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European Council

Volume 797: debated on Thursday 11 April 2019


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.

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on yesterday’s European Council, but before I do, I am sure that the whole House will welcome the news this morning that the Metropolitan Police have arrested Julian Assange for breach of bail, after nearly seven years in the Ecuadorian embassy, and he has also been arrested in relation to an extradition request from the United States authorities.

This is now a legal matter before the courts. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary will make a Statement on this later, but I thank the Metropolitan Police for carrying out their duties with great professionalism and welcome the co-operation of the Ecuadorian Government in bringing this matter to a resolution. This goes to show that in the United Kingdom, no one is above the law.

Turning to the Council, my priority is to deliver Brexit and to do so in an orderly way that does not disrupt people’s lives, so I continue to believe we need to leave the European Union with a deal as soon as possible—and of course this House has voted repeatedly to avoid a no deal. Yet despite the efforts of Members on all sides, we have not so far been able to vote for a deal. So ahead of the Council, I wrote to President Tusk to seek a short extension to the Article 50 period to 30 June. Critically, I also requested that any extension should be terminable, so that whenever this House agrees a deal and ratifies the withdrawal agreement, we can get on and leave. I did this not merely to avoid a further delay beyond ratification of the withdrawal agreement but specifically to retain our ability to leave the EU without having to hold European parliamentary elections on 23 May.

The discussions at the Council were difficult, and unsurprisingly many of our European partners share the deep frustration that I know so many of us feel in this House over the current impasse. There was a range of views about the length of an extension, with a large number of member states preferring a longer extension to the end of this year or even into the next. In the end, what was agreed by the UK and the EU 27 was a compromise: an extension lasting until the end of October. The Council also agreed that we would update on our progress at the next meeting in June. Critically, as I requested, the Council agreed that this extension can be terminated when the withdrawal agreement has been ratified, so, for example, if we were to pass a deal by 22 May, we would not have to take part in European elections, and when the EU has also ratified, we would be able to leave at 11 pm on 31 May. In short, the date of our departure from the EU and our participation in the European parliamentary elections remains a decision for this House. As President Tusk said last night: ‘During this time, the course of action will be entirely in the UK's hands’.

In agreeing this extension, there was some discussion in the Council about whether stringent conditions should be imposed on the UK for its EU membership during this period, but I argued against this. I put the case that there is only a single tier of EU membership, with no conditionality attached beyond existing treaty obligations. The Council conclusions were clear that during the course of the extension the UK will continue to hold full membership rights. In turn, I assured my fellow leaders that the UK will continue to be bound by all our ongoing obligations as a member state, including the duty of sincere co-operation. The United Kingdom plays a responsible and constructive role on the world stage, and we always will. That is the kind of country we are.

The choices we face are stark and the timetable is clear. I believe we must now press on at pace with our efforts to reach a consensus on a deal that is in the national interest. I welcome the discussions that have taken place with the Opposition in recent days and the further talks which are resuming today. This is not the normal way of British politics and it is uncomfortable for many in both the Government and the Opposition.

Reaching an agreement will not be easy, because to be successful it will require both sides to make compromises. But, however challenging it may be politically, I profoundly believe that in this unique situation where this House is deadlocked, it is incumbent on both Front Benches to seek to work together to deliver what the British people voted for. I think that the British people expect their politicians to do just that when the national interest demands it. I hope that we can reach an agreement on a single unified approach that we can put to the House for approval. But if we cannot do so soon, then we will seek to agree a small number of options for the future relationship that we will put to the House in a series of votes to determine which course to pursue.

As I have made clear before, the Government stand ready to abide by the decision of the House. But to make this process work, the Opposition would need to agree to this too. With the House’s consent, we could also bring forward the withdrawal agreement Bill, which is a necessary element of any deal, whichever course we take. This Bill will take time to pass through both Houses, so if we want to get on with leaving, we need to start this process soon. It could also provide a useful forum to resolve some of the outstanding issues in the future relationship.

