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European Council

Volume 773: debated on Wednesday 29 June 2016


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. Before I do, because this is the first opportunity the Government have had in this House to condemn the horrific terrorist attack in Istanbul yesterday, I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in offering our thoughts and prayers to those who have been affected. Details are still emerging, but in response to such attacks we stand as one.

The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on yesterday’s European Council. This was the first Council since Britain decided to leave the European Union. The decision was accepted and we began constructive discussions about how to ensure a strong relationship between Britain and the countries of the European Union.

But before the discussion on Britain, there were a number of other items on the agenda, and I shall touch on them briefly. On migration, the Council noted the very significant reductions in illegal crossings from Turkey to Greece as a result of the agreement made with Turkey in March, but it expressed continued concern over the central Mediterranean route and a determination to do all we can to combat people smuggling via Libya.

Britain continues to play a leading role in Operation Sophia with HMS “Enterprise”. I can tell the House today that Royal Fleet Auxiliary “Mounts Bay” will also be deployed to stop the flow of weapons to terrorists, particularly Daesh, in Libya.

On NATO, Secretary-General Stoltenberg gave a presentation ahead of the Warsaw summit, and the Council agreed the need for NATO and the EU to work together in a complementary way to strengthen our security.

On completing the single market, there were important commitments on the digital single market, including that EU residents will be able to travel with the digital content they have purchased or subscribed to at home.

On the economic situation, the president of the European Central Bank gave a presentation in the light of the outcome of our referendum. Private sector forecasts discussed at the Council included estimates of a reduction in eurozone growth of potentially between 0.3% and 0.5% over the next three years. One of the main explanations for this is the predicted slowdown in the UK economy, given our trade with the euro area. President Draghi reassured the Council that the ECB has worked with the Bank of England for many months to prepare for uncertainty, and in the face of continued volatility our institutions will continue to monitor markets and act as necessary.

Returning to the main discussions around Britain leaving the EU, the tone of the meeting was one of sadness and regret, but there was agreement that the decision of the British people should be respected. We had positive discussions about the relationship we want to see between Britain and our European partners and about the next steps on leaving the EU, including some of the issues that need to be worked through and the timing for triggering Article 50. Let me say a word about each.

First, we were clear that, while Britain is leaving the European Union, we are not turning our back on Europe, and it is not turning its back on us. Many of my counterparts talked warmly about the history and the values that our countries share and the huge contribution that Britain has made to peace and progress in Europe. For example, the Estonian Prime Minister described how the Royal Navy helped to secure the independence of his country a century ago. The Czech Prime Minister paid tribute to Britain as a home for Czechs fleeing persecution. Many of the countries of eastern and central Europe expressed the debt they feel to Britain for standing by them when they were suffering under communism and for supporting them as they joined the European Union. And President Hollande talked movingly about the visit that he and I will be making later this week to the battlefields of the Somme, where British and French soldiers fought and died together for the freedom of our continent and for the defence of the democracy and the values that we share.

So the Council was clear that, as we take forward this agenda of Britain leaving the European Union, we should, rightly, want to have the closest possible relationship that we can in the future. In my view, this should include the strongest possible relationship in terms of trade, co-operation and, of course, security—something that only becomes more important in the light of the appalling terrorist attack in Turkey last night.

As I said on Monday, as we work to implement the will of the British people, we also have a fundamental responsibility to bring our country together. We will not tolerate hate crime or any kinds of attacks against people in our country because of their ethnic origin. I reassured European leaders who were concerned about what they had heard was happening in Britain. We are a proud, multi-faith, multi-ethnic society—and we will stay that way.

I turn to the next steps on leaving the EU. First, there was a lot of reassurance that, until Britain leaves, we are a full member. That means that we are entitled to all the benefits of membership and full participation until the point at which we leave. Secondly, we discussed some of the issues which will need to be worked through. I explained that, in Britain, there was great concern about the movement of people and the challenges of controlling immigration, as well as concerns about the issue of sovereignty. Indeed, I explained how these had come together. In turn, many of our European partners were clear that it is impossible to have all the benefits of membership without some of the costs—something that the next Prime Minister and their Cabinet are going to have to work through very carefully.

