EU Relations - Statement

– in the House of Lords at 11:51 am on 10th November 2021.

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Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet) 11:51 am, 10th November 2021

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now make a Statement to update the House on various recent developments in our relationship with the European Union. The Statement will also be made in the other place in due course by my right honourable friend the Paymaster-General.

As noble Lords will know well, we have two principal agreements with the EU: the trade and co-operation agreement and the withdrawal agreement. The first—the biggest and broadest bilateral trade agreement in the world, freely agreed by both parties—is working well. Teething problems have largely been dealt with, business has adjusted well to the new relationship, and trade is getting back to normal. Both parties have agreed data adequacy. We are reaching complementary agreements—for example, the 17 bilateral aviation agreements that we have reached. The substructure of specialised committees is functioning; almost all the committees have now met, the trade partnership committee will meet on 16 November, and we expect a further partnership council in December.

There are, however, two problem areas within the TCA. The first is fisheries and the second is Union programmes, notably the Horizon science research programme. On fisheries, since we received the necessary applications in June, we have been engaged in technical discussions about licensing with the Commission, also involving the Governments of Guernsey and Jersey and the French Government. As is known, we have granted 98% of applications from EU vessels to fish in UK waters—nearly 1,800 licences in total. The remaining 2% have not provided the data needed to access our 6 to 12 nautical mile zone. As we have said consistently, we are ready to consider any new evidence to support the remaining licence applications. Indeed, we granted three more licences on 14 October because the Commission sent new evidence, then another on 26 October. We set out the full latest figures to Parliament on 3 November. Licences for Jersey and Guernsey waters are assessed by the relevant authorities in Jersey and Guernsey, not the UK Government. However, we support the approach they have been taking, which has been entirely in line with the provisions of the TCA.

We have therefore been disappointed that, faced with these facts, the French Government felt it necessary to make threats which were disproportionate, unjustified and would have been a breach of the trade and co-operation agreement. I welcome France’s deferral of the implementation of these measures; I hope they will take them off the table permanently. I spoke yesterday to my friend Clément Beaune in the French Government following our talks in Paris on 4 November. We obviously have different views on the fisheries question, but it is certainly our intention to keep working to get to an outcome which is fair to those who are genuinely entitled to fish in our waters.

The second difficulty I mentioned is that of the Horizon science research programme and some other related programmes. We agreed to participate in this in the TCA, and to pay a contribution, which is likely to be £15 billion over seven years. The TCA is clear that the UK “shall” participate, and the relevant protocol “shall” be adopted. That is an obligation. If it were to become clear that the EU did not intend to deliver on that obligation—and it has not done so so far—or simply to delay sine die, we would regard the EU as in breach of Article 710 of the TCA. We would of course put together a domestic research programme for our own scientists and universities in its place. But it is in neither ours nor the EU’s interests to get to that point, and much the best way forward is for the EU instead to finalise our participation as a matter of urgency.

I now turn to the other agreement, the withdrawal agreement, which of course includes the Northern Ireland protocol. We have been in discussions with the Commission on the changes needed to that protocol since we published our Command Paper in July. Our position was set out then in full and remains unchanged. On 13 October, the EU published four non-papers with proposals on medicines, customs, sanitary and phytosanitary matters—or SPS—and the engagement of Northern Ireland stakeholders in the operation of the protocol. Around the same time, we transmitted a new legal text to it, operationalising the proposals set out in the Command Paper in legal form. Our immediate view of those non-papers was that, while the EU’s proposals did not go as far as our Command Paper, nor cover all the areas that we believed needed to be addressed—in particular, the protocol’s untenable governance arrangements—they were worth discussing. We were keen to see if its proposals would at least reduce trade friction in the way that it claimed.

