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UK and EU Relations

Volume 813: debated on Thursday 24 June 2021


Asked by

To ask the Minister of State at the Cabinet Office (Lord Frost) what is the current state of the relations between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

My Lords, we are very pleased that the trade and co-operation agreement has entered into force and that its governance mechanisms are operational. This includes the partnership council, which met for the first time on 9 June. There are of course some outstanding issues between the UK and the EU, notably as regards the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. Although we want to improve the situation, realistically, things may remain bumpy for a little time. We continue to engage constructively and pragmatically with the EU as a sovereign equal.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. This morning, the European Union ambassador to the UK was a witness before the European Affairs Committee. In his evidence, he talked of the need to raise the mutual level of trust and to improve the quality of co-operation. He felt that it would produce a positive impact on the relationship. Does the Minister agree with this analysis? What are the Government doing to raise the mutual level of trust and improve the quality of co-operation today?

My Lords, as I mentioned, the governance mechanisms of the trade and co-operation agreement are now operational. The specialised committees will meet in the weeks and months to come. As this process gets going and the teams get into contact and discuss the issues, I am sure that matters at this level of detail will improve. The best way of improving the level of trust between us would be to engage in a pragmatic negotiation on the Northern Ireland protocol. If we can find solutions there, I am sure that things will greatly improve.

My Lords, if everyone is serious about adhering to the Belfast agreement as amended by the St Andrews agreement, we must all agree that it fails the test of cross-community support in Northern Ireland. It undermines the three-stranded approach to the east-west relationship and the constitutional settlement as far as the Assembly is concerned. In bringing forward solutions, which are urgently needed as we approach the summer, does the Minister agree that, as well as the trade friction, the constitutional and democratic flaws at the heart of the protocol need to be addressed?

My Lords, when one observes the situation in Northern Ireland, there is a clear sense in one community that ties with the rest of the UK risk being weakened. That has the political consequences with which we are very familiar. The situation needs to be dealt with. Consent is extremely important. We recognise the issues of democratic accountability, which is why—unusually—we built arrangements for consent into the protocol. The whole protocol depends on consent. If there are clear doubts about it in either community, in practice it will be very difficult to operate, which is why it is so important to come together to find pragmatic solutions.

My Lords, the ability of the arts to work across Europe is an aspect of good relations. The agreements with EEA countries represent a small part of the market for the performing arts. The desire of the music industry for us to have a bespoke visa waiver agreement with the EU remains paramount. Has the Minister seen the agreement which the industry has carefully drafted, and which does not break the commitment to take back control of our borders? If so, will he consider taking this agreement to the EU? I am sure that it would be receptive.

My Lords, in the negotiations last year we made proposals to try to fix the problems to which the noble Earl refers. They were rejected by the European Union. We were able to agree better arrangements in negotiations with the EEA—with Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland—which is an indication of what could have been possible. I have seen the proposal for a visa waiver agreement. I do not think it consistent with our requirement to retain discretion over our own immigration arrangements. We are actively working with all the member states to find solutions in how they operate their visas for touring performers to see if we can reduce the burdens that way.

My Lords, the Minister wears two hats. The first is that of chief negotiator, wherein he rightly calls for trust, pragmatism and compromise. This is the hat of a relationship builder and deal maker. The second hat is that of the Minister for Post-Brexit Affairs, wherein he writes editorials to the Mail on Sunday saying that drastic action may be needed in response to EU intransigence and telling the EU that it needs

“a new playbook for dealing with neighbours.”

Does he understand that there may not be room for both hats? In strongly criticising the EU to a UK audience for political reasons, Lord Frost 2 may be undermining the work of Lord Frost 1, who actually has to work and negotiate with the EU.

My Lords, I am afraid I do not see the same inconsistency with the two hats to which the noble Lord refers. My approach has been to tell it like it is and to make sure that what we say in these negotiations is what you get. We believe in saying the same in public as in private, so the European Union is not hearing different things in the negotiations from what it may read in the press. These issues are quintessentially matters of political debate. It is perfectly natural to engage in political debate within this country about them, and I do not apologise for it.

My Lords, the Minister negotiated an agreement with the European Union whereby, from Thursday next week, e-commerce businesses and customers for internal UK trade—which never encroaches on the EU market—will have to apply EU rules, pay EU rates and apply a new VAT system, without any representation at all. Why on earth did he negotiate this?

My Lords, we are aware of that issue and in discussion with the European Union about it. It is of course consistent with taking back control ourselves that the other party to the treaty also takes back control. That is what the treaty is designed to regulate. We believe that the benefits of having control over our own rules and the opportunities that offers us globally will be best in the long run for this country.

It was indeed five years ago today that we got the results of the referendum. For five years I have been at this Dispatch Box. I have done the talks, the Statements, the Bills and Questions to the Ministers: the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, the noble Baroness, Lady Anelay, the noble Lord, Lord Callanan, the noble Lord, Lord True, and now the noble Lord, Lord Frost. In taking my leave of this portfolio this week—and not before time—I am delighted that my noble friend Lady Chapman will hold the Minister’s feet to the fire in future. She is a welcome addition to our Benches. But before I depart, perhaps the Minister could explain to the House how the deal that he negotiated and advised the Prime Minister to sign has led to quite such a “bumpy ride”—his words—and whether he can persuade the Prime Minister to heed Monsieur Barnier’s advice to respect his signature on the withdrawal agreement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for our sadly brief but enjoyable co-operation. I look forward to standing here at the Dispatch Box and dealing with her successor. On her question, the difficulty is that we did something pretty exceptional as a country in the withdrawal agreement, which was to agree that goods could be controlled in a particular way as they moved within our own country. Self-evidently that can happen only if it is applied with a degree of delicacy, pragmatism and proportionality, which, unfortunately, we are not seeing. That is the core of the difficulty. If we can re-establish the balance, we shall be able to find a satisfactory way forward.

My Lords, I look forward to discussing the problem of musicians touring in Europe at a later date, but there is one specific problem that I will put to the Minister. Will there be some arrangement between the UK and the EU over emergency replacements? Let me give an example: suppose the Royal Opera House is putting on the “Ring” here and Wotan falls ill. As the noble Lord might know, only a handful of singers can sing Wotan in the world. This is analogous with sports as well. Will there be any way to deal with this in the coming months?

My Lords, I am very familiar with that particular issue. In fact, my last private trip aboard before the pandemic was to see “Das Rheingold” in Berlin. I look forward to such things resuming. I will take away the particular point he mentions. DCMS has established a working group with representatives from across the sectors looking at these particular problems in a high level of detail. I will make sure that that is drawn to the attention of those involved.

My Lords, the time allowed for this Question has elapsed. My apologies to noble Lords who were unable to ask their questions. We now come to the third Question to the Minister of State. I call the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock.