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European Union

Volume 773: debated on Monday 4 July 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what role they see for the United Kingdom in relation to the European Union.

Following the decision by the British people to leave the European Union, the Prime Minister has been clear that the nature of the relationship we secure with the EU will be determined by the next Government, but we must not turn our back on Europe nor on the rest of the world. While we are still a member of the EU, we will continue to engage with EU business and decision-making in the usual way.

Can we now focus on process? We will presumably have to start talks with individual countries, but also with the European Union centrally. First, how will that be structured, and what is the European Union going to do in response? Secondly, and very importantly, how will we ensure that our well-known diplomatic skills are still engaged with the European Union to deal with the wider world in the interests of both the European Union and Britain? At the end of the day, both of us must end up being winners in this process, not losers.

Indeed, my Lords, the fact that there is a formal process does not exclude the possibility of informal talks. One talks to colleagues around Europe: it has already happened and it will continue to happen. The European Council has appointed a Belgian diplomat, Didier Seeuws, to lead a Brexit taskforce, which will negotiate the terms and conditions of withdrawal with UK Government officials. That has been announced by the European Council, but Seeuws’s appointment is reported to have created what I might call some tension between the Council and the Commission over who should lead the withdrawal negotiations.

The noble Lord draws attention to the importance of diplomatic skills. I can assure him that on the Friday the result was known, our Permanent Under-Secretary called an all-staff meeting to impress on them exactly that point, and to reinforce the undertaking that we would continue to develop diplomatic skills and the strength of the Diplomatic Academy to take account of the decision by the British people.

My Lords, is it not crucial that we have a British Government who are effective in office as soon as possible, and should not the members of the Conservative Party in the country bear that in mind?

My Lords, when the Prime Minister announced his intention to stand down, he suggested that, pending the election of his successor, he would do everything to “steady the ship” over the coming weeks and months. Does this commitment mean that every Minister has to come to the Dispatch Box with the same ministerial briefing—that this is a matter for the next Prime Minister or the next Government—and if so, is this really steadying the ship, or has the ship run aground with the Prime Minister as the first leader overboard?

As a maritime nation with a proud history in international relations and trade, this ship is not only afloat but is avoiding the Dogger Bank and negotiating a way forward. It will of course be a matter for the next Prime Minister and the next Government to agree on the details, but this Government are putting in place the processes by which information can be gathered to inform the next Government and ensure the success of this great country.

My Lords, do not the actions of the leaders of the leave campaign demonstrate that now, they have no idea how to take Britain forward?

My Lords, it is important that we listen to the views of all. The people decided that they wished to leave the European Union. When we have our two-day debate tomorrow and Wednesday, I and my officials will be listening very carefully to the views of all Peers on all sides of the argument. That will inform our way forward, just as constituents can inform the way forward of their Members of Parliament.

Whatever happens in the long term, in the meantime will the Government speak up trenchantly against the ugly and unseemly behaviour of some of our fellow citizens in the way they speak to and are violent towards citizens from the EU who are resident here, and who are productive citizens in our midst?

The right reverend Prelate is of course not only right but clearly has the complete agreement of this House. This country has proved throughout its history that it not only tolerates but welcomes those who come here to contribute to our society. I deplore attacks upon them.

My Lords, the noble Baroness stressed the role of the Government in the negotiations, but she has failed to mention the role of this sovereign Parliament in that process. Will she indicate just how Parliament will be involved in the process of negotiations?

My Lords, last week the Leader of the House repeated the Prime Minister’s Statement, in which he said that,

“we have now got to look at all the detailed arrangements, and Parliament will clearly have a role in that in making sure that we find the best way forward”,

and that, as we move ahead towards leaving the EU, it will be important to,

“ensure that the interests of all parts of our United Kingdom are protected and advanced”.—[Official Report, Commons, 27/6/16; cols. 23-27.]

That still stands.

My Lords, to what extent will the Ponsonby rule or its successor arrangements under the constitutional change brought in in 2010 be applicable to this process?

My Lords, apart from the vote to leave, how do we ascertain what the British people—or, at least, the 36% of the electorate who voted to leave—really want? We cannot negotiate with the people.

My Lords, in a democracy the people negotiate with government when they express their view at the ballot box, which they have done. It is then the duty of the Government to take into account the security and interests of the whole of the British people when putting together proposals for negotiation. I suspect that we will have an opportunity in this Chamber further to discuss these matters. It will of course be a matter for the usual channels to determine how that happens, both within the Chamber and outside it in a more informal way.

My Lords, my noble friend indicated that informal talks can go on with the EU. Is she happy that that can happen without our triggering Article 50?

My Lords, my noble friend raises an important point. In any event we have discussions with the other 27 countries outside the European Council; that will not only happen but has already started. I hope that that will continue to ensure that our relationships are firm and good, which will help when we come to the formal negotiations.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for reminding the House that we are a maritime nation, and I ask her to remind the Treasury and the MoD that perhaps we should buy some ships. However, my question relates to the important role we play as the bridge between the North American and European parts of NATO. Does she agree that we still absolutely have to carry out that role for the security of our part of the world?

That is a crucial point and I feel sure it will be very much in the mind of the Foreign Secretary when he attends the NATO summit this weekend.