Beyond Brexit (European Union Committee Report) - Motion to Consider

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:43 pm on 12th May 2020.

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Photo of Lord True Lord True Chair, Intergenerational Fairness and Provision Committee, Minister of State (Cabinet Office) 6:43 pm, 12th May 2020

My Lords, I express my gratitude and admiration to my noble friend Lord Boswell, not only for his report but for his long service to his country and his very distinguished chairmanship of the EU Committee. I look forward to working closely with his successor, the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, who is already proving to be a doughty and statesmanlike leader in that role.

The report is crucially important, as is its title, Beyond Brexit: how to win friends and influence people. The noble Duke, the Duke of Montrose, reminded us from a past perspective of the importance of international friendship and co-operation—friendships and co-operation which can lie across, within and outside all sorts of international institutions. I simply disagree with those who say that the Government are isolationist and dogmatic—I heard those terms used in this debate among others; I shall not list them, but it is simply not a fair representation of the attitude of this Government or of the British people, who, I must remind this House, voted for a new relationship between this country and the European Union and, ipso facto, a new relationship between this country and the wider world. There were times in the debate when I felt like whistling or humming

“Lead, kindly light amid th’ encircling gloom” because many of the speeches shared a tone of impossibilism and doubt that this country could succeed in its common objectives, which are to reach a friendly future relationship with our friends in the European Union.

The view of the Government is that there is ample time to strike a deal based on fair trade and friendly co-operation. As your Lordships know, we are looking for an agreement largely like those that the EU has agreed with others. There are plenty of precedents and texts around. We are familiar with each other’s systems and, with sufficient energy, there is plenty of time. Moreover, the EU agreed to this timeline when it agreed the political declaration last autumn. I submit that no one should cast doubt on it; we should be getting on with it.

Of course Covid, as a number of noble Lords have referred to, exists; it is a great tragedy and a great crisis. However, the Government have the bandwidth and the capacity to conduct negotiations within Europe and to deal with the Covid crisis, as my right honourable friend Mr Gove assured the EU Committee last week. Notwithstanding the succession of noble Lords who asked for an extension in the transition, the Government’s view remains that that would simply prolong the negotiations and business uncertainty and delay the moment of control of our borders. As my noble friend Lord Cavendish of Furness said, extending the transition would mean that we would have to make further payments into the EU budget. It would also keep us bound by EU legislation at a point when we need legislative and economic flexibility to manage the UK response to the Covid pandemic. Some would characterise that as an ideological statement; I would characterise it as a statement from a Government intent on doing what they have been asked to do by the British people and to do so amicably to reach agreement with the people who will always remain our European friends.

Some have said that a long time has elapsed since this report was published. I was reminded when the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, was speaking of the old saying that there are decades when nothing happens and there are many weeks when decades happen. Sometimes in this House last year, it seemed that there were hours when weeks happened. New circumstances have arisen and we are now finally beyond Brexit, having left the EU in January, with a third round of the negotiations on our future relationship having started yesterday and with, I repeat, the transition period ending at the end of the year.

While the passage of time has meant that many areas raised in this report have been superseded, I agree with many noble Lords that that does not make this debate any less important or our aspiration for good relations across Europe and beyond any less vital. I hope to respond a little later to some of the specific points on our representation. I also acknowledge the important remarks of my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford.

While much of the work of this House and the other place has lately been focused on what we were looking to achieve, this report and debate are about not losing sight of how we should achieve our objectives. I will try to address most of that in the rest of my remarks.

I will answer one or two specific points raised in the debate. We still believe that it will be possible to reach an understanding on financial services equivalence by June. On the question of refugee children, raised by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Durham—technology has let me down; I hope to be able to reassure him on that later in my response.

Many noble Lords asked about the work of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee and the specialised committees. The Joint Committee met for the first time on 30 March via remote means and was co-chaired, as noble Lords know, by my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the European Commission vice-president, ‎Maroš Šefčovič. The UK and the EU updated the Joint Committee on progress to implement the withdrawal agreement, with particular focus on citizens’ rights—I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, that they are important and I endorse what my right honourable friend said on that matter—and on the Ireland/Northern Ireland protocol, which I will come to in a moment.

The UK and the EU also agreed to start the work of the six specialised committees on citizens’ rights, other separation provisions, the protocol on Ireland/ Northern Ireland, the protocol relating to the sovereign base areas on Cyprus, the protocol on Gibraltar and financial provisions. The UK and EU co-chairs of the specialised committees have each now spoken informally. They are making plans for their respective specialised committees to meet as appropriate. Indeed, the Ireland/Northern Ireland Specialised Committee met on 30 April. UK and EU officials co-chaired the first meeting via video and the UK and EU co-chairs both welcomed the collaborative and constructive conversation.

The Government are determined to give Parliament appropriate opportunity for scrutiny of the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee, and we have committed to issuing Written Ministerial Statements before and after each meeting. The Government have always been clear—the noble Lord, Lord Wood, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, referred to this—that Gibraltar is covered by our negotiations with the EU and we have committed to involve it fully. Decisions on representation at specialised committee meetings will be taken in accordance with the withdrawal agreement.

A number of noble Lords asked about work on the Northern Ireland protocol—if I listed the names on each occasion it would take time from this debate. However, the noble Lord, Lord Caine, introduced a parallel point, reminding us that our top priority in implementing the protocol should be to protect the Good Friday agreement and gains from the peace process, and to preserve Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom. That is the central purpose of this Government in agreeing ways to carry this forward. The protocol puts legal obligations on both sides. We are committed to complying with ours, just as we expect the EU to comply with its.

I apologise to the noble Baroness, Lady Ritchie, for not replying on this in a previous debate, but I was asked about the presence of an EU Commission office in Belfast. There is no reason why the Commission should require a permanent presence in Belfast to monitor the implementation of the protocol, nor, with respect to the noble Lord, Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, any reason why that should cause distrust. This is not a requirement that was included in the protocol; it is an additional EU ask. Article 12 of the Northern Ireland protocol does not necessitate, or place any requirement on the UK to facilitate, such a presence. Our position remains that EU officials can exercise their rights under Article 12 of the protocol, without necessarily a permanent presence in Northern Ireland.

The protocol is a practical solution to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland and makes clear—this is important—that Northern Ireland is, and will remain, part of the customs territory of the United Kingdom. The arrangements that we introduce will reflect this. As set out in the New Decade, New Approach deal, the Government are committed to legislate to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market, and to ensure that this legislation is in force for January 2021. We want to work with Northern Ireland businesses, as many noble Lords have asked us to, to ensure that new administration procedures are streamlined and do not affect the flow of trade.

The protocol also ensures that the future arrangements for Northern Ireland will depend on the consent of those affected by them through a vote that can take place every four years. We will continue to take forward discussions on the implementation of the protocol in the joint committee and specialised committee, and to do so in good faith.

A number of noble Lords remarked on how we are engaging with the EU during the transition period. Since the UK has left the European Union, we are seeking to engage and co-operate with the EU through normal diplomatic channels. That is why the UK will not attend EU meetings, other than in exceptional circumstances. Our relationship with the EU and its member states will be conducted on the basis of normal diplomatic and international practice, as part of our wider agenda.

However, as was recognised by, I think, the noble Baroness, Lady Bowles, it is the fact that the United Kingdom Government are increasing the number of members of the UK Mission to the European Union, or UKMis—formerly known as UKRep, for those not up to date with the changes. That will continue to be our principal interface with EU institutions. As part of the strengthening of our diplomatic effort across Europe—I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Empey, on the importance of this—UKMis Brussels has grown from over 120 staff in 2016 to over 180 staff at the time of the UK’s exit from the EU. It has established a dedicated public diplomacy function to support the new ways of working, and has enhanced its communications team, which will play an important role in shaping the narrative around the UK’s activities and priorities within Europe. We set great store in the importance of maintaining good relations with our partners across Europe.

The noble Lords, Lord Foulkes and Lord McConnell, were among many who raised the question of the devolved Administrations. Of course, the UK Government are engaged with the devolved Administrations during the development of the approach to negotiations, through regular official meetings and bilateral discussions between the Paymaster General and her ministerial counterparts in the DAs. That has ensured that the UK Government have taken on board the views of the DAs, and that has been reflected in the published approach to negotiations. I reaffirm our commitment to working with them to deliver a future relationship with the EU that works for the whole UK. The UK Government are committed to this, and last week, on 6 May, the Paymaster General spoke to Ministers from the DAs to update them on negotiations and exchange views.

I follow my right honourable friend Michael Gove in responding to the important question raised by the noble Earl, Lord Kinnoull, and a number of other Peers about parliamentary engagement with the EU institutions post Brexit. It is clear that, understandably, many Members of your Lordships’ House are keen to maintain those links—important links between the Parliaments of member states. But I repeat the position, expressed by my right honourable friend when he spoke to your Lordships at the EU Committee, that it is not for the Government to tell Parliament how to maintain and develop these arrangements. I can assure the noble Earl that the Government are keenly supportive of such proposals and developments.

The noble Lords, Lord Bruce and Lord Broers, and others asked about participation in EU agencies. We will, of course, discuss with the EU how best to manage our friendly relations but any solution has to respect our red line of no commitments to follow EU law and no acceptance of the CJEU. That is fundamental and was put to the British people at the last election.

Unfortunately, there are relatively limited options for third-country membership of the EU bodies, but we have been clear that we will operate on the basis of existing precedents where they represent a real benefit to British people and industry and provide convincing value for money. I confirm that we are considering participation in Horizon and in a number of other bodies referred to in the debate. We are also, obviously, considering participation in Erasmus+.

My noble friend Lord Duncan of Springbank asked about climate change. We are already working closely with the EU on climate change and I see no reason why that should not continue. I also want to confirm that the UK will continue its participation in the emissions trading scheme during the transition period.

The technology now having worked, I can reply to the right reverend Prelate on refugee children. The UK continues to be fully committed to meeting our obligations under the Dublin regulation. We remain in close contact with member states, to keep abreast of updates and establish where transfers can take place as quickly and safely as possible in accordance with existing Covid-19 restrictions. I hope that is a reasonable response.

The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, referred to the importance of sport. This is, of course, important in Europe, both within and outside the EU; one recognises that.

Time is unfortunately constrained. I agree with the feelings of a number of noble Lords who have spoken: it will be a good day when we can get back to challenge and response. But, despite my feeling sometimes that it was a little pessimistic, the debate has been good and instructive. It has demonstrated again the capacity of this House and its committees to look at our exit from the EU in the round and look towards our long-term relationship. We do not believe that our vision for the future is incompatible with having a close relationship with the EU. We continue to see the EU, and the EU nations, as our neighbours and our friends. We will continue to aspire to, and have, a relationship inspired by our shared history and values and, I hope, always informed by your Lordships’ House.