Since then, we have been in intense discussions with the European Commission. I have met Vice-President Šefčovič every week for the last three weeks in Brussels and London, and we will meet again on Friday as part of this week’s talks. The aim has been to assess whether it is possible to close the substantial gap between our positions and secure a consensual, negotiated resolution. So far that has not been possible. This is, at least in part, because the Commission’s proposals would not do enough to make the protocol sustainable for the future or even deliver what they have claimed. I have heard that view also expressed by many businesses I have spoken to in Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

If the talks do in the end fail, we will of course publish in full our assessment of the EU’s proposals and set out why they fall short of a durable settlement, but we will not do that until we have exhausted all the negotiating possibilities. For now, I wish to preserve the integrity of the negotiations and to remain positive. Accordingly, we continue to work to see whether the EU position on these issues can yet develop further, and whether it is possible to find a way to deal with the other important matters necessary to put the protocol on a sustainable footing, such as the interlinked issues of the imposition of EU law and the Court of Justice, state aid, VAT, goods standards, and so on. That work will continue in the talks under way this week.

In my view, this process of negotiations has not reached its end. Although we have been talking for nearly four weeks, there remain possibilities that the talks have not yet seriously examined, including many approaches suggested by the UK. So there is more to do and I certainly will not give up on this process unless and until it is abundantly clear that nothing more can be done. We are certainly not at that point yet. If, however, we do in due course reach that point, the Article 16 safeguards will be our only option.

We have been abundantly clear about this since July, when we made it clear that the tests for using Article 16 were already passed. Nothing that has happened since has changed that. I can reassure noble Lords that, if Article 16 were to be used, we would set out our case with confidence and spell out why it was wholly consistent with our legal obligations. We would also be ready to explain that case to any interested party, not just the signatories to the treaty but those with a broader interest in relations with the EU and the UK.

However, the EU seems to be arguing something different at the moment. It seems to be claiming that it would be entirely unreasonable for the British Government, uniquely, to use these wholly legitimate safeguard provisions within the treaty, designed precisely to deal with situations like the current one. It also suggests that we can only take that action at the price of massive and disproportionate retaliation.

I gently suggest that our European friends should stay calm and keep things in proportion. They might remind themselves that no Government and no country have a greater interest in stability and security in Northern Ireland and in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement than this Government. We are hardly likely to proceed in a way that puts all that at risk. If the EU were to choose to react in a disproportionate way and decide to aggravate the problems in Northern Ireland, rather than reduce them, that is of course a matter for them. At that point, of course, we would be entitled to come to our own judgment about how much value we could attach to their commitment to supporting the peace process and the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland, as against protecting their own interests.

This Government will always proceed in the best interests of Northern Ireland and, indeed, the whole of our country. That means, one way or another, working towards a balanced arrangement in Northern Ireland that supports the Belfast/Good Friday agreement rather than undermining it. We would much rather that others joined us on that journey, rather than making it more difficult. I hope that, in the short number of weeks before us, the Commission and the EU member states will look at what we have in common, look at our collective strategic interests as western countries and help us to find a stable and sustainable solution so that we can all move on. There is still a real opportunity to turn away from confrontation, move beyond these current difficulties and put in place a new and better equilibrium. I urge everyone to take that road—the road not of confrontation but of opportunity—for the sake of everyone in Northern Ireland and beyond.

Photo of Baroness Chapman of Darlington Baroness Chapman of Darlington Shadow Minister for the Cabinet Office, Opposition Whip (Lords) 12:01 pm, 10th November 2021

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for advanced sight of his Statement. However, I express my disappointment that this is the second time in as many months that he has waited until the final day before a recess to make a Statement on such important issues. He knows that some colleagues may not be present and that, importantly, the other place is not sitting. The Statement may well be repeated by the Paymaster-General in due course, but there will be a significant delay and I do not see anything in the Minister’s text that could not have been shared with both Houses on Monday or Tuesday.

We all know that the Government’s position on these matters often fails to stand up to scrutiny, but it is only right that he and his colleagues in the other place subject themselves to that scrutiny. I have suggested before that continuing the Brexit melodrama suits the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues. He has been dismissive, but perhaps the hope in No.10 is that this battle will finally distract the papers and public from the sleaze accusations—call me cynical.