Thirdly, on the timing of Article 50, contrary to some expectations, there was not a great clamour for Britain to trigger this straightaway. While there were one or two voices calling for this, the overwhelming view of my fellow leaders was that we need to take some time to get this right. Of course, everyone wants to see a clear blueprint in terms of what Britain thinks is right for its future relationship with the EU. As I explained in my Statement on Monday, we are starting this work straightaway with a new unit in Whitehall, led by a new Permanent Secretary, Oliver Robbins. This unit will examine all the options and possibilities in a neutral way, setting out costs and benefits, so that the next Prime Minister and their Cabinet have all the information they need with which to determine exactly the right approach to take and the right outcome to try to negotiate. But the decisions that follow from this—including the triggering of Article 50—are rightly for the next Prime Minister. The Council clearly understood and, I believe, respected that.

I do not think it is a secret that I have, at times, found discussions in Brussels frustrating. Despite that, I believe we can be proud of what we have achieved: whether it is putting a greater focus on jobs and growth, cutting the EU budget in real terms for the first time and reducing the burden of red tape on business, or building common positions on issues of national security, such as sanctions to stop Iran getting a nuclear weapon, standing up to Russian aggression in Ukraine and galvanising other European countries to help with the lead that Britain was taking in dealing with Ebola in Sierra Leone. In all these ways, and more, we have shown how much we have in common with our European partners, as neighbours and allies who share fundamental values, history and culture.

It is a poignant reminder that, while we will be leaving the European Union, we must continue to work together for the security and prosperity of our people for generations to come. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating that Statement, although I think it poses more questions than it answers. In the light of the comments made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen of Elie—I see he has now left the Chamber—even more questions have been raised.

First, I want to express our horror at the appalling, evil attack on Istanbul airport last night. Yet again, we are shocked by the hatred that leads to such vicious, indiscriminate violence and murder. Our thoughts are with all those who have been affected, because such horror will never leave them.

Turning to the detail of the Statement, although it includes other issues, clearly, the one that affects us most is that of our leaving the EU. Nevertheless, I noted the comments on the agreement made with Turkey in March. I hope that the Prime Minister, in discussing that agreement, raised the issue of the shocking conditions in the camps in which refugees are being held in Turkey. Did he raise that issue, and if so what response did he receive?

What this Statement reinforces is the massive uncertainty that our country faces. It is clear that the first enemy of our stability and security as a nation is that uncertainty, which has many different forms. There is economic uncertainty for businesses large and small and for consumers. There is uncertainty about who will be the next Prime Minister and whether another general election is looming. There is uncertainty about the Brexit negotiations. At the same time there is uncertainty, now increased, for many local communities where those who do not look or sound British enough are now feeling very vulnerable.

I was going to say that at no point should we forget the uncertainty of British citizens living across Europe, but from the comments just made in Questions by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, it appears that they are to be some kind of negotiating tool in discussions on whether EU citizens living and working in this country are to be allowed to remain. The degree of uncertainty that that will cause in those communities across the country is shocking. Given that negotiations could go on for years, we will have people living or working in this country who do not know what their future holds. We need an explanation or clarification from the Government as a matter of urgency.

The Prime Minister referred in the Statement to estimates of a slowdown in eurozone economic growth of between 0.3% and 0.5%, caused largely by a predicted slowdown in the UK economy because of our trade with the EU. If that is the predicted slowdown for the eurozone, what is the predicted slowdown for the UK economy? If the EU is able to predict such a slowdown across the whole eurozone, I am sure the Government have considered it and made predictions. Can the noble Baroness comment on the report in the business section of today’s Daily Telegraph—not my normal reading material, I confess—that Vodafone and easyJet are now considering moving their headquarters out of the UK, with thousands of jobs leaving these shores, and that Visa could also relocate hundreds of jobs to EU countries? The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, laughs and suggests that I read the Daily Mirror. I can tell him that I do read the Daily Mirror and I commend to him an article from last Friday by the historian Dan Snow about our historic links with Europe and the dangers now presented to this country by this Prime Minister. On the question of jobs, rather than waiting for a new Prime Minister, can the noble Baroness tell me what action the Government are taking today to protect jobs here in the UK?

