Lib Dem Lords vs the Article 50 Bill: Sharon Bowles: The government has no mandate to drive us off the Brexit cliff

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. 

Sharon Bowles outlined all the uncertainty in the Government’s White Paper and said that they had no mandate to drive us off a cliff if the negotiations don’t turn out as people would want.

She also talked about uncertainty around our status within the European Atomic Energy Community and said that thtis needed to be clarified. This was of particular interest to her as her father was an atomic engineer.

My Lords, the Government are about to take the momentous step of triggering Article 50. I never had any doubt about that happening. There is a White Paper, whose purpose is, as the Secretary of State said,

“to inform all the debates … in the coming two years”.—[Official Report, Commons, 2/2/17; col. 1219.]

For the mother of all negotiations we have 73 pages, much of it occupied by current fact analysis, graphs and explanatory boxes, but with no substantive guidance on how co-operation is envisaged to work. How it could work is not a negotiating tactic; it is the fundamental prospectus and it should not be secret.

As the saying goes, we are where we are. We do not know where we will end up, because, in the words that spring out from the White Paper, our future relationship is entirely,

“a matter for the negotiations”.

It says so in paragraph 2.10 on dispute resolution; in 8.31 on our Euratom relationship; in 8.45 on our new customs relationship; in 8.42 on our relationship with European agencies; and in 12.2 for the interim arrangements that we will rely on. The Irish border, financial services, scientific co-operation—the list goes on. Dependent on the results of those negotiations will be the interpretation of the word “possible” in the frequently used expressions of “frictionless and seamless as possible”, “freely as possible”, “as much as possible”, “closest as possible” and “as much certainty as possible”.

It is worse than no certainty, because the Government have said that they will jump off the cliff into disordered uncertainty as their only alternative. I do not agree that the Government already have an incontestable mandate for that; this may also turn out to be the constitutional position. Nor will there be any certainty through early priorities because we are merely on the brink of swapping the EUs “no negotiation before triggering” mantra for its standard negotiating one of “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”. However, there could be one important certainty if the Government would confirm the acquired rights of EU citizens currently in the UK. Holding off is doing harm to the UK, in the NHS and elsewhere, so as a negotiating card it is bust—it is known and shown to have no value. At least grasp the fig leaf of decency now.

I declare a deep personal interest in Euratom because my late father, Percy Bowles, was arguably the foremost engineer of his time in atomic energy and particle accelerators. For UK purposes, the term “EU” includes Euratom in so far as context requires. Therefore, as it stands, the Bill might enable the Prime Minister to give notice, at the appropriate time, with regard to the Euratom legal entity. The question is when as well as whether that is appropriate. The Library note gives some arguments that it is not clear cut whether Euratom has to be included automatically in the Article 50 trigger. This gives the Government an opportunity and useful alternatives for transition, by not triggering Article 50 simultaneously with regard to Euratom. In this, it is the EU definitions that matter. Why not look before leaping and at least have some negotiation about the modalities under which there could be continuing membership of Euratom, having regard to the long liability timescales, which include eventual JET decommissioning? Even a short delay for Euratom might be helpful, given that the Dutch, French and German elections and summer holidays play the UK into Michel Barnier’s format of early talks being around the formulation of financial provisions. I cannot see why the UK would not keep this chance card when it keeps the useless EU migrants one.

There are amendments that I will support. The Government have made their own difficulties: there is inadequate information on how this is meant to work; the engineering, like a perpetual motion machine, is deeply suspect; and there is the needless closing off of options with their “not a jot or tittle of EU” approach. We did not need to be hog-tied in that way. In the end, you will have to cut some slack because you will be rumbled. Perpetual motion machines always are.

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