Crucially, any agreement on the future relationship may involve a number of additions and clarifications to the political declaration. So I am pleased that at this Council, all 27 member states responded to my update on the ongoing cross-party talks by agreeing that,

‘the European Council is prepared to reconsider the Political Declaration on the future relationship in accordance with the positions and principles stated in its guidelines and statements’.

The Council also reiterated that the withdrawal agreement itself could not be reopened.

I know that the whole country is intensely frustrated that the process to leave the European Union has still not been completed. I never wanted to seek this extension and I deeply regret that we have not been able to secure agreement in this House for a deal that would allow us to leave in a smooth and orderly way. I know too that this whole debate is putting Members on all sides of the House under immense pressure and causing uncertainty across the country.

We need to resolve this. Let us use the opportunity of the recess to reflect on the decisions that will have to be made swiftly on our return after Easter. Let us then resolve to find a way through this impasse, so that we can leave the European Union with a deal as soon as possible; so that we can avoid having to hold those European parliamentary elections; and, above all, so that we can fulfil the democratic decision of the referendum, deliver Brexit and move our country forward. This is our national duty as elected members of this House and nothing today is more pressing or more vital. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating this Statement. At the request of my noble friend Lady Smith of Basildon, I am responding.

We are pleased that an extension to the United Kingdom’s exit date has been granted, so that we do not crash out of the European Union tomorrow without a deal, which would put at risk jobs, health, the economy and our security. However, the way it has happened is no cause for pleasure, because its occurrence as a result of a rushed flight to Brussels amid reports of serious disagreements between different member states has led to a further erosion of the credibility of the United Kingdom in the world. It is also a very bad set of conditions in which to continue negotiations with the EU 27 on the political declaration, if we get that far. No doubt there will also be sharp and sustained anger and dismay in the country.

The reason for that is squarely to be placed at the door of the Prime Minister and the Government. She knew, at the latest in early December, when she postponed the first meaningful vote, that her deal was in grave difficulties and unlikely to pass. That became clearer and clearer as we went through later months. Yet still she drove forward to the sharp cliff edge of a no-deal exit in a game of chicken, hoping that either the European Union or Parliament would blink before we got there. She was warned time and again, including by the Labour Party, not to run down the clock in the hope that Parliament would be forced to agree her deal despite its strong dislike of it, instead of looking at alternative routes forward—particularly cross-party discussions, which have at least finally started.

It is now plain to see that her plan has backfired. It is not either the EU that has had to blink and reopen the deal, or Parliament that has had to blink and accept it. It is the Prime Minister who has had to blink and ask for an extension—although we welcome it— apparently then having to sit out the Council meeting itself again in a solitary room, waiting to be summoned back and told her fate, and indeed ours. She now has time, which she must use wisely and productively in the interests of all the people of this country, not solely of the Conservative Party. In progressing cross-party talks but also in looking at all other ways to find a solution—including looking at a public vote—can the Minister therefore answer these questions?

First, the European Union Council has said that though the extension is until 31 October, it will be reviewed in June. What has the Council said that it will particularly look at then, and what will the Government do to meet those requirements? What is the risk that we would face an exit earlier than the end of October? Secondly, what steps will the Government take to use the time now available? Thirdly, we had understood that the European Union expected us to say what the purpose of an extension was. Did the Prime Minister make any statements to the Council about that and, if so, what were they? Finally, what steps will be taken to keep Parliament—including this House—fully informed of the progress?

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement. This is the 15th opportunity we have had to discuss the Government’s withdrawal agreement since it was reached at the back end of last year. During the last four months, and during all these debates, the Government have made absolutely no progress in getting the approval of the Commons for it. I am a great fan of “Groundhog Day”, the film. I am much less a fan of “Groundhog Day”, the lived experience. Yesterday, the Council reiterated that the withdrawal agreement cannot be reopened. The Government have accepted this. How, therefore, are they to get their withdrawal agreement accepted by the Commons? If they cannot, what happens next?

