EU: Future Relationship Debate

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Department: Cabinet Office

EU: Future Relationship

Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Excerpts
Wednesday 23rd September 2020

(3 years, 9 months ago)

Grand Committee
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Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick Portrait Baroness Ritchie of Downpatrick (Non-Afl) [V]
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My Lords, I have to confess that when I first had sight of this Motion coming from the Government, I wondered why as it clearly focuses attention on an aspect of the Government’s performance that leaves so much to be desired. I thank the Minister for his explanation today, but I think lots of questions need to be put, and answers need to be given.

I regard Brexit as a social and economic disaster for the UK, and in particular for Northern Ireland, but I accept that the UK has left and that the exit, however shambolic, will be completed by the end of the year, so the remarks I make here are not rerunning the Brexit debate. They are about the Government’s approach to the negotiations, which has been dreadful from the very start.

We set out with former Prime Minister May’s assertion that “Brexit means Brexit”, without any further elucidation. Contrastingly, the EU made its three requirements clear and patiently asked the UK Government to outline the kind of Brexit they wanted to negotiate, but it got no clear answer. Instead we have had the chaos of hard Brexit or soft Brexit, in the customs union or not in the customs union, backstop or no backstop, ERG and even a general election. We had a Brexit Secretary who did not like going to meetings and a Foreign Secretary who likened our negotiating partners to the Soviet Union.

Then we had a year of farce in the other place while the EU waited patiently, allowing more time for the UK Government to get their act together. Eventually we reached a withdrawal agreement which, along with the Northern Ireland protocol, settled the most vexed matter of all: the future of the EU-UK customs border. Then only in February this year, as the pandemic was starting to break around Europe, the UK Government finally said that they wanted a Canada-type trade deal.

Since that time, the UK Government’s approach to negotiating the future relationship with the EU has been characterised by bluster, brinkmanship and, I am sad to say, bad faith. There is a refusal to accept that along with the obvious benefits of the free trade agreement, which the EU actually wants to give us, we have to accept some responsibilities. Instead the Government want all of the freedoms and none of the obligations.

The negotiating strategy is based on “They need us as much as we need them”—surely one of the greatest untruths ever peddled in this country. With the introduction of the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill and some of the Prime Minister’s own recent utterances, the Government have taken that bluster, brinkmanship and bad-faith approach to a new level. Imagine legislating to disapply the withdrawal agreement while breaking international law in the process; ridiculously accusing the EU of bad faith when it is the other way around; ludicrously claiming that the purpose of the Bill is to defend the Good Friday agreement, when it threatens to do the exact opposite; and simultaneously grabbing power back from the devolved Administrations without their consent.

That is not all: while the Government’s approach has seriously damaged the prospects of a deal with the EU, we should remember that any deal with Mr Barnier has to get through an increasingly agitated European Parliament and EU 27, not to mention the warnings from Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi about a US trade deal and the unnecessary damage to the UK’s relationship with Dublin.

This is doing real damage. Businesses in Northern Ireland, including hauliers, while apprehensive about new customs impositions, were satisfied that with the Northern Ireland protocol they could at last plan ahead. That has now been thrown into doubt. Only yesterday the Northern Ireland Assembly backed a Motion brought by my colleagues that roundly condemned the Government’s approach to the EU negotiations. Maybe the Minister could indicate what progress has been made on the deal relating to hauliers and indeed to fisheries? I think of both the Irish Government and the UK Government having jurisdiction in the Irish Sea. Will they be concluded soon? How will the Government protect our economy and society if there is no deal? How will they protect our devolution settlements?

Perhaps most ridiculous of all was the scene of Boris Johnson in the other place conjuring up fantastical images of the completely fictional threat of an EU blockade of UK food supplies, a nonsense that was brilliantly exposed by the colleague of the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, Ed Miliband. Unfortunately, the PM still has to clown around with jokey notions of exports of Devon clotted cream being blockaded by the EU.

I am afraid for me and for the people of Northern Ireland. This has gone too far. We want to see a deal. We want to see those intricate sets of relationships that we have on the island of Ireland between north and south, within the north and between Ireland and Britain, as captured in the Good Friday agreement, protected and enhanced. We want no further nonsense such as we have seen espoused by the British Government. I hope the Minister can provide some answers today to those vexing questions on that vexing issue, because there was no doubt that the protocol provided an answer to that most vexed question of the border.

Baroness Barker Portrait The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Baroness Barker) (LD)
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Since the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, is not contributing this afternoon, I call the next speaker, the noble Lord, Lord Wei.