Lib Dem Lords vs the Article 50 Bill: Kishwer Falkner: The UK will have to renew its relationship with the EU to survive

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. 

This speech was the exception as Kishwer is the one peer who will be supporting the Bill. We covered earlier in the week her decision earlier in the week. Here she explains her position and says that we should just leave now and then re-engage with the EU in a different way further down the track.

My Lords, I need to make a few declarations. The first is that I have the privilege in this House of chairing the EU Financial Affairs Sub-Committee. I would say this, but in my opinion it is the most significant committee at this point in terms of the angles that it is looking at, such as financial services and the EU budget. My other declaration is more personal. I am married to a German, I have lived and worked in France, and I have a house in Italy. So I have a big dog in this fight, not a little whippet.

However, I have to tell the House that on the passage of this Bill I will be voting with the Labour Opposition and the Government Benches. Why do I take the position I do? It is not because I am any less a remainer today than I was on 23 June—I am every bit a remainer; as I explained, I have a deep and personal motivation to wish that the result of last June had not happened. But I believe that a second referendum entails risks for which the price is too high: too high for the country overall and too high for the other European countries. It has been stated that the people voted for a departure but not a destination. In my view, people had a very clear idea of the destination: the destination was a break from the EU. I agree that they did not know exactly what the terrain would look like, but they knew they were taking a risk.

A vote is always conducted on imperfect information. There is an inherent risk in any decision about the future, whether it is intervention in Syria or, as on this occasion, the EU. Take as an analogy the Scottish devolution referendum in 1998. At the time, Conservative, Labour and Lib Dem unionists in Scotland were told that the electoral system was such that no single party could take power alone and so the nats would not be able to take power and re-open the independence question again. We all know how that turned out. Take the euro. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, voters in several EU states had a referendum on joining the currency. In their nightmares they could not have imagined the financial crisis and the banks too big to fail nearly bringing down the sovereigns. In Greece, Italy and indeed even in Germany, people could not have known what was to hit the euro in less than a decade. People always act on imperfect information.

The other reason why I believe that we now have to implement the result is the referendum Act of 2011. Let me remind the House that that Act commits us to a referendum if further powers or competencies are passed to the EU that entail treaty change. That is the current situation. There are people across this House who wished to try to defeat the Act—I was one of them—but we failed. We now have a situation where treaty change, driven by the exigencies of European integration, is inevitable. This House knows that the eurozone crisis, the security issue, the need for joint co-operation on immigration and a host of other things will bring the Europeans to the point at which they will need treaty change, if not in the next five years then in the next 10. We would have had to take this issue to the British people anyway, if not in 2016 then perhaps in 2026.

Let me turn now to the central purpose of the Bill, which is in effect to trigger Article 50. While it may be theoretically possible to revoke Brexit while the talks on the question are still going on over the next two years, politically we cannot revert to the status quo ante. It is contrary to what the other 27 countries of the EU envisage in terms of their understanding of Article 50: that in effect it is politically irrevocable.

Once we have passed this Bill, there is no longer any possibility of a negotiation where the UK could go into the talks again with a set of demands on the proviso that if they are not good enough we will have another referendum. I say “again” and “another”, because we have already done that. From 2013 a referendum was promised if the Conservatives won the election. After 2015 the Government spent a year renegotiating a new settlement with the EU, securing what I think was a very good settlement. However, we were not able to sell that to the people, and here we are.

The EU has seen the latest bout of UK-inspired disruption for six years now, since 2011, with at least a further two years to go. The idea that we can try the same thing again and again shows a profound misunderstanding of how the EU works and ignorance of our partners’ patience and preoccupations. They will not go into an Article 50 negotiation or give us any serious terms if they believe that we will prolong the agony, theirs and ours, with the risk that we might have the same result after another vote. In fact, the contrary is likely to happen, as there is already a view across the Channel that what we were offered last year was too generous. So to stop others from using the same ploy we are likely to lose some of our opt-outs and special exemptions. To keep united, the EU needs us to move on so that it can resolve the myriad problems confronting both the Union and us.

Janan Ganesh writing in the Financial Times today lays out a future for Britain’s relationship with the EU where we, the remainers, will have to mobilise, to make our case, and to wait for new relations to evolve. Bit by bit, the UK will have to renew its engagement with the EU if it is to thrive and not just survive. Pragmatism will be driven on that occasion by the voters themselves, again. He says:

“Brexit is an idea whose only effective rebuttal is its own implementation”.

It will take time and it will take patience. I hope to play my small role in the passage of this Bill.


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