the changes in its approach.”

Will the Minister commit to provide this in the near future?

The bulk of our report is taken up by a comparison of the UK and EU opening negotiating positions. These are opening positions; it is the haka at the start of a match, and both sides will have left themselves room to manoeuvre. But the current trajectory, as exposed by our analysis, is clear: the two sides are currently diverging, not converging. I draw your Lordships’ attention to four examples.

The first is the overarching structure that the two sides state they are aiming for. The Council decision envisages a single association agreement. The Command Paper proposes a “suite” of agreements within a “broader friendly dialogue”. It would be helpful to hear from the Minister about the strength of feeling that the UK has on this.

The second is fisheries—I have no doubt we will hear more about this in the debate. I stress that this is very much one area where the devolved Administrations need to be involved. The political declaration looks to a new fisheries agreement but lacks detail in this difficult area. Both sides have now set out their vision in considerable detail. There is a lot to be said for the Government’s position, in particular their reliance upon scientific evidence. But it is fundamentally incompatible with the EU’s position, and it is not easy to see how this gap will be bridged.

Thirdly, and equally difficult, is the “level playing field”. The political declaration again lacked detail in this difficult area. Since agreeing the political declaration, the EU has toughened its line, as we set out in paragraphs 107 and 108 of the report. The political declaration contained no explicit reference to continuing UK alignment to EU rules. Instead, it referred to

“appropriate and relevant Union and international standards”.

The Council decision now wants to use

“Union standards as a reference point” and, more importantly, for EU state aid rules to apply “to and in” the UK. So the EU’s position has hardened, and state aid will necessarily be a key point of disagreement. Again, the widening gap looks hard to bridge, not least given the position of Northern Ireland, where EU state aid rules will apply directly as a result of the Northern Ireland protocol of the withdrawal agreement.

My fourth and final example concerns foreign and defence policy. The Government have set their face against a formal structure and there are no discussions about this in the future relationship negotiations. The terms of reference document notes that while the EU would be open to have them, the UK feels that none are needed. The political declaration on this area states that the future partnership

“should provide for appropriate dialogue, consultation, coordination, exchange of information and cooperation mechanisms.”

To take sanctions as an example, co-ordination is vital if they are to have real bite. It seems to me that effective co-ordination would require at least some structure. Given the political declaration’s language, I ask the Minister to comment.

We expect both sides to produce draft legal texts shortly—indeed, the EU’s text was leaked over the weekend. I have received four copies through separate leaking arrangements. It is 441 pages long. I very much hope that we will be able to scrutinise both texts. The risk is that, on the current trajectory, these texts will reinforce the divergence between the UK and EU approaches and that, in effect, both parties could back themselves into opposing corners.

In closing, I come to time: the ticking clock so often cited in this era of silent digital timepieces. The Government’s insistence on the 31 December deadline and the threat of walking away after June have added greatly to this time pressure. Current world events must be adding further to it. Statecraft might be best served by at least some flexibility here.

I hope that the Minister will offer a considered explanation of the Government’s approach to the negotiations. I certainly do not expect him to give away the Government’s negotiating confidences. However, simply restating their demands and insisting that they will walk away if those are not met is not enough for Parliament in our bounden duty to play our scrutiny role in these vital negotiations. I beg to move.