We welcome the Minister’s update on discussions with the French Government, the Commission and our friends in Guernsey and Jersey around fishing licences. During the passage of the Fisheries Act, your Lordships’ House warned that the timescales for implementing a new licensing system were tight and that issues such as these may arise. Clearly, this does not excuse some of the interventions we have seen during the recent dispute, and we hope that all sides can continue these discussions in the calmer manner seen during recent days.

On Horizon, it is of course disappointing that ratification of the UK’s participation is taking so long. As the pandemic has shown, cross-border academic collaboration can only be a good thing. UK researchers have already faced a huge amount of uncertainty as the Government weighed up whether to participate in programmes such as Horizon. Now that the decision has been made and enshrined in the TCA, as noted by the Minister, the EU must act accordingly. He says that, if the EU does not comply, the Government will create a domestic equivalent, so can he confirm what contingency planning may already be taking place? When could such a scheme be operational? I am happy for him to write to me on that.

We have all watched with interest and alarm in recent days as the rhetoric around Article 16 is once again ratcheted up. We read of potential dates for the UK to trigger a trade dispute, and of others on which Mr Šefčovič will outline retaliatory measures. Cooler heads must now prevail. We have also seen reports that the Minister is seeking outside legal advice on rewriting the protocol, including on the Court of Justice issue. Commentators suspect that this is to prevent the Attorney-General having to overrule in-house legal advice, so can the Minister confirm whether such a search is indeed under way?

This also brings us back to the question of when Parliament will see the legal text sent to Brussels by the Government. We were told that it merely replicated the contents of the Command Paper in legalese, but if that is the case, why is new advice necessary? Does he intend to produce a revised draft? Why were Ministers in Northern Ireland not consulted? It is clear from the Minister’s Statement that UK-EU relations have not significantly improved, despite the diplomatic mastery that he deployed during his short trip to Lisbon.

Following each week of talks, we hear that, rather than bridging gaps, the two sides are growing further apart. That will not only deeply disappoint UK businesses but, as we move into the festive period, frustrate them too. This is not a game to them; rather, it is about getting products on shelves and sustaining people’s livelihoods. At the time of publication, a month ago, a variety of business groups believed that the Commission’s proposals represented a significant step forward. We know that there are disputes, but there remains widespread agreement that there would be significant improvement.

Central to this are the people and communities of Northern Ireland. The evidence increasingly shows that they want a deal between the EU and UK, not another stand-off, with all the uncertainty that that brings. The respected Liverpool Institute for Irish Studies found that people of Northern Ireland oppose the use of Article 16 and instead want solutions.

Business groups in Northern Ireland are demanding a deal. Seamus Leheny of Logistics UK said that

“a UK-EU negotiated outcome is vital” for the economy. Interestingly, he has not had any representation over the ECJ whatsoever from his 18,000 members. That is why Labour has called on the UK and EU to bring Northern Ireland’s leaders and communities into the process to speak for themselves. It is simply untenable to say to the people of Northern Ireland, “This is what we’ve decided: take it or leave it”. Northern Ireland must be involved in these talks and in the huge decisions being made about its future.

The Minister has said on several occasions that he stands ready to look at any and all proposals for improving the flow of trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, wherever they may come from. Why, then, has he been so reticent to seriously consider the idea of a wide-ranging, long-lasting veterinary agreement that is backed by organisations like the CBI? The EU has previously signalled that such a deal can be done, so why is that not currently at least on the table?

Although it increasingly feels inevitable, it continues to be our view that triggering Article 16 would be a destabilising step for businesses and communities alike. It may serve the Government well to maintain division, but it does nothing for anyone else. The Minister has been clear that he does not like the protocol. We know that, because he tours the studios every week telling the country of all the problems he has found with the deal that he personally negotiated.