Regarding the first question, the Government are holding talks with the Labour Party. The Prime Minister says that any agreement with Labour will require compromise. That will undoubtedly also involve compromise by the Prime Minister. Could the noble Baroness the Leader of the House give us any indication of any material respect at all in which the Government have signalled a willingness to make any compromise, which they accept will be needed if an agreement with Labour is to be reached? If she cannot, how does she answer the question in many people’s minds: are these talks little more than a charade, a basis on which to get the Government and the Prime Minister through the European Council, which can now be discontinued, having served their purpose?

Of course, there is one way the Government could get the withdrawal agreement through the Commons quickly—by accepting that the agreement and the option to remain should be put to a ballot of the country as a whole. The Government would then have that agreement within a day. It seems they will not do so, despite knowing—because they can read—that an increasing majority of the population now believes that the politicians have failed so dismally in their duty to get a proper outcome that the decision must now go back to them. Is it too cynical to suggest that the only reason the Government will not contemplate such a course is that they know that, if such a vote were held, they would lose it and, arguably, lose it heavily? Or, as Laura Kuenssberg has been reporting over recent hours, is the Prime Minister’s intention to put her deal to the Commons for a fourth time knowing, as she does, that it will lose a fourth time? Having lost, she then intends to pivot towards a referendum, with her deal and remaining in the EU on the ballot paper. That seems an eminently sensible course for the Prime Minister to take. Presumably something has happened to make serious political commentators believe it is now in the Prime Minister’s mind. I am sure the noble Baroness, as a member of the Cabinet, knows what is in the Prime Minister’s mind. Perhaps she could tell us that.

If it is not in the Prime Minister’s mind, what is? What will happen next and when? The Statement contains the dread phrase “at pace”. We have had this before in Statements and it has usually been the preface to a process running into the sands and nothing happening. When the Prime Minister talks about trying to get to the end point at pace, including further votes, do the Government have any sense of what it means? Are we talking about indicative votes, or whatever they will be called, in the week the Commons comes back after Easter, the following week or before the European elections? Give us a clue. The whole country would like to know the sort of timetable the Government have in mind.

The Prime Minister is clearly terrified of the prospect of the European Parliament elections. The key aim of the Government now is to avoid them. We on these Benches are not; we will fight these elections if a referendum for a people’s vote on our place in Europe has not been agreed. We will fight on a platform of common European liberal values. We will take on the populists who threaten these values and would make Britain poorer, less secure and less tolerant. We look forward to taking those arguments to the people.

I thank the noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, and the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for their questions, which I will attempt to answer. The noble and learned Lord asked about the review point in June. It will allow leaders to take stock of progress at the June Council, but the extension will last until 31 October unless the withdrawal agreement is ratified before then.

Both noble Lords asked what happens next. As was made clear in the Statement, further talks will take place between the Government and the Opposition to seek a way forward, but the Prime Minister and the Government are clear that there is no easy way to break the deadlock. The talks are ongoing, so we need to see how things play out, but we are clear that we need to move quickly to conclude a process in everyone’s interests. The ideal outcome of the talks is to agree an approach to a future relationship that delivers on the referendum that both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition can put to the House of Commons for approval. As the Statement also made clear, if it is not possible to reach an agreement, the Government have said that we will put forward a small number of options for the future relationship, for the House of Commons to determine which course to pursue. These options would need to be agreed by the Opposition. We stand ready to abide by the decision made.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, once again asked about a second referendum. The Prime Minister has made it clear that we want to deliver the result of the first referendum and we do not want a second referendum. The noble Lord is also aware that the House of Commons has voted against a second referendum on a number of occasions, so this is not a majority view in the House of Commons either.

The noble Lord also asked about compromise. We have compromised during the process. We have attempted to address issues around the backstop, for instance, which Members of the House of Commons have raised. We have also committed to ensuring that Parliament is more closely involved in the next phase of the negotiations. I assure the noble and learned Lord that we will continue to update this House regularly on progress and will, no doubt, be adding significantly to the 15 debates that the noble Lord, Lord Newby, identified that we have had already.

