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European Council

Volume 779: debated on Tuesday 14 March 2017


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. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on last week’s European Council, and the next steps in preparing to trigger Article 50 and beginning the process of leaving the European Union.

The summit began by re-electing Donald Tusk as President of the European Council. I welcomed this because we have a close working relationship with President Tusk and recognise the strong contribution he has made in office. In the main business of the Council, we discussed the challenge of managing mass migration, the threats from organised crime and instability in the western Balkans, and the measures needed to boost Europe’s growth and competitiveness, which will remain important for us as we build a new relationship between the EU and a self-governing, global Britain. In each case, we were able to show once again how Britain will continue to play a leading role in Europe, long after we have left the European Union.

First, on migration, I welcomed the progress in implementing the action plan we agreed at the informal EU summit in Malta last month. This included Italy strengthening asylum processes and increasing returns, and Greece working to implement the EU-Turkey deal, where the UK is providing additional staff to support interviewing of Iraqi, Afghan and Eritrean nationals. At this Council, I argued that we must do more to dismantle the vile people-smuggling rings that profit from the migrants’ misery and which subject many to unimaginable abuses. With co-ordinated and committed action, we can make a difference. Indeed, just last month an operation between our National Crime Agency and the Hellenic coastguard led to the arrest of 19 members of an organised immigration crime group in Greece.

As I have argued before, we need a managed, controlled and truly global approach, and that is exactly what this Council agreed. We need to help ensure refugees claim asylum in the first safe country they reach, and help those countries to support the refugees so they do not have to make the perilous journey to Europe. We need a better overall approach to managing economic migration, one which recognises that all countries have the right to control their borders. Engaging our African partners in this global approach will be crucial, and this will be an important part of the discussions at the Somalia conference which the UK will host in London in May.

Turning to the deteriorating situation in the western Balkans, I made clear my concerns about the risks this presents to the region and to our wider collective security. Organised criminals and terrorists are ready to exploit these vulnerabilities, and we are seeing increasingly brazen interference by Russia and others. In light of the alleged Montenegro coup plot, I called on the Council to do more to counter destabilising Russian disinformation campaigns and to raise the visibility of the western commitment to this region.

The UK will lead the way. The Foreign Secretary will be visiting Russia in the coming weeks, where I expect him to set out our concerns about reports of Russian interference in the affairs of the Government of Montenegro. We will provide strategic communications expertise to the EU institutions to counter disinformation campaigns in the region, and we will host the 2018 western Balkans summit. In the run-up to that summit, we will enhance our security co-operation with our western Balkans partners, including on serious and organised crime, anti-corruption and cybersecurity.

More broadly, I also re-emphasised the importance that the UK places on NATO as the bedrock of our collective defence, and I urged other member states to start investing more, in line with NATO’s target, so that every country plays its full part in sharing the burden. For it is only by investing properly in our defence that we can ensure we are properly equipped to keep our people safe.

Turning to growth and competitiveness, as I have said, I want us to build a new relationship with the EU that will give our companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the European market, and allow European businesses to do the same here. A successful and competitive European market in the future will remain in our national interest. At this Council I called for further steps to complete the single market and the digital single market. I also welcomed the completion of the free trade agreement between the EU and Canada, and pressed for an agreement with Japan in the coming months. For these agreements will also lay the foundation for our continuing trading relationship with these countries as we leave the EU.

At the same time, we will seize the opportunity to forge our own new trade deals and to reach out beyond the borders of Europe to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike. This weekend, we announced a two-day conference with the largest ever Qatari trade delegation to visit the UK, building on the £5 billion of trade we already do with Qatar every year. We will also strengthen the unique and proud global relationships we have forged with the diverse and vibrant alliance of the Commonwealth, which we celebrated on Commonwealth Day yesterday.

Finally, last night the Bill on Article 50 successfully completed its passage through both Houses unchanged. It will now proceed to Royal Assent in the coming days, so we remain on track with the timetable I set out six months ago. I will return to this House before the end of this month to notify when I have formally triggered Article 50 and begun the process through which the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. This will be a defining moment for our whole country, as we begin to forge a new relationship with Europe and a new role for ourselves in the world.

