My Lords, the European Union published a draft withdrawal agreement text as part of our ongoing negotiations under Article 50. We have made significant progress towards concluding much of the withdrawal agreement by agreeing the chapters on financial settlement and citizens’ rights, in line with the joint report, as well as the terms of a time-limited implementation period. We will carry this momentum forward and aim to reach agreement on the entire withdrawal agreement by October.
Perhaps my noble friend could clarify a point from the Statement yesterday. In the Statement, the Prime Minister said that,
“we remain committed to the agreement we reached in December in its entirety”.
A little later, she said, on the Northern Ireland border:
“I have explained that the specific European Commission proposals for that backstop were unacceptable”.—[Official Report, Commons, 26/3/18; col. 524.]
Which is it: do we accept the agreement in its entirety or do we not?
I thank my noble friend for his question. The Government are committed to the avoidance of a hard border, including any physical infrastructure or related checks and controls. The UK’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the UK would propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland.
My Lords, is not the truth that, despite barbs often directed at Brussels, EU institutions have proved far more transparent, accessible and accountable—and, I might add, more honest—than Ministers and departments in Whitehall? There is no way that we would have this annotated withdrawal agreement if it had been left to the UK Government. Does not the Brexit process show how much our democracy and governance need modernising?
I am afraid I just do not agree with the premise of the noble Baroness’s question. We are extremely transparent and very accountable. We published a draft legal text on the implementation period. The EU publishes many documents; we publish many documents. We appear at numerous Select Committees and debates in this House to account for the Government’s strategy. We are committed to being as transparent as possible but, obviously, as is the case with the EU, we do not want to do anything to prejudice our negotiating position.
My Lords, it is disappointing that I should have to get my feet. There is time to hear from both noble Lords. I think it is the turn of the Conservative Benches first.
My Lords, could my noble friend perhaps arrange some sort of education process for those people on the other side of the House who do not believe that the British people are capable of running a democratic process? We had been doing it for quite a long time before most of those on the continent got round to the idea of having a democratic process.
Was that not a waste of a question? You would have thought the noble Lord would have learned by now. Would the Minister now care to try to answer the question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, without reading from a pre-arranged brief? Which statement is correct: the first, that everything is agreed; or the second, that we have not agreed in relation to Northern Ireland? Which is correct?
We have a number of things to discuss with the EU about Northern Ireland. As I said to the noble Lord, it is one of the areas that has not been bottomed out into a legal agreement yet. We are committed to taking those discussions forward with the Commission and the Irish Government, but our red line of having no hard border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic remains, and of course, the indivisibility of the United Kingdom also remains a red line.
Has the Minister studied the part of the guidelines which says that the European Union would reconsider its approach to trade issues if the British Government were to change their mind? Will the Government show any of that flexibility that the Prime Minister is calling for?
We have been flexible throughout the negotiations. We want to reach a good flexible agreement with the European Union. We have given some ground, and the EU has given some ground. That is in the nature of European negotiations. I am sure that will continue into the future but, of course, we have our red lines, which will not be crossed.
My Lords, my noble friend Lord Foulkes was right: the statements read out by the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, are not compatible with each other. Will the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, undertake to clarify the position and to come back to the House with a clearer and more satisfactory answer than he has been able to give?