My Lords, this is welcome breathing space. We know that the withdrawal agreement is fixed and cannot be opened, but the cross-party talks have shown differences about the political declaration. Would my noble friend like to have a shot at explaining to some of us the difference between the withdrawal agreement, which offers a transition customs union followed by a customs arrangement, and a permanent customs union? As I understand it, the Labour Party wants a permanent customs union. In practice, what is the difference between the two? Are we ever in practice going to see any agreement from Her Majesty’s Opposition? Their job is to oppose. Why should they ever agree with us? That is not their main motive at all.

As the Statement made clear, we are at a particularly difficult time. We need to find compromise. The House of Commons is deadlocked. In the Statement, the Prime Minister acknowledged that this is an unusual situation. However, talks have begun constructively. We are exploring areas of disagreement and areas of agreement. We are looking to move forward in the hope that we can get a common approach. We all want to leave the European Union in an orderly way. We want to ensure that we have a strong future relationship with the European Union. Crucially, any future relationship with the EU needs to be underpinned by a withdrawal agreement. That is needed to take forward the future relationship. If we can agree a withdrawal agreement, we can move forward to tackle the other issues about which noble Lords and, indeed, Members of the other place are particularly concerned and, I hope, develop the relationship with the EU that we want to see in the future.

My Lords, following up on the question from the noble Lord, Lord Howell, does the Minister agree that if cross-party talks are to get anywhere the Government have to start talking with real intellectual clarity? In the other place, the Prime Minister was trying to muddle together the question of a customs arrangement and a customs union just as a starting point. On the customs union, the Labour Party is clear that we are prepared to accept EU tariffs because we think that frictionless trade with the EU is far more important than the chimera of negotiating independent trade deals with the rest of the rest of the world. Will the Minister tell us whether the Prime Minister is prepared to have that degree of clarity about what is necessary if these joint talks are to move forward?

As I say, the talks are constructive and the Government have been very clear that we want to deliver the benefits of a customs union with the ability to deliver a negotiated trade policy. That is what we believe we can achieve. We believe that it is a reasonable place to start and we will be discussing with the Opposition how we might achieve that.

I think that we have to try to rise to the level of events. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Goldsmith, was quite right to talk about the humiliating spectacle last night. The last time we debated a European Council, the noble Lord, Lord Armstrong of Ilminster, spoke of his shame. I feel that. I think that we should all feel that. This is not the United Kingdom that we know. The twin cements of our parliamentary democracy are Cabinet solidarity and the ability to muster a majority in the House of Commons to deliver on the principal planks of the Government’s programme. Neither of these conditions seems to apply in the case of Brexit. In my view, that means that we need to think about a general election. I do not believe that the Fixed-term Parliaments Act was a good idea. The Prime Minister has demonstrated that it is possible to escape the Act’s confines. That is where I believe we should go. When parliamentary democracy is stuck, one should consult the people. I am disappointed that the Prime Minister referred three times in her Statement to the undesirability of European Parliament elections. What is wrong with consulting the people? That would be quite a good test of where public opinion now is on this issue. What is wrong with having a general election with a view to getting a Government who can take decisions and get them through the House of Commons? What is wrong with a second referendum? It is a long time since the first one. Why do we not check what the will of the people actually is?

I do not believe that there is any certainty that a general election would resolve the issues that this Parliament is grappling with. We need to deliver on the result of the referendum, which is to leave the EU. We have negotiated a good deal. There is a withdrawal agreement which can be agreed, allowing us to move on to discuss our future relationship with the EU. That is what we are focusing on. We are working across the House of Commons to try to find a way that this can be approved and we can start to move forward.

My Lords, at the weekend the Prime Minister said that the choice had boiled down to her withdrawal agreement or no Brexit. Given that we now have until October, the reason for not holding a people’s voice opportunity has gone. There is every possibility of having another referendum on the two choices that the Prime Minister says exist. Why can we not do that?

As I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Newby, we have had a referendum. We have a result of a referendum and we should be implementing that.

My Lords, I have a technical question. I am slightly puzzled by the part of the Statement that says,

“so, for example, if we were to pass a deal by 22 May, we would not have to take part in European elections, and when the EU has also ratified, we would be able to leave at 11 pm on 31 May”.