I welcome the section in the Statement about our relationship with our European partners and its importance over so many years; it is part of our history and part of their history. We should never forget the tremendous contribution of our European allies in the Second World War, particularly in the Battle of Britain, when the role of both Polish and Czechoslovakian aircrew was critical. Perhaps I may tell the noble Baroness about men such as Tony Liskutin. He was a true hero. He first fought with the Czech air force and then with the French. He then joined the RAF to fight on D-day—subsequently teaching our own noble Lord, Lord Tunnicliffe, to fly. However, today, their descendants and families are facing despicable attacks here in the UK. The Prime Minister said in his Statement:

“We are a proud, multi-faith, multi-ethnic society”,

and predicted that,

“we will stay that way”.

I say to the noble Baroness and to the Government that just saying something does not make it happen. You have to do more than that. So, again, rather than just waiting for a new Prime Minister, what practical steps are the Government taking today, and have Ministers discussed this wave of increased attacks?

In the section of the Statement headed “Next Steps”, the Prime Minister said:

“First, there was a … reassurance that until Britain leaves, we are a full member. That means that we are entitled to all the benefits of membership and full participation until the point at which we leave”.

I have to tell the noble Baroness that it does not feel like that. If that is the case, why was the Prime Minister not allowed to attend the most crucial session for the UK in which issues relating to the Brexit vote were discussed? Is the noble Baroness now able to answer two questions that she was unable to answer on Monday? Now that the noble Lord, Lord Hill, has resigned as the EU Commissioner for financial stability and services, when will he be replaced and can she provide an assurance that a new British commissioner will be appointed? Furthermore, if we are still entitled to full membership—as the Prime Minister was assured—is she confident that the UK will still hold next year’s EU presidency? Can she update us on that situation since Monday?

As a nation, we have been able to hold our heads high. We had a European and international outlook on our role in the world and the influence we could bring to bear for the greater good. However, today, not only do we face profound economic change but our long-held cultural and social cohesion faces enormous challenges and risks. We all have friends and neighbours who today feel more vulnerable. The only way we can deal with this is to unite around that common purpose of decency and tolerance. As I said on Monday, at times like this we have to rise to the challenge to ensure that what unites us is bigger, better and stronger than what divides us. That is the only way we can face and tackle these challenges.

The noble Baroness will understand that these risks and challenges can only be increased by uncertainty. I deeply regret that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Keen, in his answers today, has increased that uncertainty. I therefore hope that the noble Baroness will today be able to address these questions and tell us when the Government will clarify the comments made by the noble and learned Lord.

My Lords, I, too, thank the Leader of the House for repeating the Prime Minister’s Statement. I share the outrage expressed about the terrorist atrocity perpetrated in Istanbul yesterday. On behalf of these Benches, I offer condolences to the bereaved and say that our thoughts are very much with those suffering injury.

I do not intend to rehearse the sentiments I expressed on behalf of these Benches on Monday—people know the position of my party on the referendum and its result, which we respect—but the Prime Minister, I am sure, had a very difficult task at the Council yesterday. The result of the referendum was not what he had campaigned for and I am sure he would not be human if he did not feel some tinge of discomfort when he walked out the door, knowing that people were going to talk about him as soon as the door was closed. However, I suspect that whatever difficulties he had will pale into insignificance compared with the difficulty our next Prime Minister, whoever that may be, will have when he attends meetings to discuss Brexit.

Or she. The difficulty will be knowing what they are negotiating about, because the leave that Mr Nigel Farage campaigned for is not the leave that the honourable Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip, Mr Johnson, campaigned for. Can the noble Baroness tell the House whether the new Whitehall unit she referred to will be preparing dossiers on all the varied positions, whether 57 varieties or more? Will it be putting those forward to the incoming Administration, setting out what the implications are for each of the leave varieties and addressing some of their fundamental contradictions?