We will be a strong, self-governing global Britain, with control once again over our borders and our laws. We will use this moment of opportunity to build a stronger economy and a fairer society, so that we secure both the right deal for Britain abroad and a better deal for ordinary working people at home.

The new relationship with the EU that we negotiate will work for the whole of the United Kingdom. That is why we have been working closely with the devolved Administrations, including the Scottish Government, listening to their proposals and recognising the many areas of common ground that we have, such as protecting workers’ rights and our security from crime and terrorism. This is not a moment to play politics or create uncertainty and division. It is a moment to bring our country together, to honour the will of the British people and to shape for them a brighter future and a better Britain. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I listened carefully to the Leader of the House repeating the Statement, and I am grateful to her for doing so. It must have been a strange meeting because there really was an elephant in the room. The one thing we most need to talk about with our European partners is what everybody else sitting round that table is thinking about but nobody is talking about—Brexit. I welcome the issues that were discussed, but the longer-term implications for all of these will naturally be different for the UK and it would be helpful to know whether at any stage during this informal summit acknowledgement was made of the different position of the UK, given the long-term nature of some of the plans being made.

The Statement says that, in all the items that were discussed,

“we were able to show once again how Britain will continue to play a leading role in Europe, long after we have left the European Union”.

That is certainly welcome, and it is that vision of a post-Brexit UK that we have all been waiting to hear more details about. We have heard aspirations and we have had general statements, but how it will be achieved has been missing. Given that the Prime Minister was able to show the summit how this will be achieved, is the Leader able to share this information with your Lordships’ House today? Perhaps she could follow up with a Written Statement to Parliament so that we can have the same information as was made available to the European summit.

The summit also discussed organised crime, which does not feature in the Prime Minister’s Statement, apart from a brief reference. Clearly, EU-wide co-operation on serious and organised crime and terrorism has been, and remains, essential. It is an issue on which the UK has taken a lead. The Minister will understand that any reduction in the capacity to tackle these issues, or in the level of co-operation, engagement and information sharing, would damage the interests of the UK, and indeed of the EU.

Given that part of the discussion of security and defence at the summit was on future legislative work, can the Minister say how far we will engage with such legislation, and whether, as a parallel process, the implications for UK legislation will also be examined? Can she also confirm that, following the great repeal Bill, primary legislation will be needed on these issues? Furthermore, in respect of information sharing, have any representations been made, or concerns expressed, by our own security and policing organisations about the implications of our leaving the EU?

Yesterday during Questions, the noble Lords, Lord Harris of Haringey and Lord Rosser, raised serious concerns about the Government’s failure to provide full information on illegal weapons imported into this country. I know that that information is available. Can the Minister say whether it is being shared across the EU with other police forces and security organisations?

I welcome the Prime Minister’s reassurance to the EU about our commitment to NATO. She also discussed this issue with President Trump, and indeed her comments to the summit about other countries investing more echo the comments that he made at the press conference he held with the Prime Minister. Given that the Prime Minister and President Trump appear to think alike on this point—and we agree that all members should commit to 2% of GDP on defence—can the Minister nevertheless confirm that our commitment to NATO is absolute?

In relation to growth and competitiveness, the Prime Minister called for,

“further steps to complete the single market and the digital single market”.

That was said without any sense of irony, but is the Prime Minister really pressing the EU on the single market that she is intent on withdrawing from? More out of interest than anything, I ask: what was the response from the summit?

The Statement also refers to the EU’s free trade agreement with Canada, and the Prime Minister pressed for an agreement with Japan, because,

“these agreements will also lay the foundation for our continuing trading relationship with these countries as we leave the EU”.

Can I ask how? We will have to negotiate our own trade agreements and, given that the Prime Minister has indicated that she wants to take us out of the customs union, surely it follows that we will lose access to all trade agreements negotiated by the EU.

