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Future Relationship with the EU

Volume 808: debated on Monday 14 December 2020

Commons Urgent Question

The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given in the House of Commons on Thursday 10 December.

“I am grateful for the opportunity to update the House again on the progress of our negotiations with the European Union. The Prime Minister met the Commission President yesterday evening in Brussels. They, along with the chief negotiators, Lord Frost and Michel Barnier, discussed the significant obstacles that still remain in the negotiations. It is clear that we remain far apart on the so-called level playing field, fisheries and governance. However, they agreed that talks should resume in Brussels today to see whether the gaps can be bridged. They also agreed that a decision should be taken by Sunday regarding the future of the talks.

We are working tirelessly to get a deal, but we cannot accept one at any cost. We cannot accept a deal that would compromise the control of our money, laws, borders and fish. The only deal that is possible is one that is compatible with our sovereignty and takes back control of our laws, trade and waters. As the Prime Minister said, whether we agree trading arrangements resembling those of Australia or Canada, the United Kingdom will prosper as an independent nation. We will continue to keep the House updated as we seek to secure a future relationship with our EU friends that respects our status as a sovereign, equal and independent country.”

That was rather a short answer. My Lords, Tobias Ellwood MP, the Conservative chairman of the Defence Committee, has warned that no deal will imperil Tory prospects at the next general election. Maybe that, if not the will of the country, will motivate the Prime Minister. My own priorities include security. When asked about access to EU databases, the Paymaster-General told the other place:

“We will be gaining access to new information via safety and security declarations.”—[Official Report, Commons, 10/12/20; col. 997.]

I think that is a reference to movement of goods. Can the Minister tell me what on earth those declarations have to do with cross-border policing?

I must tell the noble Baroness that negotiations are continuing. As I have said to the House, we are confident that good security co-operation between the United Kingdom and our friends in the European Union will continue, whatever the outcome.

My Lords, the Government say in the Statement that they

“are working tirelessly to get a deal.”

I welcome that, but at what point will people know whether there will be a deal or not? As you see when driving down the motorways, and in other government advertisements, people and companies are told to get ready for 31 December. What are they getting ready for?

The reality is that, whatever happens in these negotiations, there will be change on 31 December to 1 January. As enacted in law, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union single market and customs territory. For that reason, new customs and border arrangements will come into place. All businesses and citizens should be aware of that and make preparations for it.

My Lords, I declare my European and agricultural interests as detailed in the register. I am sure all Members of this House wish the Government well in their negotiations at this very difficult moment. Surely, whatever their party or interest, no Member of this House would have wished to see the country in the position we find ourselves in—only 17 days before the end of the transition period. Does the Minister agree that it will be absolutely necessary to negotiate a period of adjustment or implementation so that, whatever the outcome, the changes do not all come into effect on the first day?

We already have a range of agreements with the European Union over, for example, the Northern Ireland protocol, where arrangements and derogations are agreed. We have other arrangements—for example, we have already announced the phased introduction of border controls. However, the transition period will end on December 31 and that remains the position.

I call the next speaker, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Southwark. Bishop? We will move on to the next speaker and come back. I call the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, as the Government have agreed to extend the deadline for negotiation and agreement, genuine compromise on both sides is needed? Does he also agree that there must be further genuine compromise by the European Union and, equally importantly, by Her Majesty’s Government?

My Lords, the aspiration of the Government has been and remains to get a free trade deal with our friends and former partners in Europe. As the noble Baroness said—and I agree—an enormous number of areas of ground in the negotiations have been carried positively. But specific and deep differences remain on the well-known points that have been discussed, including the so-called level playing field and fisheries. Those are matters of intensive negotiations. The chief negotiators began to negotiate again at 10 am this morning. I will not prejudge what might be going on in those negotiations, but I can assure the House that the intention of the Government is positive. As the Prime Minister said, while there is life, there is hope.

Does my noble friend the Minister agree that there is a strong element of Alice in Wonderland permeating our negotiations with the European Union? Normally, when two parties negotiate a transaction from which both sides will benefit, the side with the most to gain customarily makes the concessions and is the party making the greatest effort to achieve a satisfactory conclusion. The EU is making a £90 billion profit each year from trading with the United Kingdom. Does the Minister agree that the posturing of the EU and its treatment of the United Kingdom as a colony is out of place? An example of this is Monsieur Macron acting as if France has a God-given right of access to British fish in British waters. Does he further agree that the superb work done by the noble Lord, Lord Frost, and his assistant, Oliver Lewis, to try to make the EU understand that Great Britain is not a colony of the European Union but a free and sovereign state is to be applauded?

My Lords, I can certainly agree that my noble friend Lord Frost and his colleague, Mr Lewis, are doing their duty to the very greatest extent. Of course, that is not helped by the injection of new material into the negotiations at a late stage. As I have said before at this Dispatch Box, I do not go into criticising the Governments of other nations. All I would say is that we are going to try as hard as we can and to be as creative as we possibly can in taking this on. However, what we cannot do is compromise on the fundamental nature of what Brexit is all about. It is about being able to control all our laws and to have control of our fisheries.

I do not think that the European Union is treating us as a colony. Indeed, the Spanish Foreign Minister reminded us this morning that trade negotiations are not about asserting independence but about managing interdependence. My question is about the language in the Statement, which yet again says that any deal must be compatible with our sovereignty and must respect our new status as a sovereign, equal and independent country. Does the Minister believe that the French Republic, the Kingdom of Spain, the Federal Republic of Germany and the other 24 EU member states are neither independent nor sovereign? If he does accept that they are independent sovereign states, just like us, why do we insist on insulting them again and again by implying in public that they are not?

My Lords, the noble Lord is a masterly negotiator; I remember the Maastricht deal. However, I think he has advanced a syllogistic argument that I cannot follow. The fact is that nations may use their sovereignty in whichever way they choose, and out choice as a sovereign nation is that we wish to control our laws, our borders and our waters.

Sitting suspended.