Lib Dem Lords vs the Article 50 Bill: Alan Watson: EU divorce brings disaster, division and catastrophe

The Lib Dem Lords have made some cracking contributions to the debate on the Article 50 Bill. Ahead of its next Lords stages, we’re bringing you all the Lib Dem contributions over the course of this weekend. That’s no mean feat. There were 32 of them and cover more than 30,000 words. You are not expected to read every single one of them as they appear. Nobody’s going to be testing you or anything. However, they will be there to refer to in the future. 

Our Lords excelled themselves. Their contributions were thoughtful, individual, well-researched and wide-ranging and it’s right that we present them in full on this site to help the historian of the future. 

Alan Watson recounted his experience working for Roy Jenkins in the Commission decades ago. He talked about the importance of building a positive partnership with the EU – something there is little sign of at the moment.

My Lords, I declare a historic interest and note that I have no contemporary interest. I worked with the late—and great—Lord Jenkins in the European Commission for just over four years, at the end of which period I decided to come home. It was an interesting revelatory moment with regard to working within the European Commission, because when I attempted to resign, the head of personnel, who as it happens was an Englishman, said, “You can’t possibly do that—you are a fonctionnaire permanente!”. He meant every word. However, I persisted, and came home. I took my pension agreement with me at that point and I no longer have one from the European Commission. I make that clear.

On 15 June, a number of days before the referendum, we had a debate in this House on the referendum itself. By then, it was already clear that the referendum was in many ways dangerous, certainly divisive, and likely to be damaging. But for me, the most important thing about it was its folly. It was an unnecessary referendum, a miscalculation, and a high price has been paid. However, for the time being, as many noble Lords have said, this is water under the bridge. Cruel events over the next two years may well change the electorate’s perspective, but meanwhile, what can be done? I find three imperatives compelling and possibly hopeful.

First, over the next two years, we have the opportunity —and the obligation—to change the narrative on Europe. I remind the House that the White Paper’s title is The United Kingdom’s Exit from and New Partnership with the European Union. We should take that title seriously. There is a positive experience—a number of them—on which to base a more positive narrative. First, it is factually correct that on the overall economic balance, membership has been good for the United Kingdom. Look, for example, at the role of the City, which has enormously benefited in its standing and prowess, and in particular its transactions related to the euro. Look at what a Minister called recently the “beacons of success” in manufacturing; namely, the car industry. Why are we the recipients of this huge flow of inward investment? From South Korea, India and Japan, the cars that are being manufactured make Britain numerically one of the greatest car manufacturers and exporters in the world, and that is because we have this access to the single market. Look at research and development and at our universities. I say, as a Cambridge man, how interesting it is that Oxford is to make the first move in terms of situating itself in part on the continent.

Our membership has also been very good for the European Union. Reference has been made to the role of English, so let me share something with noble Lords. One of the things that I am proud of during my four years in the European Commission was a certain battle for the English language. I well remember going to a meeting, having had it explained to me beforehand by a Frenchman in the Groupe du Porte-Parole that if I submitted a paper on Mondays for a decision on Wednesdays in English, it would not appear for three weeks. If I submitted it in French, it would be dealt with that week. An Italian was in the chair at the meeting—it was a Council meeting but I was there for the Commission—and everyone began to speak in French. The contributions were being made in alphabetical order and Watson is at the end of the alphabet. As it came near to my turn I thought, “What on earth am I going to do? Well, I can speak German”. But then I thought to myself, “How stupid. English is a European language”. So I went into English and the Irishman who was sitting next to me said, “Oh begorra”—I should not say “sweet Jesus” in this House—“thank you for doing that”. He too immediately went into English and from that moment on everyone else did. So that was quite gratifying.

The second imperative is that when we trigger Article 50, which we will, we will also trigger the so-called new partnership. On 10 October last year I put down a Question for Written Answer asking what the Government were going to do to respect and take fully into account the votes of the millions who voted for remain. I received this reply:

“Our guiding approach is to … deliver the … best deal for the British people … working constructively with our EU partners going forward”.

I would therefore like to ask the Minister what plans Her Majesty’s Government have for going forward constructively with our new partners in Europe. We have heard all about the opposite, but let us hear a bit on this side. I also think that this House has a key role to play and Parliament clearly so in terms of scrutiny and above all in ensuring that this new relationship is, in the end, voted on by both Houses of Parliament, and that the vote is important and decisive so that there is no legitimacy to this outcome unless that vote takes place.

Thirdly, I want to refer to a contribution made yesterday to the debate. The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, is in her place. In her speech she used a wonderful analogy. She said that when marriages break up, there is usually a messy divorce and the only people to benefit are the lawyers. I have a horrible feeling that that is exactly what we are going to replicate over the next two years. But she went on to say that quite often after a divorce has happened, there is a reconciliation and an amazingly large number of partners remarry. Is that la-la land? One thing I can say is that it is a much better prospect than its alternative of division, disaster and maybe catastrophe.



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