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European Union: Future Relationship

Volume 803: debated on Tuesday 28 April 2020

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress has been made in the negotiations on the future relationship with the European Union.

The Question was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.

My Lords, last week, the United Kingdom and the EU had a full and constructive negotiating round. It was conducted remotely by video conference and there was a full range of discussions across all the issues on the basis of extensive legal texts provided by both sides. We now need to move further forward in a constructive fashion.

I thank the Minister for that. As he said, there were 40 sessions of negotiations last week , but I am afraid that we heard from both sides about the difficulties and the lack of progress. There was even a slight hint of bad faith—this at a time when there are dire consequences to our trade and finance because of Covid. Given that the Government’s chief negotiator is not a Minister and so is not answerable to Parliament, can this Minister, the noble Lord, Lord True, confirm that the Government are genuinely prioritising a deal, as envisaged in the political declaration? Will he give serious consideration to releasing the legal texts that he has mentioned to assist the House in its work? Can he also say whether the Prime Minister’s original Brexit blueprint has in any way changed in the light of the new economic circumstances?

My Lords, there were several questions there, but it is always welcome to hear from the noble Baroness. The Government are determined to reach a constructive and amicable relationship with the EU, to maintain that and to reach an amicable agreement. These negotiations have only just begun. There were good areas of convergence in the first discussions, as well as areas of disagreement; that is normal in a negotiation. On legal texts, we have always said that we would consider whether it is appropriate to publish certain documents during the course of negotiations and whether it is useful to make them available more widely. However, those decisions will be taken at the appropriate time.

Can my noble friend the Minister explain why, in the interests of flexibility, the Government are refusing even to consider an extension to the transition period given that we do not know what situation we will be in next week, never mind the situation we will be in by December this year? Secondly, can he say whether, in the interests of flexibility, the Government will seek to join European Union Ministers in discussions on co-ordinated steps to open up tourist traffic with the rest of the European Union, of which we are still part?

My Lords, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, various decisions on future arrangements under the Covid crisis will be considered in due course. On my noble friend’s main question, there is a clear mandate from the British people to leave the European Union. We have left the European Union and Parliament has enacted that the transition period will end on 31 December. The Government are conducting themselves in accordance with the direction of the British people and the direction of Parliament.

On what basis do the Government believe that they will have full access to EU security operations and databases such as Europol and the Schengen Information System, an ambition that has been labelled as “cherry picking on speed” by a spokesman for one of the parties in the coalition Government of Germany, which will have the EU presidency from July? Are the Government relying on a belief that the EU will compromise on its legal rules on data protection, human rights and the European Court of Human Rights or, in the words of Mr Gove yesterday, that they will set aside their principles?

No, my Lords, the Government are negotiating in good faith. We are in the first stages of this negotiation and that is the course we will continue to pursue. I have rather more confidence in the good faith of both sides than is implied in the question put by the noble Baroness.

My question concerns the border and customs controls that are due to be put into place on 1 January next year between Great Britain and the EU and Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Given the Government’s rejection of regulatory alignment in goods and their refusal to accept the principle of the level playing field on which Brussels insists, when these controls come in, they are likely to be onerous. What steps are the Government taking to prepare business for these extensive border and customs controls at the end of this year and how do they expect businesses to cope with these new requirements, given the devastating consequences of the Covid crisis? Is that not in itself an argument for seeking an extension?

No, my Lords. That is again a lengthy question with various premises in it. The Government are confident that we will have appropriate arrangements in place for the end of the year, but I remind the noble Lord that our objective is a free trade agreement with the European Union. I hope very much that that will be the outcome of the negotiations.

I call the noble Viscount, Lord Ridley. No? I call the noble Baroness, Lady Deech, then. No? Then I call the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire.

My Lords, seven months ago the Government presented to Parliament the political declaration setting out the framework for the future relationship which did not talk about a free trade area, but rather about,

“an ambitious broad, deep and flexible partnership”

including

“foreign policy, security and defence and wider areas of co-operation.”

The paper presented to us by the Government in February set out a much narrower free trade agreement, as the Minister has just said. It says nothing about a wider partnership. Should we now accept that the declaration made last October is no longer a reference point for the Government’s negotiations?

My Lords, the Government have set out their negotiating objectives before Parliament and in talks with the European Union. The Government are seeking to negotiate in good faith on the basis of those documents.

My Lords, the Minister will accept that business has gone through a long period of pain and what it wants is certainty. Surely, giving us an almost unreachable deadline will only add to the uncertainty affecting business. We will not get out of the current pandemic unless we drop the idea of having this deadline now and concentrate on the real issues that matter to the country.

My Lords, I understand where the noble Lord is coming from, but we have seen many deadlines moved over the last few months and years. My view, and the Government’s view, is that business profits from certainty. The deadline that has been set out by Parliament is a certain date around which business can plan, and we intend to maintain it.

My Lords, Mr Barnier said that the EU would not agree to an economic partnership without a long-term solution on fisheries—publicly grandstanding, not negotiating. A future fisheries agreement should not leave the UK at a disadvantage compared with the likes of Norway and Iceland. Does my noble friend agree that, with the right attitude on both sides, it is possible to deliver a trade deal before the end of the transition period, a deal formed on the back of the clear democratic vote just last December?

Yes, I certainly agree with my noble friend, and the Government believe that that will be possible. The Government are asking nothing of the European Union that it has not agreed in free trade agreements with other nations. On fisheries—I should declare an interest as a descendent of six generations of fishermen—the Government’s position is that Britain will be an independent coastal state; we will make our own arrangement but we will negotiate with all parties, as is done with Norway, on the future use of what will be our waters.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has now elapsed. I just mention in passing that it is rather intervening to hear announcements that noble Lords are “now exiting”. If they could stay until the end, I would be grateful.