My Lords, it is more than a year since this report was published, since when the world has changed beyond recognition. The pandemic has compelled us to reset financial and social policies and has driven reappraisal of our nation’s place among and beyond its immediate neighbours.
Even before it struck, we had in some sense resolved our national political crisis about Brexit. Just as our committee was reporting in March last year, Britain was forced to extend the departure date; this was followed by a change of Prime Minister, involved recasting the withdrawal agreement, and then saw the election of a Government with a clear majority and a mandate to get Brexit done. This report, which focuses on how the UK can maximise its influence with the EU post Brexit, is now being debated after we have formally left the EU but while the terms of our future relationship are still to be settled.
I retain in all this, I hope, some sense of proportion, yet there have been other domestic changes that set the context for this debate. It marks a coda personally, as I have retired from the chair of the EU Committee after more than seven years; and I am very grateful to the new chair, the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull—if I may say, an admirable choice by this House—for his courtesy in inviting me to take the lead on this, my last bow. At the same time, I would like to thank members of the committee across the House for their dedication to, and expertise in, objective scrutiny, matched by the contribution of our excellent committee staff and, of course, our many diplomatic, official, academic and policy interlocutors. I would like in particular to thank the Senior Deputy Speaker, the noble Lord, Lord McFall, both for his careful work in reviewing our committee structures in the changed situation and for the contribution he made by convening the Interparliamentary Forum on Brexit, which has helped to develop mutual sympathy and understanding with the devolved legislatures. Finally, I welcome the presence of the Minister and of the many noble Lords who will contribute.
On re-reading the report, I have been struck by the sheer complexity of the process of disengagement set out in the withdrawal instruments and summarised in our Appendix 2. Not least among these are the most sensitive issues concerning Northern Ireland, where there were significant modifications in the revised protocol agreed after our report, but where there is still no agreement on how it will be implemented, partly because of the pandemic.
The report focuses on three main areas: first, the formal mechanisms for UK-EU engagement set out in the withdrawal agreement, notably the joint committee and the specialised committees that report to it; secondly, less formal mechanisms for engagement, including the UK’s potential participation in the work of EU agencies and programmes, the role of the UK Mission to the EU, now known as UKMis, and other UK offices and organisations in Brussels; and thirdly, the matter of interparliamentary engagement, which the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, will also touch on.
Whatever view one might take of any extension to the transition period, the pandemic coupled with the Government’s oft-stated distaste for any extension have compressed the timetable, and we now have fewer than 50 days before the June summit deadline. There is a need to clarify the arrangements applicable until the end of this calendar year, and their relationship with those that will follow, which the Government have indicated will depend on the structure of any future relationship. To date, the public have seen remarkably little effect from our formal withdrawal, and the pandemic has left little bandwidth in government to focus on the issues. These include governance and management of the remaining period of transition and, crucially the shape of any future relationship as it affects both trade and institutions. It would be very helpful if the Minister could today give us an appraisal of progress made in the talks, in spite of deadlines and the physical difficulties of communication, both in respect of trade and wider issues, with perhaps also an indication about how UKMis is working and ensuring that the collective UK voice and interests are represented in Brussels.
An important chapter in the report deals with the role of parliamentarians themselves. Over 50 years ago, long before I entered Parliament, I first visited the then EEC in Brussels. I was described at the time, rather generously, as “un expert anglais”, and I have been in and out of various European institutions and settings frequently ever since. Of course, parliamentarians are rarely inclined to take a unified position—it is through their divergence of view and diversity of experience that they make their distinctive contribution—but we all need to remain alert to all the opportunities for influence, networking and even simple personal friendships that will remain open to us.
This is no time to burn bridges or haul up the drawbridge. While for now we all understand that social distancing is important, conscious political self-isolation will never be a long-term goal. We must look to all aspects of our international relationships, both in Europe and wider afield. The pandemic reminds us that just as no man is an island, so our island nation, now rebranded as “Global Britain”, is built and thrives on constructive economic and political relationships.
As is typical in the immediate aftermath of a divorce, relations with the EU are frankly tense and difficult at the moment, and may stay that way for some time to come. But geography means that we will always be neighbours, with centuries of complex shared history. At some stage—the sooner the better—the current tensions and disagreements will dissipate and a new relationship will need to be forged. Both sides will need to work hard to rebuild it. The onus is on our Parliament to play its part, and I am confident that this House, not least through the skill and dedication of its continuing EU Committee, will continue to do so. In that spirit, and conscious that many other noble Lords wish to contribute, I beg to move.