My Lords, it remains the Government’s intention to leave the EU with a deal before 23 May so that we do not need to participate in European parliamentary elections. However, we have taken the necessary steps required by law should we have to participate, and we have provided the necessary legislation for returning officers to hold potential European parliamentary elections on 23 May.
I hope that my noble friend’s optimism is not misplaced. I think that referendums are, frankly, a very bad idea in a parliamentary representative democracy, and I suspect that many Peers would agree. However, three years ago we had one. Whatever position people took in the referendum and have taken since, surely the people of this country will at the very least be astonished if we fight these elections. Our friends in Europe and elsewhere are already pretty bemused. Should it come to pass that we fight these elections, the trust in Parliament and politicians that is already pretty shaky will be further harmed, so will my noble friend consider what action the Government can take to bolster that trust before it completely disappears?
I hear my noble friend’s concern about the breach of public trust that would occur were that eventuality to take place. I was in my place on 27 March when he spoke on this very subject. He said:
“I have no idea what will happen and I shall not predict. It is very unwise if one does”.—[Official Report, 27/3/19; col. 1854.]
I think that he was right. However, on a more constructive note to my noble friend, I am as anxious as he is to avoid holding the European elections. With that objective in mind, I believe that he might have more leverage with the European Research Group than I have. Perhaps he could persuade those who have so far declined to do so to back the deal so that we have a better chance to call off the election.
My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister can help me. If these elections take place, will the Conservative Party be supporting Conservative Party candidates? Various enunciations made by his colleagues in the other place seem to suggest that they will not actually be supporting the Conservative Party. Can he help us here?
Well, I shall certainly be supporting Conservative candidates in the European elections. I am sure that the noble Lord, led by the Opposition Chief Whip, will be heading a task force to the south-west to support the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, even if the price of success means that we no longer have his contributions to our debates on statutory instruments.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be deplorable if all the effort and money being put in by the Electoral Commission and local electoral returning officers were wasted due to Tory infighting and fear of the European elections? It is rather rich that Brexiters do not like the democracy that the European elections incorporate, having always claimed that the EU is undemocratic.
The noble Baroness will be as familiar as I am with the reasons why we might have to go ahead with these elections. After the decision on 29 March not to vote for the withdrawal agreement, it became inevitable that there would be a risk of holding these elections. The Prime Minister has done all that she possibly could to avoid this scenario, and I commend her patience and determination. There is still time to avoid those elections if enough people in another place change their minds and decide to back the deal.
My Lords, it is quite clear that we will be fighting these elections, because the Government have not managed to get a deal to which the Commons agrees. In that case, will the Cabinet Office agree to do two things? First, will it alert EU citizens living in this country that they will be able to vote on that day if they are registered by 8 May? Will the Government, for example, remind those on the settled status list of that? Secondly, will the Government ensure that the other 27 Governments alert British citizens resident in their countries that they will be able to vote in those countries on their election dates?
I agree entirely with the noble Baroness. It is important that EU citizens in this country and UK citizens in European countries are fully enfranchised and can take part in the European elections—if they take place. I would like to pursue with the Electoral Commission some of her ideas about raising the profile of these elections, because in some European countries people may have assumed that they will not take place. I will certainly see whether further action can be taken to raise the profile of these elections. Information is of course available on the European Parliament website for those who want further details on how to vote.
My Lords, whether the election goes ahead or not, is it not clear that the Government need to have some vision that goes beyond the EU for the future of Europe, of which the UK remains a part in a post-Brexit world? If so, is this vision being developed so that it can be articulated?
I agree entirely. To some extent, that goes beyond the withdrawal agreement to the political agreement which is set out. I very much hope that we will continue to have a good and close relationship with our neighbours in Europe, and that any deal minimises turbulence for the economy and for employment. I agree that, once we have overcome the hurdle of the withdrawal agreement, we should raise our sights and work towards a harmonious future with our European friends and neighbours.