I am also concerned that, as we go forward, there will be growing dissatisfaction and frustration as people realise that much of what they have been promised will not be possible. That must pose a threat to liberal democracy in this country, indeed, to parliamentary democracy, which is based on attention to evidence, reasoned debate, willingness to compromise and tolerance. I note that the Statement emphasised that we are not turning our back on Europe and that the European Union is not turning its back on us. This is important as we move forward, so we can demonstrate that there can be constructive discussions on the future.

We know that following this Statement there will be a Statement from the Home Office on hate crime. I share the deep concerns that have been expressed in your Lordships’ House about the surge of resentment, intimidation and blatant racism that we have seen in this country since last Thursday. This is not our Britain. We want a Britain which is a country of tolerance and acceptance. Words are not enough, we want some reassurances of increased police awareness and activity, not just in London but throughout the country.

I have some specific questions about our immediate relationship with the European Union, picking up on what the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, said. The Prime Minister confirmed in the other place on Monday that he will appoint a new Commissioner to fill the vacancy. Can the Minister give us an indication of when the position will be filled and what the process will be for appointing a new Commissioner? Following questions on Monday, I wrote to her yesterday querying not when but how Article 50 might be triggered. What are the United Kingdom’s own constitutional requirements in terms of paragraph 1 of Article 50? If she cannot answer today, will she indicate that she will be in a position to do so when we debate these matters next Tuesday? Again, noting what the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, said about the presidency of the Council of the European Union, which we are due to take up a year this week, can the Minister give us an indication of the Government’s position on that? Indeed, does she think it wise for us to go down that road and, if so, what in the world would we be putting on the agenda? We need a real indication of the Government’s assessment and analysis of that situation.

Finally, it is clear that many people in English regions and in Wales felt let down and left behind, not just by Europe but by politicians and decision-makers at home. People in the north-east and south-west of England voted against London, I believe, as much as against the European Union. But the sad reality is that the alternatives offered by the leave campaign will do nothing much to help those in England’s poorer regions. Those who promised that we can spend the money we get back from Europe on the NHS and wider public services are also people who believe in shrinking the state. There seems to be a fundamental contradiction here. Will the Leader look again at disproportionate cuts in local authority budgets and public investment in places such as Cornwall, the north-east and the north-west? Will the Government address with more urgency investment in training, further education and skills? Will she say how we might be able to secure the hopes and aspirations of younger people, who voted in such numbers to remain in the European Union?

These are domestic issues. They do not have to await negotiation with 27 other EU countries, nor do we need negotiation with 27 other EU countries to determine whether European Union citizens currently living and working in the United Kingdom can stay here post-Brexit. This is something we can do ourselves and surely the Government must start addressing these issues now.

My Lords, it is clear that there are very strong views and feelings right now following the referendum result last week. I understand that. A very important event has taken place and a very important decision has been made. While I feel it is absolutely right that we follow this clear instruction that has come from the British people to leave the European Union, it is important, as the Prime Minister stressed in his Statement, that we are not turning our back on Europe or our European partners, and we must work together with Europe to ensure that we continue our shared security and that we do so in a way that promotes and protects the prosperity of the United Kingdom and all the people living in all parts of the United Kingdom.

As the Prime Minister has been at pains to say, the precise relationship between the United Kingdom and Europe in the future will be one for his successor to decide and is not one that he, in his remaining few weeks as Prime Minister, will be taking the lead on. It is very important that this Government make a big contribution to maintaining the stability of this country in a very uncertain time. I do not dispute that it is a very uncertain time for people, and that is reflected in different ways.

