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Brexit: Negotiations

Volume 795: debated on Thursday 24 January 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government, following the decision of the Court of Justice of the European Union that the United Kingdom can unilaterally withdraw from clauses 2 to 5 of Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union, whether they will cease Brexit negotiations through the European Commission and offer European Union citizens through the Council of Ministers continuing (1) free trade under the World Trade Organization, (2) reciprocal residence for a period to be agreed, and (3) security co-operation, before they agree any financial settlement on the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union.

My Lords, the CJEU in the case of Wightman held that a member state can unilaterally revoke its notice to withdraw under Article 50. Such a revocation must be unequivocal and unconditional. However, let me be clear that, regardless, the Government’s policy has not changed, and we will not revoke the Article 50 notice. A clear majority of the electorate voted to leave the EU, and we have to respect that result.

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply, but I would have thought that the Government would welcome this attempt at fresh thinking with rather more enthusiasm, because the Commission is clearly the enemy of our successful Brexit, while the real people of Europe should remain our friends.

First, will the noble Lord confirm that, since 1998, the UK has unilaterally withdrawn from 52 treaties and explain why we cannot resile from these clauses in Article 50?

Secondly, does he agree that continuing reciprocal residence and free trade are in the interests of the people of Europe and of our country, and that continuing free trade would also get rid of the Irish border problem?

In short, whose side are the Government on—the Eurocrats or the people of Europe?

I thank the noble Lord for his questions, although it is a slight surprise to hear from him a suggestion that we should revoke Article 50— indeed, not all of Article 50 but just part of it. I am afraid that that does not work. The reality is that the EU has said that the negotiating party is the European Commission. That is who we are conducting the negotiations with, but the noble Lord will be pleased to hear that we are leaving the European Union.

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, on acknowledging the authority of the European Court of Justice and recognising its judgment regarding the UK’s unilateral revocation of Article 50 so that our staying in the EU, as the Minister has just mentioned, would be possible. Do the Government not agree that the rest of the suggestions in this somewhat muddled Question are for a crash-out Brexit? That would be disastrous, as the Business Minister, Richard Harrington, has said.

Of course we do not want no deal, if that was the implication of the question put by the noble Baroness, but that is the legal default option both under the Article 50 process in European law and now under British law, so we are preparing for that eventuality.

My Lords, any no-deal departure would put in jeopardy the people of Gibraltar, their right to self-determination and their 300 year-old relationship with the Crown. However, we read yesterday that the Spanish Government want to use the EU’s no-deal plans to push for the “decolonisation” of Gibraltar. This is the sort of risk that no deal brings. Can the Minister reassure us that Gibraltar is uppermost in the Government’s negotiations and that we will make sure that we do not depart without a deal?

Let me say to the noble Baroness that of course I can give her a reassurance that we are negotiating hard alongside Gibraltar. Gibraltar will leave the EU at the same time as the UK does. However, asking me to rule out no deal, as the Labour Party continues to do, is an impossible job. There are essentially three solutions to our current predicament: we can have a deal; we can have no deal; or we can have various forms of remain. The Labour Party tells us that it is against this deal, that it is against no deal and yet it says that it wants to respect the result of the referendum. The party really needs to decide what it is actually in favour of rather than what it is against.

My Lords, did my noble friend see the “Question Time” from Derby last Thursday and the reaction of the audience to the suggestion that we might defer Article 50? Is it not plain as a pikestaff that the entire country want an end to this, are fed up with the manoeuvring and parliamentary activity undermining our constitution and wish us to get on with doing what they voted for, which is to leave the European Union and become an independent country?

The noble Lord makes a powerful point, as always. I think most members of the public do want to see us just get on with it. An extension to Article 50 is not a solution; it is just deferring the date on which a decision has to be made. So, yes, we do want to get on with it and we want to leave on 29 March.

My Lords, in his answer to my noble friend on the Opposition Front Bench, the Minister used a rather strange form of words. He talked about “various forms of remain”. Would he like to enlighten the House as to what those various forms might be and whether the Government are considering them?

Well, there are different forms of remain—an extension to Article 50 or a revocation of Article 50, both of which have the effect of remaining. But we are very clear that that is not the policy of the Government. We believe the referendum result should be honoured, and we will be leaving.

Privy counsellors have precedence. Do sit down, please.

I wonder if my noble friend the Minister has read the splendid statement by the boss of Wetherspoons, the pub owners, setting out his method for dealing with a possible no-deal Brexit. He has ceased buying brandy from France and is buying better and cheaper brandy from Australia, and so on with his wines and others. The customers are getting better and cheaper liquor, and the company is making better profits. Is that not a typical result of leaving with no agreement?

I am not sure I want to give from the Dispatch Box advice to Wetherspoons on its purchasing policies. I hope it will continue to serve its customers well, and I hope it will continue to make a profit. I say to my noble friend that no deal is not our preferred outcome, but as I said earlier it is the legal default. The best way to avoid no deal is to vote for a deal.

My Lords, does the Minister really think that cheap brandy from Australia is better than French brandy? While he is at it, does he agree that,

“free trade under the World Trade Organisation”,

as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, would mean a hard border on the island of Ireland under WTO rules and under EU rules?

My Lords, what I love about these Question Time sessions is that, no matter how much preparation you do, you never cover where the questions could go. I have to say that I have done no preparatory work whatsoever on the quality of different brandies from across the world and whether Wetherspoons should purchase them. I can reassure the noble Lord that we are totally committed to having no border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.