Lord Newby explains why we have opposed the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill

And, to balance the red benches with the green, we bring you Dick Newby’s speech from the Lords. It is, fortunately, rather longer than that of our Leader in the Commons, thus allowing for a rather more complete exposition of our Party’s stance on the deal.

My Lords, some four and a half years after the referendum result, we can now see in the treaty that we are discussing today the outline shape of the UK’s future relationship with the EU, yet we have had no real opportunity to read it and no chance to consider its implications. It is the single most important treaty that this Parliament has had to consider since we joined the European Community in 1973, yet today we are invited simply to rubber-stamp it in a matter of hours.

A treaty which the Prime Minister claims restores our sovereignty begins its life by mocking parliamentary sovereignty. The Prime Minister of course disdains the convention that we call a constitution. If he can break any of those conventions to make his own life easier, he will, as he tried to do with Prorogation last year and as he did with his list of Peers last week. He has done so again in this case.

Today’s debate is a case not of Parliament weighing the arguments and forming a view but of it waving through hundreds of pages of law unread, unanalysed and unquestioned. There is no scope today to discuss the details of the Bill or, because of tomorrow’s deadline, to contemplate amending it, despite the extraordinarily broad Henry VIII powers which it contains and on which your Lordships’ House may wish to express a view.

The country will have many months and years to find out what the treaty means in practice, but that does not mean that we cannot assess it against the key purposes of any Government in any country at any time. Does it make us more secure? Does it make us more prosperous? Does it help to unite the country? And does it strengthen our position in the world? In each case, the answer is no.

On security, the EU has, over many years, built up a series of measures which has made it easier to identify criminals and terrorists and bring them to justice. Its crown jewels are the European arrest warrant and the real-time European crime-fighting databases, such as Schengen II. We are now outside all of those. The warm words of the treaty on security co-operation seek to make the best of a bad job, but it is a major step backwards, leaving us with literally zero prospect of establishing as effective a system for fighting crime and terrorism as the one we are leaving.

On the economy, the treaty provides for tariff and quota-free trade in goods, but literally hundreds of new impediments on trade in services. The Canadian agreement, to which the Prime Minister refers glowingly, has, by the Government’s own admission, more than 400 restraints on free trade in services, and we see that reflected in this treaty—whether it is ending mutual recognition of most professional qualifications or the end of passporting for financial services. Yet the UK has a big balance of trade deficit in goods and a big balance of trade surplus in services, so we are penalising the sector where we are strongest and favouring the EU in the sector where we are weakest. This is a massive win for the EU at our expense.

Even in trade in goods, exporters are faced with a massive increase in bureaucracy and red tape: some 200 million new customs forms to be completed each year and an extra 50,000 customs officials required to process them. Those who favoured Brexit made much of Brussels bureaucracy—just wait until they see how many new layers of form-filling they have imposed on British businesses.

We are told that any trade losses with the EU will be more than matched by our new global trading partnerships, but who are these to be with? Not the US, unless we capitulate on food standards. Not China, where our exports are actually falling, unless we stop criticising its human rights record—ask the Australians. Not India, unless we allow many more Indian immigrants—ask Priti Patel of the likelihood of that. And ask any small business about the relative costs of exporting to the EU and to the Far East and you will find that there is only one answer—and it does not support the Government’s argument.

On maintaining the unity of the United Kingdom—the third test for any Government—it is to me almost incredible that the Conservative and Unionist Party has erected a border down the Irish Sea and allowed the EU to dictate what goods we can trade across it. Seed potatoes have become the only good which will not encounter friction in moving west across the Irish Sea, and this is because Brussels has banned internal UK trade in them entirely.

As it becomes increasingly apparent that the economy of Northern Ireland has closer links with that of the Irish Republic than that of Great Britain, it seems to me that people in the Province will, inevitably, increasingly prioritise their relationship with the south over that across the Irish Sea. The Irish Government’s decision to fund Erasmus students from Northern Ireland as our Government shamefully exit the scheme shows just how aware the Republic is of this new reality. No wonder some in the Province who so enthusiastically supported Brexit now realise just what a price they are having to pay.

On our global influence—the final test of government—the world has looked askance as the Brexit saga has played out. People have not been patting us on the back and congratulating us on our pluck and resolve; they have all asked, “Why on earth are you shooting yourselves in the foot?” Incoming President Biden has certainly made it clear where his priorities lie, and it is not with the UK. As of today, the UK has no foreign policy and no capacity to influence international events, or even standards-setting, as part of a single EU response. With a weakened economy, a decimated aid budget and a new reputation for untrustworthiness, our soft and hard power will be less than at any point since before the Napoleonic wars.

Your Lordships’ House is being asked today to vote for a treaty which makes us less secure, less prosperous, less united and less influential. It has passed the Commons with acclaim and will pass your Lordships’ House with ease. On these Benches, however, we simply cannot join in what is, in effect, for many people, a collective sigh of relief that we are at least not leaving with no deal at all. Clearly, no deal would have been completely disastrous, but by choosing a deal which prioritises a two-dimensional view of sovereignty over what is best for our prosperity, the Government have made a deliberate choice for which responsibility rests with them alone. This is a Conservative Party treaty, the culmination of a process which began when a Conservative Prime Minister decided to hold a referendum to manage splits in his own party. The Conservatives, with their majority in the Commons, would, even without Labour support, have secured a majority for the treaty and the Bill, and they will be judged on the consequences.

