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House of Lords Hansard
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02 February 2017
Volume 778

Question

Asked by

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To ask Her Majesty’s Government on what date Article 50 will be invoked.

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My Lords, the Prime Minister has set out the timetable for triggering Article 50 by 31 March, and we remain committed to that timetable.

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My Lords, I realise that a much more interesting Question I could have asked would have been, “Where is it all going to end?”—but the Minister would have found that rather difficult to answer. May I instead ask him this question: given that the British people have voted to come out of the European Union, and that the elected House of Commons has voted to begin the process, is there very much left for this House to do, other than to give safe passage to the Bill when it comes before us?

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Actually, I think there is a considerable amount for this House to do, so I beg to differ. I am very grateful for what this House continues to do and has already done, both on the Floor of the House and in the considerable work that has been undertaken by your Lordships’ committees, on subjects ranging from acquired rights to fisheries and financial services, which has in a short time made a considerable contribution not just to the debate but to thinking in government. I applaud the work that has been undertaken; long may it continue.

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My Lords, the Government will have 24 months from the notification of departure under Article 50 in which they will have to negotiate that departure. They claim that simultaneously, in the same 24 months, they will secure, in their words, a comprehensive free trade agreement with the European Union. Is it not clear that these tasks are not achievable simultaneously in that short time, and that the claim of securing a comprehensive free trade agreement is a complete fiction?

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I know that the noble Lord has a considerable amount of experience of the European Union. I would just gently point out to him two things. The first is, obviously, what the Article 50 process itself refers to, which is the means by which a nation that is leaving the EU will be negotiating the exit deal with reference to the new framework. That is clear in Clause 2 of Article 50. The second point, which I made last week at this Dispatch Box, is that, unlike other nations, we wish to enter a new partnership that reflects the fact that we have been a member of the EU, and remain a member of the EU, and as such our regulations and our laws are deeply embedded in our way of life. Therefore, whereas with other treaties being negotiated with the EU by non-EU countries, people are wishing to bring down barriers, we are wishing to ensure that barriers do not go up. That is why I think we should be entering into this in a different spirit from those other negotiations.

I also draw your Lordships’ attention to what Karel de Gucht, the European Union’s former Trade Commissioner, said recently. Essentially, he said that it does not take as long as five, six or seven years, as some are suggesting, and it could, technically, take a much shorter time.

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My Lords, given that the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union said on Tuesday, in moving the Bill, that the central question on Brexit and Article 50 is,

“do we trust the people”,—[Official Report, Commons, 31/1/17; col. 818.]

and Liberal Democrats very much agree that that is the central question, can the Minister explain the Government’s refusal to trust the people with the final say on the Brexit deal in a referendum?

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I am sorry but we come up against this immoveable object, which is the fact that the referendum took place, the people have decided that we wish to leave the European Union, and that is what we intend to do to honour the commitment in our manifesto. I hope only that the noble Baroness agrees with what her noble friend Lord Ashdown said so wisely on the night of the referendum: that when the British people have spoken, our task is to obey. It is only a pity that the noble Lord, Lord Ashdown, cannot agree with what he said then as opposed to now.

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On a recent visit to Berlin, a puzzled and upset very senior German politician asked me, “Can I ask you a psychological question?”, and I replied, “Please do”. The question was, “Why are the English Europhobes so childish?”. I undertook to give him a reply as quickly as possible. Could the Minister help me with an answer to that question?

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My Lords, I speak here on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government and therefore reflect the views of the Government. I believe that the approach that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister set out in her speech at Lancaster House was far from childish. It is a very mature approach to the challenge that lies before us, and that is what we will now embark upon.

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My Lords, did my noble friend notice that 500 MPs voted to begin the process of our exit from the European Union, of whom 346 had supported and campaigned for remain, putting the supremacy of the democratic mandate ahead of their personal views. Are they not an example to us all?

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I happen to entirely agree with my noble friend on this point. As I have said before, the people have spoken and it is now for us to deliver on the instruction they have given us.

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My Lords, the Commission has said that it will consult the European Parliament on an ongoing basis when the Government finally start to negotiate with Europe over this matter. Will the British Government do the same with our Parliament?

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As my right honourable friend the Secretary of State has made clear, and I have repeated many times, it would be completely unacceptable for the European Parliament to get more information than this House and the other place. That is an intention and a commitment that we absolutely intend to hold to.

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Regarding parliamentary scrutiny, will the Minister confirm—it would be difficult not to, given what is on the Order Paper—that today alone there are two Oral Questions, one Statement and one debate on the European Union? Just to reassure anyone who may feel that there is insufficient parliamentary scrutiny, will he put in the Library a list of all the Questions he has had to answer and all the Statements to which he has responded on this subject since 23 June? Perhaps we can at least then all agree that that is a pretty good record.

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I will be delighted to do so. I am very much enjoying the experience of answering all these questions. I will be here again shortly after one o’clock to answer more.

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My Lords, did the Article 50 negotiation timetable take sufficient account of the fact that it will include two sets of continental summers, and perhaps even one for the Minister? Also, what will be the effect on the timetable of national elections during this two-year period?

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My Lords, a number of national elections will take place during this period, not just in France and Germany. We have set out our negotiating position and we will set forth to achieve our aims in those negotiations. Obviously, the political situations in various European countries may change but our negotiating positions are as set out.