Picking up on the first point raised by the noble Baroness and the noble and learned Lord about the status of British people living in Europe and of European citizens living and working in this country, the first and most important thing to say is, whether you are a Brit living and working abroad or whether you are a European citizen living and working in this country, you are making a valuable contribution. Certainly, the EU citizens living and working in this country are making a vital contribution to our country. The Prime Minister has been at pains to stress that right now nothing is affected by the result of the referendum last week. I very much heard and understand the House’s anxiety about free movement between this country and other European Union member states. We are not trying to negotiate about people’s individual status in the way that some noble Lords are trying to interpret what was said previously. We are saying that although at this moment nothing has changed—all rights are protected—we are going to have to work through a period of deciding the impact of the referendum result. Some of the impacts will come from our negotiations and discussions with Europe in the future and some may sit outside these. Over the next weeks and months, it will be uncertain. We have got to work together to try to provide what reassurance we can that people’s rights are not changed at this time. That is very important.

The noble Baroness also referred to uncertainty around the impact of the result of the referendum on the economy and jobs. To repeat what I have said, and I say this as someone who campaigned for us to remain in the European Union, it is vital for us in getting as soon as we can to that point of greater stability that we focus our energies on our negotiations for the future of this country in terms of its relationship with Europe. We cannot ignore the fact that there is a significant effect from that referendum decision that will lead ultimately to us leaving the European Union. The Government were of course leading the remain camp. We did forecast that there would be potential economic difficulties as a result of any decision to leave. However, in the light of this decision we must now ensure that we mitigate any immediate volatility arising. Over the weekend we have seen from the steps that were taken by the Bank of England and its work in co-operation with other institutions that its contingency planning has had a good impact on the markets in terms of providing some reassurance.

In the weeks that follow we clearly need to prepare for the new Prime Minister being in place and outlining what kind of relationship we want in the future with Europe and how that relationship will work, particularly in respect of the single market and whether we are going to be in it. Between now and then, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, the Chancellor and others will continue to have meetings with business leaders. The fact that we have a strong economy and are able to withstand this period of uncertainty is also helping stability. The unit that the Prime Minister has set up in Whitehall is there to make sure that at the point at which the new Prime Minister is in place they have at their disposal as much factual information as possible so that when they have got a clear vision of what kind of relationship the UK will have with Europe in the future they can move swiftly to the point of triggering Article 50.

The noble Baroness raised questions about the increase in hate crimes or demonstrations of racism against people. As I said on Monday, these are wholly and utterly abhorrent. Together we must make it clear to anybody who is trying to use the referendum result to promote racism that we reject that—we in the United Kingdom have not given up on our values. The fact that a majority of people in this country has decided not to be a member of the European Union any more does not mean that we should stop promoting the important values of this country. My noble friend Lord Ahmad will say more in the Statement that follows.

The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, is pointing to the clock. The Companion makes it clear that, if necessary, I can go beyond 20 minutes in order to respond to some of the points that have been raised. I will respond to them, but that will not in any way reduce the time allocated for Back-Benchers.

The noble Baroness and the noble and learned Lord asked some specific questions about the UK Commissioner in the European Union. The Prime Minister has made it absolutely clear that we are a fully paid-up member of the European Union until we stop being a fully paid-up member of the European Union and therefore have some entitlements, which include a Commissioner. He has raised this with the President of the Commission and we hope very soon to come forward with a nominee for that post. As for questions about next year’s EU presidency, I understand clearly that we need to get that resolved soon. I expect it will be done in short order, but I do not have any further information to offer at this time.

The noble and learned Lord asked about Article 50. Article 50 is the legal route we will follow in order to exit from the European Union, and I think we have all become familiar with the idea that triggering Article 50 will start that process formally. The Prime Minister has made it clear that he will not be triggering it and that it will be a matter for his successor. But in his view it is important that they are clear, at the point at which they trigger Article 50, about the kind of relationship the United Kingdom should have with the European Union. That will assist in the negotiations.

As for Parliament’s role in that process, as noble Lords heard me say on Monday, I am very keen to ensure that this House plays an important part between now and the start of any Article 50 process. Neither I nor the current Prime Minister can prescribe what role there might be for Parliament in deciding what the next Prime Minister will come forward with to take to Brussels in terms of the specifics of that process, but as I said on Monday, this House in particular has a wealth of knowledge, experience, expertise and wisdom, and I want to ensure that we use that as best we can. However, I want us to use it and channel it to secure a long-term successful future for the United Kingdom, while recognising that the people of this country have decided that our future will not be as a full member of the European Union.

