My Lords, as the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU said when closing the fourth round of negotiations, we have made considerable progress on the issues that matter, increasing certainty for citizens and businesses. Thanks to the constructive and determined manner of both sides in negotiations, we are making decisive steps forward. Both parties want to achieve the best possible outcome and the strongest possible partnership for the future by March 2019.
My Lords, there has been a very firm, fair and collaborative discussion about the issue of Northern Ireland. The most recent discussions continue to be constructive and we have made progress in some areas. For example, we have begun drafting joint principles on preserving the common travel area and associated rights, and have continued building on the general principles of ensuring that there is no hindrance at the border.
My Lords, my noble friend speaks from his background of work in the Treasury. There is a move from the Commission to change the rules of the game. The rules set out at the start of the negotiations were that we should have sufficient progress by this stage. Suddenly, some members and parties are saying that we should have agreed a particular sum. This is more than horse-trading; it is the future of our country. We are having a technical and detailed discussion that will bear fruit.
My Lords, it is a fact that as we leave the European Union we are not going to cherry pick one or more of the four freedoms—the Commission has made it clear that that is not acceptable and we understand and abide by that. However, we do seek a strong customs partnership. We cannot be in a customs union unless we have all the other freedoms, and, of course, contribute to the budget, without having a say in it: that is not the British way.
My Lords, can the Minister say what effort the Government made before triggering Article 50 to ensure that they would be able to discuss with our partners in the EU the new partnership straightaway? If they did not make any such efforts, was not that a little foolhardy?
My Lords, when we triggered Article 50 it was at a time when we had already heard extensive analysis of a range of issues that we knew would be the subject of discussion in reaching an agreement on our withdrawal from the European Union. That includes, as I have mentioned at the Dispatch Box in the past, an analysis of more than 50 sectors of the economy. An extraordinary amount of detailed work has been carried out, which is why we have been able to publish a raft of papers this summer.
Yes, my Lords. I have seen that close up because I was fortunate enough to be briefed throughout the summer by officials from the Treasury about the patient, technical work that they have been carrying out to ensure that when we are able to reach agreement not only on principles but on practice, the result will be fair for this country as well as for the rest of the European Union.
My Lords, as we know, the European Parliament will get a vote on the final deal. It has passed a resolution saying that it does not consider that sufficient progress has been made to go on to the all-important trade negotiations. The Bank of England, agriculture, industry, higher education and UK citizens all want progress. Is it not time to put the national interest first and make real progress on these talks so that we can get on to the deep trade ones?
My Lords, we have made great progress—we would say sufficient progress—to be able to proceed with the next stage of our negotiations. Of course, as the noble Baroness will certainly recall, Article 50 specifically says that discussions on the withdrawal agreement should be against a background of discussions about the future partnership. We are ready, willing and able, and it is time now for the European Commission to be more flexible to be ready for the next stage.
My Lords, to return to the question of the two parts of Ireland, does my noble friend recall that Monsieur Barnier, after publication of Her Majesty’s Government’s proposals, said that the European Union was opposed to an invisible border? Surely there will be no progress on this issue until Europe changes its mind.
My Lords, my noble friend, who has some of the best experience of the issues of importance to Northern Ireland, raises a crucial point. Flexibility is important from the Commission and also from other members of the European 27. A political decision will ultimately make the difference. It is worth noting that the Motion in the European Parliament to which the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, referred a moment ago proposed that one part of the United Kingdom—Northern Ireland—could remain in the single market and the customs union, thereby breaking up the United Kingdom. That cannot be a way forward.