Finally, we get to Article 50 and Brexit. In the Statement, the Prime Minister confirms her long-held date of the end of March for triggering Article 50. I would have hoped, however, that the Prime Minister would have taken this opportunity—her first Statement to Parliament following parliamentary acceptance of the Bill—to say something a little more meaningful, possibly even to confirm her personal commitment on EU and UK nationals living across Europe and on Parliament’s role in the process. We thought that there was a good case for the amendments on these points and that the outcome was the result of stubbornness on the part of the Prime Minister, who wanted a clean Bill. A Statement today, or something in this Statement, would have been extremely helpful and welcome.

The Statement also refers to us taking back control of our borders. Can the noble Baroness confirm that this will require legislation, and confirm the Prime Minister’s commitment to maintain the soft land border with the Republic of Ireland?

The time for broad sweeping statements has gone. It is time for the detail. Words in the Statement, therefore, that offer a “strong, self-governing global Britain”, “control over our borders”, a “stronger economy”, a “fairer society”, a “better deal” and a “brighter future” are meaningless: without some flesh on the bones, they are just words.

Furthermore, a lecture on not playing politics or creating uncertainty is misjudged. There is uncertainty here and now—across the whole of Europe—about the position of EU nationals, UK nationals, business and the environment, and the uncertainty is growing. We have now heard demands for a second referendum in Scotland and calls for an Irish border poll. The Government must act to reduce uncertainty and provide some certainty. I press the Prime Minister for detail not from any party-political motive but out of a need for her to do all she can to remove that uncertainty.

My Lords, like the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, I was struck by the Prime Minister’s claim that she was,

“able to show once again how Britain will continue to play a leading role in Europe, long after we have left the European Union”.

The Statement sets out the roles we play at present in a number of areas but I wonder how these roles will be maintained in the years to come. For example, if we are,

“providing additional staff to support interviewing of Iraqi, Afghan and Eritrean nationals”,

in Greece, do the Government envisage that we will play this sort of role beyond Brexit? The Prime Minister then said that,

“we need a better overall approach to managing economic migration”.

In which form does she envisage that such an overall approach will be co-ordinated involving the United Kingdom?

On the western Balkans, the Prime Minister said:

“We will provide strategic communications expertise to the EU institutions to counter disinformation campaigns”.

This is very welcome but how does the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, envisage that we might provide that kind of support, vital as the Government claim it is, once we have left the European Union?

Turning to growth and competitiveness, the Statement says that the Prime Minister wants us,

“to build a new relationship … that will give our companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the European market”.

That is of course welcome but outside the single market and the customs union it is impossible to have the maximum freedom to trade, so how do the Government marry that welcome assertion with their actual actions? The Statement goes on, as the noble Baroness, Lady Smith, pointed out, with the Prime Minister rather patronisingly calling,

“for further steps to complete the single market and the digital single market”,

at the very moment when we say that it is such a costly thing for the United Kingdom to be a member of the single market that we are leaving it. Was that well received? Did they think, “Yes, the Prime Minister really has a consistency of approach on that”?

The Statement mentions strengthening our trade relationship with the Commonwealth. Does the noble Baroness, Lady Evans, accept that our trade with the Commonwealth amounts to 9% of our total trade, compared to 44% of our total trade being with the EU? Does she believe that the scope for increased trade with the Commonwealth will be greater than the threat of reduced trade with the EU outside the single market?

On triggering Article 50, the Prime Minister said that,

“we will use this moment of opportunity to build a stronger economy and a fairer society”.

Those are very familiar words on these Benches:

“A Stronger Economy and a Fairer Society”,

was indeed the Liberal Democrat general election slogan. While imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, I jolly well hope that the Government have more success with it than we did.

But a stronger economy and fairer society is impossible to achieve outside the European Union. There is no significant body of opinion, beyond one or two noble Lords opposite, which believes that we will have a stronger economy. If we do not have a stronger economy, we will not have as strong public finances, and without public finances being as strong, it is frankly impossible for the state to promote the kind of fairer society of which the Government, and in particular the Prime Minister, speak so often.