But the evidence shows that, whatever the Minister wants, people in Northern Ireland want a deal. It is time for the Minister to show some responsibility. He should work constructively with the EU to find solutions, and then, if he still can, given everything that has happened, he must play an active role in rebuilding support and trust among all communities in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Lord Newby Lord Newby Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords

My Lords, I thank the Minister for making the Statement. However, just as he refers to the production by the EU of “non-papers”, it seems to me that this is largely a non-Statement. It contains nothing new and largely consists of yet more sabre-rattling—something that, I have to accept, the Minister excels at. He says that the trade and co-operation agreement is working well. According to the OBR, its effect is that our GDP will be 4% lower than if we had remained in the EU, so I suppose we should be very grateful that it is not working badly.

Underlying all the issues to which the Statement refers are two substantive problems for the Government. The first relates to trust. As the Minister made clear in his Lisbon speech, the UK is widely distrusted as a reliable partner. As a result, everything becomes more difficult, and what should be relatively small, easily resolvable issues, such as the licensing of fishing boats, become potential major flashpoints.

The second is that there exists at the heart of the Northern Ireland problem the irresolvable issue of where the EU-UK trade boundary is set. The Government in reality do not want a boundary at all when it comes to GB trading with Northern Ireland but want one when it comes to trading with the EU. The Good Friday agreement means that they cannot possibly have this best of both worlds. In seeking to achieve that impossibility, the Government are, understandably, running into problems, but it is completely disingenuous for the Minister to protest about unintended consequences of having a border down the Irish Sea when the Government’s own impact statement at the time set out in major detail exactly what those deleterious impacts would be. The Minister negotiated the deal. I cannot believe that he did not understand the consequences at the time. Did he think that it would be possible to live with them, or did he even then think that he could renege on the deal once the main trade and co-operation agreement had been signed? Either way, he was less than straightforward in presenting the deal as a Great British negotiating success.

On the operation of the protocol, the EU has made very substantive concessions which appear to offer the prospect of a resolution of the main operational problems. In these circumstances, repeatedly to dangle the prospect of Article 16 in front of the EU just looks like a provocation which will make the negotiations harder rather than easier. At the weekend, in commenting on the Article 16 threat, Sir John Major said that it was “colossally stupid” and “un-Conservative”. In part, he said this because it would threaten a trade war with the EU, a prospect which Simon Coveney again raised at the weekend, which would indeed be colossally stupid. But in part also, he said it because it undermines the Government’s central claim that they “got Brexit done”. Triggering Article 16 would lead to chaos and confusion, when businesses, not least in Northern Ireland, want stability and continuity. It would be the opposite of Brexit having been done. How, therefore, does the Minister rebut Sir John’s comments? How does he respond to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, that the majority of people in the Province do not believe that triggering Article 16 is in their best interests or that the potential involvement of the European Court of Justice is a red line—it is not; it is for the Minister, but it is not for the people in Northern Ireland.

It is overwhelmingly in the national interest to deal unemotionally with the problems in the operation of the protocol on the basis of the proposals now on the table. Can the Minister assure the House that he will finally put his sabre away and just get back to straight- forward negotiating?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for their reactions to my comments. I will try to deal with the points they raised systematically by subject.

On the initial point raised by the noble Baroness about the timing of the Statement, international business has its own timetable. Unfortunately, there are meetings and contacts the whole time which shape outcomes. It was our view that this was the most sensible moment to give a clear update in the best knowledge of the situation. We will continue to update the House at the right moment to keep it up to date with developments.

On the question of whether the TCA is working well, I think it is. That there are disputes over fisheries and Horizon does not change the fact that this vast agreement, the biggest anywhere, has come into effect with remarkably little difficulty. I have expressed before my scepticism—although I recognise that people can have different views—about some of the predictions of the economic effect of Brexit. I continue to be sceptical about the particular figure referred to by the noble Lord; I think we will see real life set this out in due course.