I have a particular interest to declare. My 50th birthday is on 1 June, so I would be quite pleased not to be commiserating on having left on 31 May. I cannot understand how, if we ratified a deal on 22 May, we would be able to leave by 31 May. Does the European Parliament not have to ratify? It will cease to sit on, I believe, 22 April and not come back until July. How is it possible that the deal can be ratified in order for us to leave by the end of May if we do not ratify until 22 May?

Paragraph 10 of the EU Council decision states:

“If the United Kingdom is still a Member State on 23-26 May 2019, and if it has not ratified the Withdrawal Agreement by 22 May 2019, it will be under an obligation to hold the elections to the European Parliament in accordance with Union law. In the event that those elections do not take place in the United Kingdom, the extension should cease on 31 May 2019”.

So it is within the conclusions of the European Council decision.

Does my noble friend recall that the one proposal that won majority support in the House of Commons was the Brady amendment to replace the Irish protocol by an invisible Irish border? Since then, Mr Barnier, Mr Tusk and Mr Varadkar have all said that, in the event that we leave without a deal, there will be an invisible Irish border. More recently, the current chairman of the CDU and future chancellor, AKK—potentially the most powerful woman in Europe —has said that nobody in Europe would stand in the way if we asked for a few extra days to negotiate an invisible border in Ireland. Why are the Government not pursuing the Brady amendment, or the Malthouse compromise, which I understand has never been put to the European Commission, or taking up the idea suggested by AKK? Do we think that our views of what the Europeans will do are more relevant than hers?

We have consistently sought to change the withdrawal agreement and make changes to the backstop. The Prime Minister, following the passing of the Brady amendment, sought further changes and, as result of those conversations, on 11 March, a package was agreed which was put into a joint interpretive instrument and supplement to the political declaration. This was formally approved by the European Council on 22 March, so the Prime Minister did indeed, following that vote in the House of Commons, achieve changes to the backstop. Of course, we have also agreed with the EU to consider a joint work stream to develop alternative arrangements, which was one of the elements of the Malthouse compromise that my noble friend talked about, to ensure the absence of a hard border in Northern Ireland. So we have indeed been working to achieve the things that the House of Commons requested in the Brady amendment.

My Lords, for a long time the EU has said it would want to know the purpose of an extension. What did the Prime Minister say to the EU when it put that question to her?

She said the purpose was in order to get the deal that we want through the House of Commons. She updated the Council on the negotiations and discussions with the Opposition. She talked about looking for compromise across the House of Commons and said that we intended to find a way forward to ensure that the withdrawal agreement can be passed so we can move to discussing our future relationship with the EU, which we all wish to do.

My Lords, in expressing my unbounded admiration for the stamina of the Prime Minister and in expressing the hope that the ERG in my party will come round to recognising that there is wisdom in her deal, I ask my noble friend—this is a point I have raised many times since June 2016—could there not be real value in establishing a Joint Committee of both Houses to look at these matters? We are talking about reaching out: is there any better way of reaching out than having a Joint Grand Committee of both Houses of Parliament?

The Prime Minister has made clear that, during the next phase of the negotiations, there will be a greater role for Parliament—and indeed civil society, trade unions and businesses—in discussing our future relationship. I will not promise my noble friend that it will be in the form of a Joint Committee, but the ways we can achieve that will certainly be considered and there will be discussions across both Houses to ensure that we have greater involvement in going forward.

My Lords, will the Leader of the House supply the clarification that my noble friend Lady Smith of Newnham did not receive? My noble friend asked how we can get ratification from the EU to be able to leave at 11 pm on 31 May, since the European Parliament will not be sitting from later this month until 2 July and has to give its consent. The noble Baroness answered by pointing to what she said was paragraph 10 of the Statement—I think it was paragraph 3 of the European Council conclusions she quoted from. That says:

“If the UK fails to live up to this obligation”—

the obligation to hold European Parliament elections—

“the withdrawal will take place on 1 June 2019”.

That curious assertion appears to suggest that it will impose a no-deal withdrawal on us. Will she, first, answer the question and, secondly, explain her under- standing of the end of paragraph 3 of the European Council conclusions?