Finally, the Statement says that,

“this is not a moment to play politics or create uncertainty and division. It is a moment to bring our country together”.

I wonder whether the Prime Minister, or indeed the noble Baroness the Leader of the House, has tested that sentiment on the 3 million EU citizens living in the UK and their families.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness and the noble Lord for their comments. In response to a previous Statement I repeated, the noble Lord questioned maintaining our leading role in the EU and at that time I was able to point out that we still play a leading role. In fact, the Prime Minister was key to the conclusions on the western Balkans, in particular, during this summit. We have great strengths and great relationships with Europe. There is no reason why we cannot still share expertise and experience to ensure that we play a leading role. For instance, we are leaders in cybersecurity, as the noble Baroness said. We are making our expertise available to our European partners and are using it to great effect in a number of regions. We want a strong relationship with the EU. Just because we are not in the EU does not mean we cannot maintain that. Where we have strengths, we can offer them to the EU, and where it has strengths, we can play that to our advantage. Just because we are leaving the EU does not mean we cannot have strong relationships with our European partners.

Particularly in relation to the western Balkans, our strategic communications support to them and to EU institutions to counter disinformation is part of our wider UK response. In February, we opened the National Cyber Security Centre, which will help to drive technological improvements and offer advice to citizens and organisations to defend against threats. We are also providing our expertise across the EU.

The noble Baroness asked about our commitment to NATO and I can confirm that we are completely committed to it. The UK, Estonia, Greece and Poland are the only European nations that currently spend 2% of their GDP on defence. We welcomed commitments from Latvia, Lithuania and Romania to reach that target soon. Defence spending across the continent increased by 3.8% above inflation last year, but we have a long way to go. We continue to say that NATO is the bedrock of our defence, and we encourage all our European partners to play a strong role.

On the questions about trade agreements with Canada and Japan, we believe that the EU continuing with them is important. We want to support them because we believe they will be crucial to our future bilateral relations with countries such as Canada and Japan. For instance, the CETA agreement estimates economic benefits to the UK of about £1.3 billion a year while we remain in the EU. We want to encourage British businesses to take advantage of their early relationships so that we can build on them. We think they will be able to help us in future in the relationships that we develop, and we are keen to keep momentum in relation to the Japanese agreement.

Questions were asked about our encouragement of the European Union to complete the single market in the digital economy. We believe it is great news for the EU because it will result in stronger growth and job creation, which helps us. We are very pleased with the positive trends in the European economy. We believe that part of the UK’s economic success is helping to drive success in Europe. We want a strong partnership and a strong relationship, which means we want a thriving European economy, just as we want a thriving UK economy.

Finally, the noble Baroness asked a couple of questions. I can certainly reiterate that we do not want to return to the Irish borders of the past. We are very committed to working with the Irish Government to avoid that. In the White Paper we made clear that we will be bringing forward primary legislation, including on immigration, that Parliament will have the opportunity to scrutinise and to discuss in great detail. There will be a number of Bills coming forward as we start to move towards exiting the EU.

My Lords, in the discussions about future trade relations in the Council, was any mention made of the World Trade Organization’s new trade facilitation agreement, which came into operation last week? It transforms the handling of trade across customs union barriers and into traditional protected markets, such as the single market. Will this not change a great deal of the argument we are having about the validity of the single market and whether we are in or out of it? The noble Lord, Lord Newby, did not seem aware of that major change in the pattern of trade relations.

As to the Commonwealth, I am sure the Minister is aware that last week’s meeting of Commonwealth Trade Ministers reflected that a whole new pattern of world trade, driven by digital considerations, is emerging to which the Commonwealth, with its common legal arrangements and language, is peculiarly well suited. The prospects, which are again something that the noble Lord, Lord Newby, did not seem to understand, are very great for the expansion of trade in the digital age.

I thank my noble friend. My noble friend Lord Price, in response to a Question earlier this week, outlined a number of ways in which we are looking to improve our trade relations with the Commonwealth. It is certainly a focus for us and we want to take advantage of our historic links. Obviously, as my noble friend well knows, our objective is to seek an ambitious and comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU. We are going into the negotiations positive that we can get a good deal for both the UK and the EU, which will work in both our interests.

