Lib Dem Lords vs the Article 50 Bill: Lindsay Northover: We can’t have no cliff edge AND be willing to walk away

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. 

Lindsay Northover concentrated on the cake and the eating of cake that is inherent in the Government’s position – and points out that Government is unlikely to get what it wants. She looks at the effect on trade and universities.

My Lords, with 190 of us speaking, there are about 23 of us for every line of this short Bill, but that shows how important the Bill is. There were powerful speeches yesterday, including from the noble Lord, Lord Malloch-Brown, who spoke at 12.07 last night. There was even unprecedented applause from the Public Gallery for my noble friend Lady Smith of Newnham after her passionate defence of EU citizens living here. There have been brave and passionate speeches today, such as those from the noble Baroness, Lady Altmann, and the noble Lord, Lord Liddle. But, for me, the most moving speech yesterday was that of the noble Lord, Lord Hennessy, who likened the debate to an elegy. The UK’s involvement in the European project might turn out to be, he said,

“a fine, if ultimately doomed, cause”.—[Official Report, 20/2/17; col. 74.]

We appear to be on course for much more than a Lord Patten Hong Kong moment.

In the UK, we rarely learned about the EU as a project for peace, even though in recent memory on our continent there have been conflicts in the Balkans, Northern Ireland and Cyprus, with freedoms brutally suppressed in eastern Europe. Nor was it often pointed out in the UK that almost half of our trade is with the EU. We look at the US and marvel at how it could possibly have elected Donald Trump. Round the world, including in the Commonwealth, I have found that people wonder at how we could have voted to leave the largest, wealthiest and strongest trading bloc in the world.

So how does this Bill chart our way forward in the light of the referendum result? There are indeed different routes, and I seek clarification in the Prime Minister’s speech. She prioritises controlling borders over our membership of the single market. She rejects the European Court of Justice, which adjudicates that single market, yet she wants the maximum,

“freest possible trade in goods and services”,

for British companies in the EU. She says that “we may wish to retain” elements for our strong industries—for example, the financial services and automotive industries. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Hill, pointed out yesterday, we are not the only ones negotiating; there are 27 others. What will they make of the words “we may wish to retain”?

Recently, in Berlin, I spoke on a panel with two Brexiteers to German businesspeople. Like Merkel, to a person they said, “No cherry picking”, even if it damaged their immediate interests, lest the EU as a whole be undermined. Our Prime Minister agreed in France that she would not cherry pick. In which case, what then for the financial services and automotive industries? How does the UK prioritise sectors of its economy? What about the pharmaceutical industry or high-tech? What happens as our economy changes? Any privileged access for certain sectors must mean some kind of equivalence in regulation. Do we invent another ECJ? Theresa May wants us to have a customs agreement with the EU but does not want to be in the customs union. What would this mean, given our interconnected supply chains? What would be the threshold for it being possible to have deals elsewhere?

Our trade with the rest of the world has been growing, seemingly unhampered by our being in the EU. However, in 2015, India took only 1.4% of our goods and desires a trade agreement that prioritises freer access to the UK, and New Zealand took only 0.2% of our goods. Yes, we must redouble our efforts, but we must also recognise the significance of the EU market to us and our greater ability to secure good trade deals via the EU.

We understand that there will not be a hard border in Ireland, but how is that to work? Are we about the see people trafficking displaced from Calais to Ireland?

We gather that we will not be paying what are described as “vast amounts” to the EU. It is not mentioned that the net amount is under 1% of GNI.

We wish to maintain our lead in science and the universities, but we already see EU students looking to Canada rather than the UK. We hear that Oxford and Warwick are considering campuses in Paris so that they can access EU funds.

We are told that we will have no cliff edge but transitional arrangements. However, the Government also make it clear that we are willing to walk away. That means that risk remains.

The Prime Minister’s speech appeals to those who voted for Brexit and seeks to address the concerns of those who oppose it. The problem is whether the two strands are compatible at all. My noble friend Lord Marks described this as the biggest foreign policy mistake in decades, so let us look at our position in the world. Justin Trudeau apparently feels lonely on the world stage, and one can see why. The EU is still the champion of liberal democracies and the rule of law, though populist movements even now challenge that. Populism has achieved an extraordinary result in the USA. We see a revived Russia active on Europe’s borders, in Crimea and Ukraine, threatening the Baltic states. The global world order is shifting eastwards. By 2050, China will be the largest economy in the world, with India in second place and Indonesia in fourth. Being part of the EU gave us disproportionate impact in global affairs. We are all members of NATO and, with France, we serve as a permanent member of the UN Security Council. We have indeed served as a bridge between the US and the EU; others will now become that bridge. The world is an unstable place and we must all be aware of populist, simplistic movements across our continent—not surprising in the wake of profound economic crisis.

This short Bill presages a long and complicated process. Parliament must be fully engaged, including meaningful votes at the end. If, at that end, we judge that what has been negotiated turns out not to be those sunlit uplands and is not in the interests of our now divided country, we must not be afraid to say so.


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