As people in your Lordships’ House know, we on these Benches have opposed Brexit, as we oppose this Bill, because we believe that, on all counts, it is bad for our country. We did not win the argument with the electorate in 2016, but in a democracy, you do not change your fundamental views because at a particular time more people hold different views. You continue to argue for them, in the hope that you might eventually prevail. We continue to believe that, in every respect, Britain is better off at the centre of Europe. This treaty removes us from that position. We will therefore be voting against the Motion that this Bill do now pass, and invite all those across the House who share our vision of Britain’s place at the centre of Europe to join us.

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21 Comments

  • Yeovil Yokel 30th Dec '20 - 10:07pm

    This is an excellent speech, concise and to-the-point, highlighting the egregious, cynical and utterly shameful behaviour of those Conservative and Labour parliamentarians who supported this Bill today.

  • Katharine Pindar 30th Dec '20 - 10:50pm

    That is an excellent speech. It reconciles me, at any rate, to our having voted against the Bill today. even without Covid 19, this will be the saddest New Year’s Eve and Day that I ever remember.

  • David Evershed 31st Dec '20 - 1:46am

    Dick Newby says “We continue to believe that, in every respect, Britain is better off at the centre of Europe. This treaty removes us from that position. ”

    Dick, we left the EU on Jan 31st 2020. This vote is about having a trade deal with the EU. By voting against shows you are against free trade, a long standing Liberal principle.

    Is there a need to revive the old Liberal Party which believed in free trade and internationalism?

  • Steve Trevethan 31st Dec '20 - 8:06am

    Might we have a detailed definition of ‘ Free Trade’?

  • Wonderful speech – particularly impressed with the 4th point, the wanton destruction of our influence in the world – amazing that a so-called Tory government would orchestrate this. On national unity, the speech correctly highlights the long-term dynamic for the reunification of Ireland, he could have also mentioned that here in Scotland a solid majority now exists for independence, a position which, living in Scotland, I personally support, all thanks to a so-called “unionist” party.

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 31st Dec '20 - 8:37am

    David,

    Might I politely suggest that you’re being somewhat disingenuous? The treaty doesn’t offer free trade and, as has been noted elsewhere, is the first trade agreement in history to put up additional barriers to trade. It offers precious little of what was promised and reflects a stance wholly contrary to the concepts of free trade and internationalism.

    Unfortunately, our Parliament isn’t terribly well-equipped to deal with a situation where rejection of a Government Bill doesn’t simply mean a continuation of the status quo. In an ideal world, Parliament would have had been involved in the process of drawing up the “Free Trade Agreement”, with a Parliamentary mandate for a series of positive choices on the various aspects of the deal – access or withdrawal from Erasmus, for example.

    So, the question is this – do you think that the deal is good for the country, and for the causes of free trade and internationalism? If not, is endorsing it not selling out your principles?

  • Suppose…. just suppose….. there’d be a crack of thunder and lightening on Wednesday and the Government had been defeated…… what would have been the outcome ?

    The answer is a ‘No Deal’ and even worse outcomes than the Johnson administration has managed to cobble together. End of.

  • David Raw: Wrong, the vote wasn’t binding. The government could do whatever it wished, including ratifying the Deal without Parliament’s consent. If the UK crashed out with no deal, then it would have been the government’s choice alone.
    https://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/uk-eu-agreement-parliament/
    And anyway, in 2024 no-one except the political chatterati will to care what might have happened as a result if yesterday’s vote had gone differently.

  • “David Evershed: Dick Newby says “We continue to believe that, in every respect, Britain is better off at the centre of Europe. This treaty removes us from that position. ”
    Dick, we left the EU on Jan 31st 2020. This vote is about having a trade deal with the EU.”
    David Evershed’s argument makes very good sense from the point of view of enthusiasts who follow every twist and turn of politics. However, most people for not like that. They are thoroughly fed up with the arguments about Brexit: endless discussion about abstract ideas concerning sovereignty versus cooperation and conflicting predictions about the future. They wish it would just go away and we could get back to normal life.
    However, last week’s agreement, yesterday’s act of parliament and tomorrow’s implementation mean that Brexit is ceasing to an abstract argument about political theory, and is becoming practical reality. That should mean that many people will begin to understand for the first time what it really means. Therefore, it is a good time for those of us who think that Brexit is a bad thing, which should eventually be reversed, to put forward our arguments.
    It is right that the Lib Dems are doing this, and very sad, that Keir Starmer, after his good record last year, is not doing the same.