My Lords, did the Council address the vile treatment of refugees and asylum seekers in European countries such as Italy, where they are not allowed to cross the border to France, it takes three years to process their applications, during which they are not allowed to work to earn money to survive, and the police deal brutally with those that they detain? These human beings live in squalor, wherever they can, including under bridges or in drains, with little hope for a better future. The EU seems to have no coherent or humanitarian policy, and certainly not one that works on the ground. How is the UK going to help improve this terrible state of affairs when the doctrine is that the first safe country they reach does the processing—the very states that are overstretched to manage it?

The Prime Minister certainly stressed our commitment to working with our European partners to tackle the Mediterranean migration crisis. Reforms to the Italian asylum process and implementation of the EU-Turkey deal are helping to relieve pressure on EU migrant returns, but of course we are very concerned about the conditions that many of these migrants live in. That is why last month in Valletta we announced a further £30 million in UK aid to assist refugees and migrants across Greece, the Balkans, Libya, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Algeria and Sudan, which will provide immediate life-saving aid to vulnerable migrants, help to train front-line workers responding to the crisis and support voluntary returns and reintegration.

My Lords, there is no reference in this Statement to any joint European response to the appalling famine in South Sudan. This is the first declaration of famine in the world for a number of years, and 2 million people are at imminent risk of starvation. Was this simply ignored in the meeting last week? Was it discussed in the margins? I am bound to say I was very surprised not to see any reference whatever to one of the worst humanitarian crises we have seen in a very long time.

I think all of us around the House share the noble Baroness’s concern. I am not aware that it was discussed, but obviously I was not there either. Perhaps I could confirm whether that is the case and let her know, but it was not on the formal agenda, no.

My Lords, the Minister just referred to the aim of a comprehensive free trade agreement with the EU, and I wondered whether the Government have reflected on a couple of references in the summit conclusions to relations with trade partners. One said that,

“the EU has to equip itself with modernised … tools to tackle unfair trade practices and market distortions”.

Another said:

“The EU will be particularly vigilant concerning the respect and promotion of key standards”.

That was particularly directed at China, but it might well be directed at other trade partners. In the light of the threat by the Chancellor a couple of months ago suggesting an alternative economic model in the UK—generally thought to mean low tax and low regulatory standards—have the Government reflected on where it would lead in terms of undermining any ambition of a comprehensive FTA if we do not maintain high standards?

My Lords, as I have said, we anticipate a positive deal between us and the EU. Of course we start negotiations from the unique position of sharing many of the identical rules and regulations, so we are positive and optimistic going into these negotiations.

My Lords, did the European Council discuss the deal done with Turkey whereby it would hold on to millions of Syrian refugees in return for accelerated membership of the EU and a payment of €3 billion, not all of which I gather has come through? There certainly does not seem to be any enthusiasm for allowing Turkey into the EU.

The UK wants a strong, stable and prosperous Turkey, and it is in our and the EU’s interest to maintain our co-operation with Turkey on counterterrorism, regional security, migration and trade. The UK remains of the view that the EU accession process is important for delivering security, stability and prosperity in Turkey, and we encourage it to continue to engage constructively with that process.

My Lords, have the Government ruled out under all circumstances the UK having any ongoing single market participation, as proposed by the Welsh Government White Paper?

My Lords, as I have said, and as we have said repeatedly, we want Britain to have the greatest possible tariff-free and barrier-free trade with our European neighbours, and to be able to negotiate our own trade agreements.

My Lords, I greatly welcome the west Balkans summit. The region is in a parlous state, as many of us predicted it would be without stronger action from the EU. There has been a Russian-promoted, if not Russian-backed, coup in Montenegro; Macedonia is close to civil war; Serbia goes backwards; Croatia threatens to do the same; and Bosnia continues to unravel. However, the summit will follow the trail of many others that have achieved nothing unless the end product is a united EU and US policy that is clear, strong and muscular and which will be driven towards a regional policy for the entire area. Absent that, I fear that the Balkans will continue to go backwards, and we all know what that means for Europe.