My Lords, I will raise the question that was raised very clearly by both the Front Benches—by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace of Tankerness. The noble Baroness, Lady Smith, quoted directly from the Statement on the “next steps” before leaving:

“First, there was a lot of reassurance that until Britain leaves, we are a full member”.

Can the Leader of the House explain two things to us? First, what was the PM’s rationale for almost creating a precedent for his successor by not attending yesterday’s meeting? Secondly, if we are going to appoint a new Commissioner, what was the rationale for our present Commissioner so quickly deciding to resign? Those two issues show to me that we have already given up on part of the fight.

In response to the noble Lord’s first point, it is worth me clarifying what the arrangements are in terms of what the European Council can and cannot do in light of the United Kingdom’s decision. Until Article 50 is triggered, the European Council cannot meet without all of its member states. The meeting held today was not a meeting of the European Council; it was a meeting that they decided to hold in order to have informal discussions about the United Kingdom’s decision to exit from the European Union. That is a matter for them.

As far as the appointment of a new Commissioner is concerned, my noble friend Lord Hill has been an excellent Commissioner, and I am glad the noble Lord concurs with that point. As I said the other day, my noble friend made clear on Saturday his reasons for resigning from that post, and he obviously speaks for himself on that. However, as the Prime Minister has said, we are entitled to a European Commissioner and that is something he hopes to take forward.

Would my noble friend agree that there are two gleams of light in this rather churlish account of what has occurred in Brussels? The first is that there are reports that the principle of freedom of movement is in fact being re-examined right across Europe; it was said to be immutable, but it seems that, in the real, practical world that we now live in, it will have to be changed and that might be extremely useful for us. Secondly, the central and east European countries—their Governments and, indeed, their peoples—seem to be urging that the present Commission should be removed and that the new Commission formed, and indeed the President of the Commission, should be rather more constructive and friendly towards the United Kingdom and our ambitions.

I would say something else in response to my noble friend and his comment about churlishness or any kind of negativity, and that is to point noble Lords to the comments made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The talks that took place yesterday in Europe were constructive; the tone was warm. We have not reached a point where we are doing anything other than proceeding in a way that is both responsible and constructive and that will lead to, as far as we are concerned, a continuing relationship—albeit a very different one in the future—because we think that is important and in everybody’s interest.

As to my noble friend’s comment about freedom of movement and the prospect of that being changed in some way, I am not sure that the read-out that the Prime Minister has given me, or the comments that he made to the other place, would be quite as encouraging as my noble friend has suggested. On the contrary, the leaders of the other members of the European Union do feel very strongly about freedom of movement—and that being not just goods, services and capital but also people—and what the Prime Minister explained in his discussions with them last night was that a willingness to consider that differently might have made a difference. I think it is also worth noting that this new future arrangement with the European Union, whatever it may be, will not lead to the deal that the Prime Minister did strike some months ago. I do not think we should underestimate him, and perhaps now we can see just how much he did achieve in getting them to agree to those changes to the welfare arrangements as a response to this particular issue.

My Lords, would the noble Baroness the Leader of the House recognise that what the Prime Minister said about the treatment of European Union citizens in this country is that he will graciously apply the law of the land—no more, no less? Does she not think it a little odd that the Prime Minister and the Government should have to say that they will obey the law of this country? That is what that adds up to—nothing more. Could the noble Baroness tell us what figures for growth of the British economy underpins the figures she quoted from the European Central Bank regarding the effect on the eurozone economy? Those figures must exist; otherwise, they could not could not have been produced.

I am not able to provide right now the data that the noble Lord has asked for on the economy. If I can, I will write to the noble Lord with that information. I would say to him again, and to the House as a whole, that we have a strong economy in this country, and it is because of that strong economy that we are in a good position to withstand whatever period of uncertainty we are about to endure.