On fisheries, I thank the noble Baroness for recognising that the position that the French Government have taken is not reasonable; I do not think it is. That we are dealing with this question quite late in the year and the timetable is tight is of course because the French Government did not send the necessary paperwork for the applications to the Commission until June, half way through the year, and most of the evidence we needed arrived only in September. So, what is represented as a very long discussion is in fact quite a short one; most of the 1,800 licences that I referred to were given before the start of this year or in the first week of the year. We are doing our best and we proceed according to the evidence. Discussions are continuing this week and I am sure we will get to a fair outcome.

On Horizon, obviously, contingency planning takes place for all eventualities. We had hoped that it would not be needed, and I still hope that it will not be needed. I am very happy to set out in writing where things stand on this subject, because it is of huge importance to a large number of universities and research institutes, not just in this country but across Europe, which have an interest in collaborating with us. I repeat that much the best thing is if we can see that the treaty is delivered on, we are able to join and things can proceed as we expected. I still hope that can happen.

On Northern Ireland, there is a lot to say and some of it has been said before, but I repeat that, in our view, Article 16 is not inevitable—I want to be clear about that. It is much better to come to a negotiated agreement; that is the best way forward for stability, sustainability and prosperity in Northern Ireland. That is what we are working to do, but the safeguards are there if it is not possible to deliver that outcome. I am not concluding at the moment that that outcome is not possible; I think it is, and we are working hard to deliver it. Obviously, we look at the real-world situation in Northern Ireland and the stark division of opinion that is clear from the polling, and that shapes the situation we are dealing with. We think it is absolutely legitimate to use safeguards which were put in place for exactly this situation if that is the best way of supporting stability in Northern Ireland. However, let us see whether we can avoid that situation.

On legal advice, I think the noble Baroness would not expect me to disclose the details of legal advice and how the work of the Attorney-General is done, but I hope that she agrees that we would want her to have the best possible advice, reflecting the full range of opinion on these very sensitive and unprecedented questions. I think that is a reasonable expectation.

On the negotiation process, I do not think it is true that we—the UK and the EU—are growing apart in the negotiations. We have inched a little bit closer; there has been some movement, and that is good. We just are not moving together quickly enough, and the gap is still an extremely wide one. However, there has been some incremental progress. It was our hope that that could have been quicker and more substantive, but we are trying.

I do not think it is true that, as the noble Lord, Lord Newby, said, the EU proposals offer a satisfactory solution to the problem that we now face. As I said, we will set out our view on that in detail in due course. For example, they do not eliminate a single customs declaration for any good moving into Northern Ireland. The famous 50% figure is actually a 50% reduction in the number of fields in the customs declaration, with most of the significant ones still remaining—it is not a 50% elimination of process. On medicines, we still do not have a situation that deals with the reality of the fact that the regulator in Northern Ireland is not the MHRA but the EMA, so there is clearly a risk of divergence and not being able to deliver medicines to the whole country—and we have to deal with that. So they make progress, but they do not take us the whole way there.

To repeat, we would like to get to an agreement. We are working hard to get to one, and we talk to all ranges of Northern Ireland opinion. I spoke only yesterday to the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister to update them on the talks, and we continue to proceed in a way that we hope will make the best progress. I do not think that the threats that are swirling around of a reaction to Article 16 are in any way helpful, but obviously that is the business of the European Union.

I conclude that we want to find a solution to this. It is obvious that the protocol is not the only possible solution to the set of problems that are presented to us in Northern Ireland. There are other solutions and possibilities—we set them out in our Command Paper—and we still think that that would be the best way forward to provide a sustainable, stable solution in everybody’s interests in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Non-affiliated 12:22 pm, 10th November 2021