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 31st Dec '20 - 12:28pm

    Mark, several Lib Dem politicians have made that claim about the deal being “the first trade deal in history to put up additional barriers to trade”. But I’m afraid its this claim that is “disingenuous”. It was leaving the EU, not this deal, that “put up additional barriers to trade”. This deal actually makes trade much easier than it would have been with no deal, which would have been the alternative

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 31st Dec '20 - 12:39pm

    I realise that some Lib Dems see voting against the deal as a sort of symbolic expression of opposition to Brexit. But voting for legislation does not necessarily mean that you are happy with the situation that made that legislation necessary. Voting against the deal because you would have preferred Brexit not to have happened, seems like refusing to vote for any legislation to deal with the pandemic because you would prefer it if coronavirus did not exist

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 31st Dec '20 - 12:49pm

    @ Catherine,

    The European Union did not choose for the United Kingdom to leave, it was a sovereign choice by our Government. You can’t benefit from an internal market in the same way if you choose not to be in that internal market any more, especially if you make choices that exacerbate that. The deal reflects a series of choices made by the Johnson administration, including the decision to exit the Customs Union and Single Market.

    As I dimly recall, we were told at the beginning of this saga that “nobody was talking about leaving the Single Market and the Customs Union”. Apparently, a lot of people took them at their word. It would be nice if they didn’t make that mistake again…

  • Catherine Jane Crosland 31st Dec '20 - 1:19pm

    Mark, yes it was obviously the UK’s decision to leave. And yes, this deal reflects a series of choices made by the UK government (but also, I suppose, some choices made by the EU). I was just pointing out that the statements made by some Lib Dems, saying that the deal creates additional barriers to trade, and giving this as a reason for voting against it, is clearly disingenuous. The alternative to a deal is no deal. The deal may be far from perfect, but the deal does not create the barriers to trade. The barriers to trade were created by Britain leaving the EU. The deal makes trade easier, compared with “no deal”, which would have been the default situation if the deal had not been made. Therefore it was highly misleading to say that *the deal* put up “additional barriers to trade”

  • David Evershed 31st Dec '20 - 2:19pm

    Mark, we left the EU on Jan 31st 2020. This vote is about having a trade deal with the EU. By voting against shows you are against free trade, a long standing Liberal principle.

  • Alex Macfie 31st Dec '20 - 2:51pm

    David Evershed:

    This vote is about having a trade deal with the EU.

    No it wasn’t. Parliament did not have a veto on the deal. The vote was ONLY about what Parliament thought of the deal. Ratification is by Royal Prerogative. If the Deal had been defeated, the government had at least 3 options: (i) request a technical extension, then ratify after a short delay; (ii) ratify anyway, regardless of what Parliament says, or (iii) tear up the deal. So no-deal would have been a choice made by the government, and “The Lib Dems made me do it” would not wash.

  • David Evershed 31st Dec '20 - 3:39pm

    EU (Future Relationship) Bill

    The European Union (Future Relationship) Bill enables the UK Government to implement and ratify the Agreements agreed between the UK and the EU.

    A BILL TO Implement, and make other provision in connection with, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement; to make further provision in connection with theUnited Kingdom’s future relationship with the EU and its member States; tomake related provision about passenger name record data, customs and privileges and immunities; and for connected purposes.

  • Alex Macfie 31st Dec '20 - 4:07pm

    David Evershed: Implementation and ratification are not the same thing.The Bill deals only with the implementation, which happens after ratification, which is done by Royal Prerogative and does not need Parliamentary approval. The Deal would most likely have been ratified whatever the outcome of yesterday’s vote.
    Stop believing Tory / Brexiteer spin please!

  • Mark Valladares Mark Valladares 31st Dec '20 - 4:16pm

    @ David,

    We had a trade deal with the EU. It was called membership and came with unfettered access to the Customs Union and the Single Market. The alternative offered came with no opportunity to amend, or improve, and that was a deliberate decision by the Johnson administration. It is a hopeless deal laden with significant flaws, and your utterly false assertion that voting against it is a vote against free trade is equally laden with significant flaws. It is, simply put, a vote against this trade deal and this trade deal only.

  • Michael Sammon 31st Dec '20 - 6:06pm

    Agree with Catherine. Highly frustrating how disingenuous our argument against the deal is. We have already left. The status quo should have been considered to be no deal. It wasn’t a Brexit deal. It was a free trade agreement and as threadbare as it was, the alternative was worse so we should have voted for it. What now, do we oppose every trade deal because it’s not what we had as members of the EU?

  • Alex Macfie 31st Dec '20 - 6:14pm

    Michael Sammon: “the alternative was worse” no it wasn’t why are you repeating this disingenuous Labervative spin? In simple terms: the vote was not on ratification of the Deal. It was on the implementation following ratification. Government ratifies the deal by Royal Prerogative, and would have done so regardless of the outcome of the vote. No-deal was not on the order paper, and was never going to happen, unless the government decided to allow it to happen.

  • Alex Macfie 31st Dec '20 - 6:16pm

    And it’s all moot as no-one will care about this discussion in 2024, they’ll only be interested in the real-world consequences of the Brexit deal that was ratified in December 2020, and those consequences will be owned by whoever voted for it.

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