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Brexit: Free Trade Agreement

Volume 797: debated on Tuesday 14 May 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether, instead of their proposed Brexit deal, they will offer European Union exporters a free trade agreement under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation, and European Union citizens continued reciprocal residence rights for a period to be agreed.

My Lords, the best way to secure certainty for UK and EU businesses and citizens is to leave the EU in an orderly fashion with a deal. Without the withdrawal agreement, we will not benefit from the smooth and orderly exit that the implementation period delivers. The citizens’ rights agreement offers reciprocal protections for EU and UK citizens. EU citizens resident in the UK can safeguard their residency rights now by applying to the EU settlement scheme.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, which shows that the Government do not really want to leave the European Union at all. Since Brussels has broken clause 1 of Article 50 by not allowing us to regain our complete sovereignty, why do the Government still feel bound by the rest of it, instead of breaking free and making this sort of offer to the real people of Europe, who are our friends? Why do the Government want our laws to go on being proposed in secret by the unelected Commission, negotiated secretly in the unelected Committee of Permanent Representatives—COREPER —and passed behind closed doors in the Council of Ministers, with this Parliament entirely powerless throughout? Why do the Government want the British people to continue in such servitude to the corrupt octopus in Brussels?

The premise of the noble Lord’s question is wrong. The Government want to leave the EU. We are doing our best to deliver a deal that will enable us to leave the EU in a smooth and orderly fashion.

My Lords, given the letter that all those Tory leadership hopefuls have just written, saying that they would never countenance what this House would like—a permanent customs union—and as the Prime Minister seems to concur with that view, in what way were the Government willing to compromise in the talks that they offered to the Opposition?

We took the view that both sides would have had to compromise. The noble Baroness cited Conservative leader hopefuls so I will tell her what her leader, Jeremy Corbyn, said at the launch of his European election campaign: that a commitment to leave the EU was confirmed in the Labour Party manifesto and at the party conference. We seek to explore whether that really is the position of the Labour Party.

My Lords, this Question is a perfect illustration of the disdain that Brexiters have for expertise—as expressed at one point by a member of the Cabinet, Michael Gove, who dismissed experts—and their ignorance about how the EU and the WTO work. Even at this late stage, will the Government run a training session for Brexit supporters in both Houses, including Ministers, to remedy this deficiency in knowledge?

I have many differences with the noble Baroness but I hope she will accept that, given the experience that we both have in the European Parliament, at least one Minister here has some idea of how the EU works.

It is the normal practice that Members of this House ask questions and the Minister answers the question he is given. It is not the practice that he chooses the question and answers that, even if it has no relevance to the question asked. So will he now answer the question that he was asked from the Opposition Benches?

I thank the noble Lord for his advice on answering questions. I did answer the question. I will not go into details of the talks because they are still live and are still taking place. Suffice it to say that if there is to be a deal that will deliver Brexit, and if it is true that the Labour Party wants to deliver Brexit—I know that many of its members might disagree, but that is today’s position of the leadership—let us explore how that can be done in a compromise fashion. The talks seek to explore that, and we accept that that requires compromise from both sides.

My Lords, I had understood that the question at the moment was on the withdrawal agreement. The European Union made it clear that future relationships would not be a matter for substantive discussion until after the withdrawal agreement was settled. Therefore, why should the negotiations to which the noble Baroness referred deal with matters connected with the future agreement, rather than seeking to achieve what we urgently need—namely, an agreed withdrawal agreement?

With the benefit of his great experience, my noble and learned friend makes an important point—that the withdrawal agreement, as negotiated, will not change. I think that even many in the Labour Party accept that it is not going to change, which makes it slightly strange that they voted against it.

My Lords, what is Olly Robbins doing in Brussels today? Is he seeking to renegotiate, or do the Government have another plan for him?

My Lords, are the Government prepared to compromise on the red lines that they set out, and if not, what is the point of the dialogue taking place between them and the Opposition?

To repeat the answer that I gave to the noble Lord’s noble friends Lady Hayter and Lord Tomlinson, we are prepared to compromise and we have offered what we thought were potential solutions. I understand that the Opposition Front Bench are considering them, and a dialogue is still taking place. The talks are not concluded and are still being undertaken, so let us hope that we can get an agreement and the matter can be put to bed.

My Lords, taking the Minister back to his first Answer, what would be disorderly about leaving with a free trade agreement?

Of course there would be nothing disorderly about leaving with a free trade agreement, but we need to negotiate that agreement. It is a very detailed and complex subject. To get on to those negotiations, we need a withdrawal agreement to settle all the outstanding issues. If we do not have a withdrawal agreement, the EU has made it clear that it is not prepared to discuss any free trade arrangement until we settle all the issues.