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his Statement. Last week, in our protocol committee we took evidence from the University of Liverpool, which produced the results of its survey. That survey was quite clear: that issues to do with Covid and health waiting lists were more important to the people of Northern Ireland than the protocol. As somebody who lives there, I can say that nobody talks about the protocol that I can hear of. Only this morning, Stephen Kelly from Manufacturing NI said that there were many benefits from the protocol. It is very important that there is a negotiated solution to the protocol. Does the Minister agree that invoking Article 16 now would not solve any economic or political problem and that such a step would undermine political stability in Northern Ireland, something that was very hard-won on all sides?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My Lords, I have looked very carefully at the polling produced by the University of Liverpool. It is inevitable that at the top of people’s agenda, in almost any poll, would be questions such as health, education and day-to-day issues. I do not think that that distracts from the fact that the protocol is self-evidently a major issue in Northern Ireland’s politics. What I took from that and other polling I have seen is the high level of division on the question of the protocol. There is a very clear division in most polls about support for the protocol or a wish to change it. In the environment of Northern Ireland, that very stark division is what makes things difficult. Obviously, I do not agree that triggering Article 16 would undermine stability. We would do it only if it was necessary to support stability in Northern Ireland. It is a safeguard and should be seen in that context.

Photo of Lord Cormack Lord Cormack Conservative

Will my noble friend remember that wonderful quotation on Harold Macmillan’s desk that

“Quiet, calm deliberation disentangles every knot”?

Will he go very carefully indeed? We have only to look at today’s Order Paper, with business on Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Question that we had earlier on Russia and Ukraine, to realise that, daily, the world is getting a more dangerous place. The worst thing that we can do is to fall out with long-standing friends and neighbours in Europe. We must work together with them. Will my noble friend do everything he can to lower the temperature and increase the amity?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My Lords, obviously I agree with my noble friend’s question. I said in my Statement that the West needed to think about what it had in common, for exactly these reasons—and that is really important. Of course we want to be friends and have friendship with our European neighbours; that is absolutely clear. But that does not mean that we must accept every proposition that they put forward. We have our own interests and we need to protect them, in Northern Ireland as well as elsewhere. I think we try to proceed with quiet calm, as my noble friend says. It is not us that are making threats about the TCA and not us that are making threats of retaliation against France.

Noble Lords:

Oh!

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I think there is a difference between a legitimate provision in a treaty, which is Article 16, and threats to do things outside the treaty, which are the threats that have been made to us in the last few weeks. I think both sides need to look at this, retreat from the positions that the EU and France have put out, and try to find that quiet calm to which my noble friend refers.

Photo of Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Lord Foulkes of Cumnock Labour

My Lords, further to the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, the main purpose of today’s Statement seems to have been to reinforce the threat to trigger Article 16. How does the Minister think that such blackmail tactics—because that is what they are—will make a negotiated settlement more likely?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I repeat what I have already said: threats have been made by both sides. Our position is unchanged; I made that clear in the Statement. Our position is to try to find a negotiated settlement. That is what we would prefer to do. Article 16 is a legitimate instrument in the treaty, which has been, albeit briefly, already activated by the EU and withdrawn. If we think that Article 16 is the best way of preserving stability in Northern Ireland, obviously it is an instrument that we will use. However, I repeat, it is not our preference.

Photo of Lord Robathan Lord Robathan Conservative

My Lords, earlier today we were discussing the question of the hereditary Peers’ by-elections and how it might diminish the opinion of the great British public of this House. Actually, the great British public neither knows nor cares about it, but never mind. Does my noble friend the Minister consider that what does diminish the standing of this House in the eyes of the general public is the non-stop criticism in this House of his position—which is a very difficult position—from people on the other side who have yet to reconcile themselves to the fact that the British public voted to leave the European Union? Does he find that this sniping and nit-picking is helpful to his position, or does he find that perhaps it gives succour to his negotiating partners in the EU, who believe that this may represent somebody— whereas actually it represents none of the British people at all?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My Lords, obviously I very much agree with the thrust of the question. There is a lot of commentary about the situation in Northern Ireland that does not engage with the reality and facts of the question but is a sort of proxy fight about a question that is settled. It would certainly make our job easier if we could look at the national interest questions that are at stake here, and at the need to provide stability and prosperity in a very troubled part of our country, and make our position in trying to defend that easier to push forward.