My Lords, the noble Baroness tells the House that the empty chair today is not because of any legal issues but because it is an informal meeting. She will know that Nicola Sturgeon is meeting the Commission chairman, Mr Juncker, as well as the President of the European Parliament today. Is that an informal meeting as well? Is foreign affairs still a reserved matter, or will they have discussions with the Scottish Government over amending the Scotland Act and consultations about Brexit?

I can certainly confirm that foreign affairs is a reserved matter and that the UK’s relationship with the European Union is just that—the UK’s relationship with the European Union. The decision to leave was one taken by the United Kingdom as a whole. Future negotiations on our future relationship will be United Kingdom led. That said, the Prime Minister has been at pains to stress that, in this period—and, he hopes, that of his successor—the United Kingdom Government will consult the devolved Assemblies. We want to ensure the best result for all parts of the United Kingdom and this Government very much believe that that will be achieved if we consult them.

As for the noble Baroness’s points about empty-chairing discussions on this, that and the other, I point out to noble Lords that, in addition to attending the European Council yesterday, the Prime Minister held bilateral meetings with other members of the European Union, the President of the Commission and so on. He has said today that, while formal negotiations on the UK’s exit from the EU will be triggered by Article 50, which can be triggered only by the United Kingdom—and members of the European Union have made clear that, from their perspective, that is the point at which formal negotiations will start—that will not prevent discussions taking place bilaterally. That is something which he very much hopes his successor will continue.

My Lords, on that very point, I have a strictly technical question, for which there must be a very clear answer. If indeed, as far as Brussels is concerned, negotiations can start only after Article 50 has been moved—those negotiations may be satisfactory or unsatisfactory as far as the UK is concerned—at the end of that process, does the UK have the right to withdraw its application under Article 50?

I am sure that we will find over the next couple of years that there will be lots of debates about many of these things, but what is very clear to me is that, once Article 50 is triggered, that is the formal start of the exit process. Unless an agreement is reached between the United Kingdom and the other member states in advance of the end of the two-year period—or at the end, if there is unanimous agreement among those member states with the United Kingdom that it should be extended—once that process starts, it will be completed at the end of two years.

Does the noble Baroness agree that yesterday the Prime Minister was the first in Britain’s history to attend a European Council without a clue as to what the British agenda was? Given that his possible, perhaps likely, successor Boris Johnson wrote a newspaper article on Monday saying that we needed to stay in the single market, only for his aide to say yesterday that he was too tired when he wrote it and did not really mean that, and given that on the doorstep in south Wales, as I can testify, people voted leave because immigration was going to be reduced—a promise also reneged on by the leave leaders—is there not now an irrefutable case for this House to consider a referendum at some point in future after the deal has been agreed, because it is very evident that people voted last Thursday without any idea what was actually going to happen to them?

We are in a situation where, clearly, this Government campaigned for our recommendation to the British people, which was to remain in the European Union, but a majority of the British people rejected that position and decided that we should exit. This Prime Minister is working hard, between now and the point at which he is replaced, to provide as much as he can by way of factual information so that the next Prime Minister is in a strong position, as soon as possible, to outline the kind of relationship that the United Kingdom should have with the European Union. I have explained that the Article 50 process will be the formal trigger process between the United Kingdom and the European Union. As for the point at which other events will occur, once there is that clarity on the type of relationship that the next Prime Minister wishes the United Kingdom to have with the European Union—when that is presented and other contributions, whether from Parliament or anyone else, are made—I cannot say at the moment, as that will be something that the next Prime Minister has to decide.

My Lords, could my noble friend confirm that the Prime Minister is first among equals and that we do not have a presidential system of government in this country? Could she say, on behalf of the Government, for whom she speaks in this House, that any European citizen living in Britain has a right to remain here and that right will not be in any way affected by Brexit, and that the position is not negotiable? She must be aware that many people are concerned about their position and their future and surely it is the responsibility of the leadership of this Government to make it absolutely clear that there is no question mark over that.