I agree with the concerns of the noble Lord. We will certainly be engaging closely with our partners. The summit next year that I mentioned will be focused on tackling serious and organised crime, anti-corruption and cybersecurity, and will include Prime Ministers and Foreign and Economic Ministers from the west Balkans and key partners such as France, Germany, Italy, Austria and the EU institutions. We are also providing a range of support to the region, including more law enforcement resources to tackle organised crime groups with links to the western Balkans, additional embassy staff, UK-led capacity building to build resilience to serious and organised crime in the region, and strategic communications expertise to the EU institutions to counter disinformation campaigns in the region. It is an issue that we take extremely seriously and that the Prime Minister led on in this Council meeting.

I very much welcome what was said about supporting the negotiations with Japan and other trade negotiations that the EU is conducting. I welcome also the realism that the Prime Minister has shown in saying that those agreements when concluded will provide a good basis for our own agreements when we are outside the EU. However, where does that leave the argument that we have to leave the EU to have these benefits? Secondly, in the western Balkans there is again a very welcome development. Will the noble Baroness confirm that our co-operation will continue even if, as is very likely, the EU decides in June to co-ordinate its activity in the western Balkans through an operational headquarters in Brussels?

On the first part of the noble Lord’s question, we are leaving the EU. That is the decision that has been made, and we will now work with our European partners to come to the best deal that we can between us. We will want excellent trade agreements with other countries. We continue to support the EU in ensuring that its economy as a whole improves, but want the best deals with our partners. We are absolutely committed to continuing to work with our European partners in the west Balkans. As the noble Lord said, it is extremely important to all our security.

My Lords, I do not wish to return to previous speeches but in the Statement the Prime Minister said with regard to the referendum that she would honour the will of the British people. As has been said, there is deep division and concern. What of the will of the 48% who voted differently? What will the noble Baroness say to them and how will she placate their fears?

The Prime Minister has been very clear in saying that we need to move forward together as a country and that we want to heal the divisions caused by the referendum. The decision has now been made—we will be triggering Article 50—we need to come together, and Parliament will have a role in scrutiny and be involved in the discussions about what the future of Britain will look like. I think that it will be an optimistic and positive future, and that is something that we as leaders in the country need to get across to help give people the bright vision of Britain that I believe they will have.

My Lords, the Minister rightly mentioned the significance of the single market. Does she agree that many economists take the view that almost equally important is the question of a single system of documentation that will allow egress into Europe, and thus guarantee a proper and steady flow of commerce?

As I have said to the House, we are determined and optimistic about an excellent trade deal with the EU, and will do everything we can across the negotiations to ensure that we achieve that.

My Lords, is it not necessary to have some realism about increased trade with Commonwealth countries? In particular, for example, have the Government considered what the position would be of Cumbrian sheep farmers, and indeed sheep farmers in the less favoured areas of Scotland and Wales, were there to be an agreement on agriculture with New Zealand?

I think we might be straying slightly off the agenda of the EU Council—which is not to dismiss the concerns that the noble Lord raised. As I said, we and the Prime Minister are looking for a deal that works for all of the UK.

My Lords, the United States and the United Kingdom have ensured the safety and security of Europe for decades now. Indeed, 25% of European spending on defence within NATO comes from the UK. Our agencies are the best in Europe and are crucial to the internal security of Europeans. Will the Minister confirm that these factors will play a full part in any negotiations? We must continue to make sure that the countries of Europe remain safe.

The noble Lord is absolutely right that UK co-operation with Europe on defence, law enforcement and internal security remains a key priority for this Government and will be at the forefront of our mind.

Perhaps I may return to the western Balkans. I was recently in Kosovo and can confirm that these countries will be delighted to see the United Kingdom standing up to Russia, or helping others to stand up to Russia, not least through technology. But there is the problem of European enlargement. We were a cornerstone of European enlargement in the Balkans. Will the Minister help me on the high-level dialogue between Serbia and Kosovo that is so crucial? Will we continue that process after Brexit, because the western Balkans needs to know these things now?