Photo of Lord Morrow Lord Morrow DUP

The Minister has said here today that the talks are not at an end yet, but I am sure that he is very conscious—as we are, back in Northern Ireland—that every day the talks go on costs the Northern Ireland economy countless millions of pounds. I hope that he takes that into account. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, said that the people of Northern Ireland do not want Article 16 triggered. I will tell the House what Northern Ireland does not want: any trade barriers between Northern Ireland and GB. That is what it does not want.

Further, the protocol disrespects the very delicate constitutional balance—this is at the heart of the agreement, we are told. It undermines Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the United Kingdom and it is not acceptable to any of the unionist parties in Northern Ireland. I ask this House to take cognisance of that. Why is it that only one side of the community has to be respected and not the other side? I ask the Minister: as the conditions now exist very clearly for the triggering of Article 16, why has it not been triggered?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My Lords, I think the exchanges that we have had in the last few minutes show the point I was making earlier: that there are in fact starkly divided views in Northern Ireland about these questions. That is why it is impossible to make an instrument such as the protocol work effectively, in the way that the EU insists that it be implemented, when those very stark divisions exist. We need to find a solution that everybody in Northern Ireland can get behind and which supports the delicate balance in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which was so painfully negotiated and which is the key to peace in Northern Ireland.

I very much sympathise with the points that were made on timing. Trade diversion is obviously happening every day and is very much on our mind, but we think that the responsible thing to do is to do everything we can, push as hard as we can and explore every possible avenue in and around the talks to see whether we can find an agreement that everybody can get behind. That will be my aim until I have concluded that it is impossible—and we are not at that point yet.

Photo of Lord Purvis of Tweed Lord Purvis of Tweed Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Trade), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (International Development), Liberal Democrat Lords Spokesperson (Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)

My Lords, page 58 of the OBR report states that UK GDP will be 4% lower as a result of the agreement negotiated by the noble Lord, Lord Frost. Page 59 of the OBR report states that trade—both imports and exports—is now 15% lower. The Minister said that he was “sceptical” of this and would be presenting his own figures. The Chancellor’s entire Budget and spending review were based on the OBR figures—so should we all now have a high degree of scepticism about the Chancellor’s statement and spending review? Will the Minister join us in scrutinising that set of figures, to show that we should not believe them?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My Lords, I do not think that I said that I was planning to present my own figures in this respect, merely that I was sceptical about the many judgments that had been made officially about the state of the economy in 2030—which I think is the 4% judgment—which is a long way out, and many things can happen, including policy changes that we will make to ensure that that situation does not develop. That is the way that I look at this problem.

Photo of Lord Liddle Lord Liddle Labour

My Lords, does the Minister accept that we are not here debating Brexit; we are debating his threat to detonate the Northern Ireland protocol in an agreement that he negotiated and signed? This has nothing to do—as the noble Lord, Lord Robathan, claims—with Brexit itself. Does he also recognise that while unionist sensibilities of course have to be recognised, we are dealing here with the long and painful history of the Irish question? There was not a single mention in his Statement of relations with the Irish Republic and how many people in the Irish Republic believe that this is a threat to the Irish Republic’s place in the single market and an attempt to force it out of it. What is his reaction to that? I urge him to stop posturing and get on with negotiating. The EU has moved a long way; how much has he moved?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I thank the noble Lord for his advice; I am certainly taking it, in that we should carry on negotiating—that is what we are trying to do, including this week and, I hope, beyond it. I repeat that Article 16 is a legitimate provision within the protocol. It has already been exercised once, and we cannot be in a position where it is not possible to exercise a legitimate provision in the protocol. That is simply not a reasonable position to take.

On the question of Ireland, we have made clear—I have said in this House on a number of occasions—that we do not wish in any way to threaten Ireland’s place in the single market. Nothing that we have proposed would do that. We have proposed measures that would protect the single market while allowing trade to flow freely throughout the United Kingdom. We have no wish to do that and nothing in what we have proposed can be interpreted as such; I want to be absolutely clear on that point.