I will say what I have said already—which I believe is very clear, although I understand that my noble friend is seeking from me something which goes beyond what I am able to do at this time—which is that, as things stand, nothing has changed. However, I understand and very much appreciate why he and others are raising these questions. These are things which we will have to return to, and I recognise that we will have to return to them as quickly as we can.

Does the noble Baroness understand that the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, has enormous force and is understood all around this House? This morning, I heard the French ambassador tell of French citizens in the streets of London—detected as French because they were speaking their language—being told by the crowd to go home. We cannot have this; the Government have to speak up.

I hope the noble Lord, Lord Kerr, has heard me say already today that anybody who is at this time telling anybody that they should go home is completely and utterly wrong, and that is not something which this Government are in any doubt about whatever. What I cannot say to the noble Lord or to the House, I fear, is—at the point at which we exit the European Union—what our relationship will be with France, in order to determine what kind of citizenship rights we want to offer.

The noble Baroness said earlier that we should all now concentrate our energies on the negotiations, if I understood what she said. Can she help me a little bit? How can I concentrate my energies on negotiations when, first, I do not know when they will be negotiating; secondly, I do not know who is going to be doing the negotiating; thirdly, I do not know precisely what they are going to negotiate about; and fourthly, I do not know what our negotiators are trying to achieve?

As the noble Lord knows and the House understands—we all understand—the people of the United Kingdom were offered an opportunity to decide whether we should remain in the European Union or not. They have made their decision; we are now in a period of having to transition between that decision having been made and the next steps being taken. At the moment, what the Prime Minister is doing, and what I am doing, is setting out the information that we have—recognising of course that there is much more that needs to be established. That is something that the next Prime Minister will have to take forward but, in the meantime, the Government are doing quite a bit in order to prepare for that stage.

My Lords, I am almost minded to ask—given that Vote Leave promised us that we could “take control”—whether anybody is in control at the moment. However, I want to point to Chancellor Angela Merkel’s comments in the Bundestag yesterday when she said that she was concerned about German citizens living in this country who are concerned about their future. We have not even triggered Article 50 yet. The noble Baroness suggested that nothing changes until we leave, but, actually, things have changed already. People are aware that we have taken that vote and that decision. We need some leadership from the Government and we need to know that the rights of EU nationals resident in this country will be secured. That is for the Government to do, not for negotiations.

I am afraid that I can only say what I have already said, which is that the rights of all people from the European Union living in this country are unchanged at this time. As frustrating as it may be for the noble Baroness to hear me say it again, their rights are completely unchanged. It is of course something that we will need to clarify, but it is not something that I am able to do today.

My noble friend made reference to the growth figures and the projected growth of not only Britain but the European Community. Pending the referendum, a large number of decisions seem to have been deferred. To boost economic growth, I ask that some of them are now taken and implemented. I cite two examples, one slightly less contentious than the other: there is a planning application pending in relation to City Airport, which would be a good indicator of future economic growth; and there have been requests from all sides of this Chamber that a decision on runway capacity in the south-east is announced before the Summer Recess. I hope that that is stuck to.

Clearly there is a range of different decisions that we will have to continue to reflect on. I am not in a position to give my noble friend any new information about the timings of those decisions.

I apologise to the noble Baroness. We have had 20 minutes of Back-Bench debate on this and we will now move on to the next Statement.

We are now moving on to the next Statement. The noble Lord asks about the time allocated to Back-Bench questions. As he knows—I think that he was here in the House on Monday—I was very happy to extend the time on Monday for Back-Bench questions. I have repeated this Statement today. We have scheduled time on Tuesday next week for a full day’s debate for noble Lords to debate Europe and we will have a series of debates on Thursday. I know that there is much that noble Lords want to debate and question, and there will be lots of opportunities, but I am afraid that we have to continue with our other business. My noble friend Lord Ahmad is about to make a very important Statement which covers some of the topics that noble Lords have been raising. I am sorry, but we are going to move on. I just want to explain to the House what it is that we are doing right now. My noble friend is now going to move on.

My Lords, will the noble Lord give way? The whole House is perfectly aware of his thoughts on this matter but, in this instance, we are moving on to the other Statement now.