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Brexit: European Commission Discussions

Volume 792: debated on Monday 9 July 2018


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they expect the current discussions with the European Commission to include (1) a solution for trade across the Irish border; and (2) a commitment to the United Kingdom’s membership of the Single Market and Customs Union.

My Lords, the Government have been clear that in leaving the EU we will also be leaving both the single market and the customs union. The proposal that we laid out on Friday will create a UK-EU free trade area, thereby avoiding friction in terms of trade, protecting jobs and livelihoods and meeting our commitments in Northern Ireland through the overall future relationship between the UK and EU.

Thanks for the non-Answer, but I am sure that the Minister is relieved not to be at the meeting in Room 10 at this very moment. As the total Tory pantomime has now become just too complicated, why not consider the other option of simply staying in the most effective and impressive international club of sovereign member states working together for peace and prosperity in Europe?

Of course, I am delighted to be here with your Lordships instead of in Room 10, but the noble Lord obviously forgot that we had a referendum on the subject and the people have voted to leave.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that what he actually meant in his first response is that the Chequers agreement commits the Government, of which he remains a part—we are very glad to see that—to a soft Brexit? We now know that a soft Brexit involves a common EU-UK rulebook. His former Secretary of State and Minister of State have resigned, the former saying that this approach makes any reclamation of sovereignty purely superficial. He has a point. Can the Minister say why he does not agree with his former boss?

The former Secretary of State can speak for himself, but I am focused on helping to deliver the Brexit that the country voted for: one that leaves the single market, one that leaves the customs union, one that leaves the common agricultural policy and common fisheries policy and one that brings back control to this Parliament and this country.

Is my noble friend aware that throughout the Conservative Party, many, many people will be delighted that he is staying, supporting the Prime Minister in trying to achieve a sensible settlement?

I thought there was going to be a “but”, there, but obviously not. I thank my noble friend for his kind remarks. I was somewhat surprised to wake up this morning to find that the noble Lord, Lord Adonis, had apparently announced my resignation on Twitter overnight, which was perhaps wishful thinking on his part.

My Lords, can the Minister set out the difference between the existing system and the one now being advocated by the Government?

I am not sure what system the noble Lord is referring to, but if he waits until later in the week, we will be producing a White Paper, which I am sure will provide him all the details that he wishes to see.

My Lords, if I were an exporter to the EU, what difference would I notice between the Government’s plan for a free trade area and continued membership of a customs union?

We have been very clear that we are leaving the single market, we are leaving the customs union, and we want to set up a UK-EU free trade area based on the principles set out in the Chequers agreement.

My Lords, I compliment the Minister on keeping upstanding and reciting his lines repetitively, as that may be the best way in which to keep him standing. May I ask his advice on the Irish border? Will he accept that it is not simply physical security obstructions that cannot be implemented, but the things that lie behind those—the common standards, the regulatory equivalence, the phytosanitary standards in respect of food and agriculture movement, and all of that? That is what I think the Prime Minister was trying to get at when she came up with her proposal on Friday. Does the Minister accept that that is what has to be dealt with to keep an open Irish border? And what about services? I did not see much about that in the Cabinet agreement, and a lot of services cross the Irish border.

Of course, we share the noble Lord’s desire to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, and take on board many of the points that he makes. What is innovative about the Chequers proposal is that it delivers precisely that: it enables the UK to maintain our own tariff schedules, but also avoids the imposition of a hard border in Ireland between Northern Ireland and southern Ireland. We look forward to discussing those proposals with the Irish Government and the European Commission.

If this is the Brexit that the Government have always wanted to put forward, can the Minister explain to the House, particularly to those with limited understanding, why the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union thought that the proposals were so divergent from past policy that he found it necessary to resign?

The noble Lord will have to read the letter, which has been extensively publicised, on his reasons for resigning. We have always been clear on the policy we advocated. We have always accepted that, of course, there needs to be compromise on both sides if an agreement is to be reached. We think that we have made sensible and realistic proposals that provide a way forward, and we hope that the EU will now engage positively with them.

Will the Minister confirm that, although there will doubtless be many comings and goings between now and next year, the essential truths remain: in line with the decisions of this House and the other place to implement Article 50, and to pass the European Union (Withdrawal) Act, come 29 March next year, both in European and UK law, we will have left the European Union?

As in so many of our recent debates, the noble Lord, of course, speaks great sense on these matters, and what he says is correct.

Will the Minister tell us precisely where he differs from the analysis set out by the former Secretary of State in his resignation letter?

The former Secretary of State has set out his reasons, which noble Lords can read for themselves. I am happy that we will be continuing to leave the European Union on the terms that I set out earlier, and I look forward to playing my part in delivering the referendum result.

My Lords, what is the difference between a facilitated customs arrangement with a common rule book and a customs union? Where is the difference in policy?

The difference is that we are allowed to set our own tariff schedules under the facilitated customs arrangement.

Perhaps the Minister would like to rephrase his original answer to me, given the news that the Foreign Secretary has just resigned.

I am obviously sorry to hear that the Foreign Secretary has resigned, if what the noble Lord says is correct. He has been a towering figure in government. What I said earlier still remains the Government’s policy.

Does my noble friend agree that the proposals set out in the Chequers statements from Friday differ from a customs union in that there will be a requirement for goods to carry certificates of origin to establish where there is a divergence in terms of tariffs or any other standards over time? Have the Government estimated the costs to the business community of undertaking the necessary certification?

I suggest that the noble Lord waits until we publish our White Paper later in the week for more details of the proposal. I shall be happy to write to him and set it out in greater detail for him then.