Photo of Lord Empey Lord Empey UUP

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord succeeds in his negotiations but, irrespective of how many times he triggers Article 16, should that happen, it in no way replaces the protocol. In other words, there is the feeling in some unionist quarters in Northern Ireland that if we trigger Article 16, we will get a new deal. We are not getting a new treaty or a new protocol; we are merely amending it. It is a negotiation within it, so it is a mirage that triggering Article 16 is a solution.

Will the Minister also consider the fact that those of us who live there and have our political background there are, effectively, totally excluded from this process when we have solutions to put in place, based on the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which would avoid a lot of the problems that we have currently? Would he be kind enough to address that and confirm that no triggering of Article 16 replaces the protocol?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

The noble Lord makes an extremely important point. I have said before, and say again, that Article 16 is not an on/off switch for the protocol. It is not a sort of self-destruction mechanism for the protocol; it is a safeguard. There are constraints on what can be done with a safeguard. The legal limits of it are to be defined but, if you use Article 16, it is clear that you are left with a protocol with safeguards operating. That is why we find it so difficult to really understand the volcanic reaction that we get to the suggestion of using the safeguards provisions. It is a safeguard, and it is designed to support stability and ensure that the protocol fulfils its task of supporting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. If we do use the safeguard and Article 16, that will be the spirit in which we do so.

Photo of Baroness Neville-Rolfe Baroness Neville-Rolfe Chair, Built Environment Committee, Chair, Built Environment Committee

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend the Minister for giving us an update, and for doing so in prime time, not at 7.30 pm. I also refer to the helpful reply that he gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Chapman of Darlington, about contingency arrangements on R&D. Could he talk more widely about contingency planning in the event that Article 16 had to be triggered? What conversations have he or his officials been having with interested businesses and Northern Ireland interests, about, for example, the impact of any tariff or bureaucratic changes that the EU might implement here or on the island of Ireland, and what we might do by way of response?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

I thank my noble friend for the question. We are beginning that process. Obviously, we do not wish to pre-judge whether Article 16 is used and, as I said, we want to proceed with predictability, certainty and clarity, setting out the case if we do use Article 16, so there will be time to adapt and to deal with any measures if it comes to that point. We wish to provide legal certainty, clarity and the ability to deal with the situation and not to produce instability with sudden changes or surprise mechanisms. Predictability, clarity and certainty are the watchwords.

Photo of Lord Adonis Lord Adonis Labour

My Lords, has the Minister noted that polls now show a lead of about 10% for Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland? Does he think that that might have something to do with his Brexit policy over the last few years? How much higher does he think that lead might go if he, as my noble friend Lord Liddle says, detonates the Northern Ireland protocol, triggers Article 16 and begins a long trade war with the European Union?

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

It is probably not helpful for me to get into speculating about what polls may or may not show about outcomes months or years from now. To be honest, I am not sure there is a very direct connection between our Brexit policy and the rise of Sinn Féin in Ireland, which I think is due to quite a wide range of other factors and has parallels with what is happening across Europe. However, I defer to the noble Lord’s judgment; he has been to the Sinn Féin conference and I have not.

Photo of Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown Lord McCrea of Magherafelt and Cookstown DUP

My Lords, the protocol continues to damage the economy and political stability in Northern Ireland, but some Members in this House seem oblivious to that fact. Does the Minister accept that the Government must fully restore Northern Ireland’s position as a full part of the internal market of the United Kingdom? Does he also accept that the people of Northern Ireland cannot continue to be subject to laws in Northern Ireland on which they have no say or input? The status quo is not an option.

Photo of Lord Frost Lord Frost Minister of State (Cabinet Office), Minister of State (Cabinet Office) (Attends Cabinet)

My Lords, those are very good points. They are based on the fact that, ultimately, the protocol says that Northern Ireland’s position in the UK’s internal market must be respected and that it is part of the UK’s customs territory. That must be read alongside other provisions in the protocol, but we are not convinced that those requirements are being respected in the way that is necessary if we are to ensure that they are more than a dead letter. That is why we have proposed measures that would rebalance the protocol, support the balance of the Good Friday agreement and take us to a better place.