The existing EU Parliament continues until 1 July and it will be up to the EU. I will have to look into the second point and I am happy to write to the noble Baroness and put the letter in the Library.

My Lords, my noble friend knows only too well that the backstop has been the area that has caused the maximum concern in both Houses. Can the Leader expand somewhat on the point the noble Lord, Lord Lilley, made about what is actually being done to find an alternative to that? Who are the Government consulting on these matters? What resources are being put into examining alternatives? Indeed, are any ideas already being pursued to see what alternatives there are? Because I can assure my noble friend that there are alternatives if they are being sought.

I can assure the noble Lord that the UK and EU agreed at the last Council to consider a joint work stream to develop alternative arrangements, and President Juncker has agreed that the EU will give priority to this work. We will be setting up domestic structures in the UK to support this work so that we can take advice from external experts involved in customs processes around the world as well as colleagues across Parliament. All this work will be supported by Civil Service resource, as well as funding, to promote and pilot proposals which can then form part of these alternative arrangements —there is an ongoing work stream looking at this area.

My Lords, the gridlock in the Commons to which the Minister referred should not be surprising, because it reflects a division that is patently clear in the country as a whole. Yet in no Statement since her right honourable friend the Prime Minister took office has she sent any message at all to the more than 16 million people who voted to remain. I read this word “compromise” in a spirit of compromise; does she not have to talk to the nation and draw it together? This Statement is once again spoken only to her own MPs and to those who voted to leave.

The Prime Minister is certainly aware of the need to bring the country together; the noble Lord may recall that that has been said repeatedly from the Dispatch Box and in Statements. That is why we are working so hard to achieve a deal that delivers for those who want to remain in a close relationship with the EU and those who voted to leave. That is why we are working so hard to leave the EU with an orderly Brexit and to ensure that our future relationship is strong. That is why we have made an offer to EU citizens—we have made it clear we want them to stay. We are trying to work in the interests of everyone in this country. That is what we are focused on and want to deliver. It is why we believe a deal is exactly the right way to leave the EU.

My Lords, does my noble friend not think it utterly obscene to spend £100 million—apparently more than it cost to send a spacecraft to the moon—on fighting a set of elections to elect people to a European Parliament who will be there for five minutes and then presumably be able to claim their redundancies to the cost of the taxpayer? Should we not do everything in our power to prevent our having to fight these European elections, which will cause great dismay around the country? It is all very well for the Liberals to say that it would be a good opportunity for them to have a platform to spell out the consequences of reversing the referendum. They had that in the general election and ended up with 8% of the vote. We do not need to spend £100 million to find out what people think of that. Could my noble friend give us some assurance that the Government have set their face against having these European elections, which will be an affront to the British public and cause great unease?

As the Prime Minister has set out in this Statement, we want to avoid having European elections. This is why we want to try to get the deal through as quickly as we can. However, I am afraid we have explored every avenue to see whether European Parliament elections can be avoided—we are not alone in Europe in having done so—but the way the elections are written into the treaties means that they are unavoidable unless we leave the EU before 22 May.

My Lords, I have listened to the Prime Minister’s Statement and then to the responses from the Leader of the House, with an increasing sense of bafflement. It seems that the Government are offering nothing new here. Are they so bereft of ideas that they cannot put before Parliament at least some indication of areas where there might be movement on their side to reach the consensus she claims that everyone so desires? Is that why I understand there will be no Queen’s Speech until after an agreement has gone through both Houses of Parliament as a piece of legislation? Does that mean we might not have a new Session of Parliament until October?

The noble Lord obviously knows more about the next Queen’s Speech than I do. I am afraid I have not heard about what he has said; it has not been part of any discussions in which I have been involved. He says that we are not compromising—we are. There are ongoing discussions with his Front Bench on areas where his party would like further assurances, to find areas where we disagree and might be able to come together. There are compromises to be found. We need to find a way forward together. That is what we are attempting to do in these discussions. However, as we have also said, if we cannot reach a compromise, the Government will bring forward some votes for the House of Commons finally to make a decision on what it wants the way forward to be. That is what we need to move forward to discussions on our future relationship with the EU.