Future Relationship Between the UK and the EU DebateFull Debate: Read Full Debate
John BercowMP Main Page: John Bercow (Speaker - Buckingham)
Department Debates - View all John Bercow's debates with the Department for Exiting the European Union
(1 year, 7 months ago)Commons Chamber
I will not; I will go on.
I will say this, because it is important that it is said—[Interruption.]
Thank you, Mr Speaker. I will try most sincerely not to be too indiscreet, but before Christmas—I believe it was September or October but my detailed, copious notes are at home and so not available to me—I was asked by a very senior person what the political consequences would be of choosing an EEA-lite deal. I explained that it would be a political cataclysm for the Conservative party and there would be a great political explosion if such a thing were chosen. We discussed it at some length.
Shortly after Christmas, after the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, my hon. Friend the Member for Fareham (Suella Braverman), joined the Department, I will reveal that we had a ministerial meeting at which all the Ministers looked at the proposals in advice, and we all agreed we should build from a free trade agreement Canada-style rather than take an EEA-lite deal. Yet, despite proceeding on that collective basis in our Department, here we are with a proposal before the House that requires a mandatory degree of high alignment to EU rules. It is an EEA-lite proposal, not a Canada-plus proposal, if I may put it in those terms, despite a long history of Ministers rejecting that.
I have to conclude that it has long been the intention of those providing advice that we should arrive at such a relationship. Those proposing this category of close relationship, with the up-front choice of mandatory alignment, have two profound problems. First, the project of the European Union is in real difficulty. I take no pleasure in that, and no one need take my word for it—Jean-Claude Juncker said on 14 September 2016:
“Our European Union is, at least in part, in an existential crisis.”
Monsieur Macron said in Strasbourg on 17 April this year:
“There is a fascination with the illiberal, and that is growing all the time…Month after month we are seeing views and sensibilities emerge which call into question certain fundamentals. There seems to be a sort of European civil war.”
That is the most of extraordinary thing to have been said, yet it was said by a man who supports the European project. George Soros, who famously supports the project, has said:
“The European Union is mired in an existential crisis. For the past decade, everything that could go wrong has gone wrong.”
Break in Debate
I draw the attention of the House to my entry in the Register of Members’ Financial Interests.
I want to extend the warmest possible congratulations to the new Secretary of State on joining the Cabinet—I know he has had to pop out for a short while—and I want to salute the speech by my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker). Whether one agrees or disagrees with him, he is clearly a man of integrity and principle. He worked incredibly hard in his Department.
This is the first contribution that I have made to any of the Brexit debates. It was 25 years ago that I was a Government Whip engaged in securing support for the Maastricht treaty, with Britain’s two opt-outs, so brilliantly negotiated by John Major. I learned from that experience the deep and fierce passions on Europe that are held by so many of my friends and colleagues across the House, and in particular on the Conservative Benches.
I have to say, in all honesty, that the position today is far worse in terms of internal conflict and disagreement than ever it was during the Maastricht era. Of course the divisions are not just within this side of the House; they run throughout our constituencies—mine was divided almost exactly 50:50—and between friends and family. They have led to a breakdown in collective responsibility in the Cabinet, with the consequent breakdown in normal party discipline far worse than anything we remotely saw during the parliamentary stages of Maastricht. This breakdown in relationships, these deep divisions in this place and outside, are going to be very difficult indeed to heal.
I come now to the White Paper. I was dismayed, although not surprised, that my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (Mr Davis) resigned; dismayed because, despite some of the ludicrous, and at times mischievous, briefings he was subjected to, he was so clearly the right negotiator for Britain, with his business and European experience making him uniquely qualified for the task.
I have always felt throughout this process, as a Back-Bench Member of Parliament, that the best interests of my constituents are served by supporting the Executive in these very difficult negotiations: that the Legislature—that is us—should give the Executive some leeway and the benefit of the doubt. That is not an enormously dissimilar approach to the way the 27 other stakeholders in the EU are more or less rowing in behind Monsieur Barnier. But in the end, particularly in a Parliament where there is no majority, and where therefore power has so self-evidently passed from the Cabinet room to the Floor of the House of Commons, it is we, the Legislature, who will decide, and the House of Commons that will reach its verdict on the deal that the Executive negotiates. It is for that reason that the arguments for a meaningful vote are so essential and have had to prevail, as they have done, in the House.
Break in Debate
We can all quibble about how this whole process has been handled, from the perhaps premature triggering of article 50 through the backstop arrangements and how much we will pay the EU. Indeed, some of us have continuing concerns about the continuing reach of the European Court of Justice—
Thank you, Mr Speaker.
We are where we are, and this White Paper is the first time, in all fairness, that those with whom we seek to negotiate will have some idea of what we seek to negotiate. That is important in itself. We need to learn the art of compromise. We did not get a clear indication one way or the other either in this House or in the country, and we should now compromise and do what is it the best interests of the British people. It seems to me that this is the best we have so far.
The most important thing to me is business certainty. This country has had an extraordinary record of inward investment, and that is a climate that we have unfortunately begun to damage through all these deliberations over where we are now heading. We have heard perhaps too much from the big businesses and multinationals, all of whom employ huge organisations or have people to represent them, such as the CBI. We heard very little from small businesses. Those are the businesses of our constituents. This is often forgotten, but there are only 2,000 plcs in this country; 0.3% of UK business, employing 2.6 million people and providing 8% of the workforce. There are 4.8 million family-run businesses in this country, and they make up 87% of all UK private sector businesses —5% are manufacturing firms, and 19% are construction firms. They employ 12.2 million people, 38% of the 32.2 million UK workers. That is 46.5 % of UK private sector employment in these smaller, often family-run companies. They generated £149 billion in tax in 2016. These are the companies that we seek to protect. These are the companies that need to grow. These are the companies we need to enshrine in a framework with the EU that ensures they can continue to prosper. They are the lifeline of the economy and the lifeblood of our constituencies.
I shall end soon, Mr Speaker, but let me just say that those who seek a second referendum basically want to introduce a new range of questions and to overturn what the British people decided the first time. We saw second referendums in Denmark on Maastricht and in Ireland on the Nice treaty. In 2008, the first time that Ireland was invited to reflect on the Lisbon treaty, 53.4 % rejected it, versus 46.6%. Lo and behold, a year later, after negotiations with the EU, the Irish people were invited to vote again and voted in favour. You know what? They were told at the time that they did not understand the question. They were told that it was too complicated for the people—the same accusations that people make in a very condescending way against those people who voted to leave. I voted to remain, but the difference is that I abide by the wishes of the British people—I do not question them, as the right hon. Member for Carshalton and Wallington (Tom Brake) did—and that is what the rest of the House should now do.