I can certainly reassure the noble Lord of our commitment to the western Balkans—and, indeed, of our commitment to offer our expertise in tackling some of the disinformation and cybersecurity threats that we have seen. The Chancellor announced that this would be underpinned by £1.9 billion-worth of spending this Parliament on cyber.

My Lords, following my noble friend Lord West’s question on NATO and security, I wonder whether we are confident that the strength of our forces is sufficient to deal with all the problems that we currently face—because, without any doubt, we face more divisions in the country than we have done for many years. In speaking to others, did the Prime Minister make any inquiries of the Swedes as to why they have decided to reintroduce conscription? Given the pressures that we have on our forces and the rumblings in Northern Ireland, in Ireland and in other places, might we not have to start thinking in terms of our public services looking back to the 1960s and 1970s and perhaps even back to conscription?

I think that all noble Lords around the House will join me in paying tribute to our Armed Forces. They do a fantastic job on our behalf around the country. We are committed to ensuring that we continue to spend 2% of GDP on defence to give them the resources that they need.

My Lords, could I ask the noble Baroness a question on the migration issues? The guiding rules are those in the Dublin agreement, but that is just not working and has not worked. In fact, a whole industry has been set up by smugglers who are making vast fortunes. While it is welcome that a number of arrests have been made, that is merely a drop in the ocean. Do the Government intend to press our European partners to have a really coherent policy on these matters, because the problem is not going away—it is going to get worse?

We are working closely with our European partners. Of course, the Royal Navy has vessels in the Mediterranean, saving lives and assisting with the training of the Libyan coast-guard, for instance. We are providing 40 staff to Greece to support admissibility and interviewing of migrants, and sharing expertise to support Italy, and work by our National Crime Agency and Organised Immigration Crime Taskforce, in concert with our European counterparts, has seen us managing to arrest quite a number of individuals involved in smuggling in the past three months alone—and that remains a priority for us.

My Lords, the Prime Minister constantly emphasises that whatever our future we want to remain a main player in world affairs. Across the African continent there is the most appalling famine. How much time was spent at the Council discussing this and how Europe should respond, and how are we going to continue to co-operate with Europe in meeting this huge humanitarian challenge?

The noble Baroness, Lady Symons, asked a similar question and I said that the famine was not on the formal agenda and that I would go back and check whether any discussions were had. I cannot give the noble Lord a definitive answer, but I have said that I will investigate. Of course, I also said that we were committed to doing what we can to help the countries affected, because it is an appalling humanitarian crisis.

Does my noble friend accept that, as we move towards exit, bilateral relations with our neighbouring nations in the European Union will become more and more important, particularly with those nations that until less than three decades ago were in the Warsaw Pact and looked to us for support and leadership as they moved into the European Union?

My Lords, the Prime Minister’s statement made reference to working with the devolved Administrations as we move towards the exit negotiations. Can the Leader of the House indicate whether the UK Government intend to give a substantive response to the Scottish Government’s submission of December 2016 and, if so, when?

The Scottish Government’s proposals have been considered in detail, including through the JMC process. In the last month, there have been a series of technical meetings on the content of the proposals. Officials in the Scottish Government have met UK specialists in trade, customs, the single market, law, devolution, and goods and services, so close working is going on.

Does my noble friend agree that we currently have access to the widest free trade area through our membership of the European Union? Will she agree that it is extremely important to have transitional arrangements in place? If we lose access through the World Trade Organization, does she accept that, overnight, we will lose access to the free trade agreements negotiated by the EU? Will she use her good offices to ensure that we continue to have free trade access that we currently enjoy under transitional arrangements, until such time as a permanent agreement is agreed?

We want to have reached an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year Article 50 process has been concluded. From that point onwards, we expect a phased process of implementation, in which both Britain and the EU institutions and member states prepare for the new arrangements that will exist between us.