Skip to main content

Commonwealth Countries and Overseas Territories: European Union

Volume 773: debated on Tuesday 14 June 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what consultations they have held with the Overseas Territories and other Commonwealth countries over the United Kingdom’s future relations with the European Union.

My Lords, Ministers and officials meet regularly with the overseas territories and Commonwealth countries to discuss a wide range of issues, including issues raised by the UK’s renegotiation of its EU membership.

My Lords, the Falklands representative in the United Kingdom said that leaving the European Union would fuel Argentinian aggression towards us. The Chief Minister of Gibraltar has said that a vote to leave the EU would be a dire threat to Gibraltar. There are similar expressions of support for our membership from the Prime Ministers of Australia, Canada, India and New Zealand. Given this, why have the Government not trumpeted this clear and apparently unambiguous view by Commonwealth countries, but allowed Mr Farage, for example, to get away with claiming that he is a Commonwealth man?

My Lords, the Government have made it very clear that we value the announcements that have been made by the wide variety of representatives of Commonwealth Heads of Government and overseas territories to which the noble Lord has alluded. The Government have also noted that on each occasion when these people have put forward their views about how important it is for their countries that the UK remains within the EU, they have based their views on facts.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that whatever happens on 23 June, the EU and the Commonwealth are completely different structures and organisations from each other, and that the EU is basically a hierarchy of Governments whereas the Commonwealth is a network of peoples? Does she agree that probably the most sensible and clever thing that we in this nation should try to do is ride both horses?

If the Government were to have a meeting in London of representatives from the overseas territories, how would the delegates from St Helena get here?

My Lords, I am always impressed by the ingenuity of those who wish to attend meetings. However, the noble Lord makes a very important point. It is important that the Government continue to look very carefully at securing communications with St Helena, partly because of the implications it has for the St Helenians who live on Ascension Island. He is absolutely right.

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former Governor of Gibraltar. Does the Minister agree that Gibraltar has gained enormously from the economic point of view, as has the Spanish neighbourhood, from unfettered access to the single market over the last few decades? Secondly, will she bear in mind that the current Spanish Foreign Minister, Margallo, has said that although he would like the United Kingdom to stay in the EU, in the event of Brexit he would plan to close the frontier with Gibraltar and revive the original proposals for joint sovereignty over Gibraltar which were overwhelmingly opposed by the people of Gibraltar? Can she say in what way the British Government will support Gibraltar in the event of Brexit?

The noble Lord is right to draw attention to the concerns that Gibraltarians would justifiably have if the UK were to leave the European Union. On defending sovereignty, the UK has made a commitment to defend and support Gibraltar’s interests, including upholding British sovereignty. The men and women of the British Armed Forces have worked tirelessly to do this prior to the referendum and will continue to do so after it. However, the noble Lord rings a warning bell.

My Lords, we have yet to hear from the Liberal Democrat Benches and there are other minor parties also trying to intervene. I suggest that we start with the Lib Dem Front Bench and see where we get to after that.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that if we were to restrict access to the other 450 million people in the European Union and open access to immigration for the 2.3 billion people in the Commonwealth—with the rapidly increasing population in west Africa and south Asia—immigration to this country would be likely to increase, rather than decrease?

My Lords, if the UK were to vote to leave the European Union that should not have a direct impact on the way in which applications from other countries outside the EU would be taken into account. Our current controls would continue to apply.

My Lords, is it not patently clear that, from the point of view of trade and of people coming over here to work, it is in the interests of Commonwealth countries to have direct access to the senior member of the Commonwealth as part of the European Union? It is in the interests of the Commonwealth itself that we remain part of the European Union.

My Lords, when my noble friend answers questions from the House, does she do so in the name of the whole of the Government, or only that faction which wishes to remain in the EU?

My Lords, as is constitutionally correct, and has been agreed by the Prime Minister at a Cabinet meeting—which I attended—when I speak from the Dispatch Box I speak for the whole Government.

My Lords, I have worked with and represented workers in Gibraltar for a considerable time and experienced a closed border for nearly as many years. Is the Minister prepared to invite the Chief Minister of Gibraltar to this country to explain the serious consequences of leaving the EU, both—as the noble Lord said—for the workers and for its sovereignty?

My Lords, to be very quick, I can say that we have already done that. On 11 May, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar made a joint statement with the Foreign Secretary in which they agreed that,

“remaining in a reformed European Union would ensure both Gibraltar and the UK were stronger, safer and better off. It would give Gibraltar and Gibraltarians the best possible chance to continue building their remarkable success story”.

My Lords, given the EU’s uselessness at signing free trade agreements on our behalf, would not one obvious advantage of Brexit be that, as the world’s fifth-largest economy, we could sign our own free trade deals with the Anglosphere, the Commonwealth and the markets of the future? How many more jobs would that create for us and for them?

First, my Lords, if it were a decision to leave the European Union, there would be a period of considerable uncertainty while we tried to negotiate deals, because the people with whom we wished to negotiate would justifiably point to the fact that we had not sorted out our own post-exit relationship with the European Union. We would not be a safe bet. With regard to what the EU has done, it has negotiated trade deals with more than 80% of the Commonwealth. We benefit from that.