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European Union (Definition of Treaties) (Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement) (Cuba) Order 2018

Volume 792: debated on Wednesday 18 July 2018

European Union (Definition of Treaties) (Association Agreement) (Central America) Order 2018

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the European Union (Definition of Treaties) (Political Dialogue and Cooperation Agreement) (Cuba) Order 2018, and the European Union (Definition of Treaties) (Association Agreement) (Central America) Order 2018

My Lords, very much in line with the previous orders, these agreements have been negotiated between the European Union and its member states, on the one hand, and third countries on the other. Each agreement provides an enhanced framework for regular political dialogue at ministerial, official and expert level.

The EU-Cuba Political Dialogue and Co-operation Agreement commits the EU and Cuba to co-operate on a range of issues. It promotes trade through enhanced exchanges of information and technical assistance to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade. The EU-Central America Association Agreement will enhance co-operation in areas of common interest, including counterterrorism, human rights and migration. It may be helpful for your Lordships to know that the EU-Central America Association Agreement reflects the central American nations of Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and El Salvador. I am very pleased that Her Excellency the Ambassador for El Salvador is on the public benches. We are very glad that she could join us.

That agreement also makes extensive provision for future trade relations, with an estimated net benefit to the UK of between £714 million and £1.1 billion over a 10-year period. An increase in exports by UK manufacturers is expected to account for 80% of this projected benefit, with the remaining 20% coming from increased agricultural exports and reduced tariffs on UK exports to central America.

As I stated previously, the agreements are an important tool for promoting British and European values and standards. Some have been under negotiation for a number of years, so successive UK Governments have all been involved in shaping the EU’s approach to negotiations. I remind your Lordships that the EU has numerous similar agreements with other third countries around the world, all of which have passed this House’s ratification process. Although this is an unusual time in our relations with the EU, as I said earlier, this is a case of business as usual in the UK’s and the EU’s interests.

The purpose of these orders is the same as I earlier described for the Australia, Canada and New Zealand orders. Approval of these orders is a necessary step towards the UK’s ratification of these agreements through designating them as EU treaties under Section 1(3) of the European Communities Act 1972.

Again, and helpfully, the third countries concerned have all chosen to pursue closer ties with the European Union and its member states. The Government welcome this; we believe that, by bringing countries closer to the orbit of European values and standards, these agreements are firmly in our national interest. The provisions of each of the agreements covered by these orders are not identical. They are the result of years of negotiation; they reflect the differing priorities that we share with each partner country and the varying depth and maturity of the relationship that the EU and its member states already enjoy with them. For example, EU third-country agreements with emerging democracies include a significant focus on supporting reforms and democratic institutions, whereas agreements with long-term partners focus to a greater extent on international co-operation to address broader global challenges.

On the implications of our departure from the European Union, I have already set that out in considerable detail this afternoon. With your Lordships’ forbearance, I do not propose to insult noble Lords’ intelligence by repeating verbatim what I have already said, but if anyone has any particular questions, they should not hesitate to raise them. As with the previous orders, I am advised that, for these orders, it is also unlikely that the agreements before us today will enter into force before the UK has left the EU. Again, I have already explained in relation to the earlier orders the consequences of our departure from the EU in March 2019. For these orders before us the implications are the same.

The reasons for agreeing these orders are exactly the same as I outlined earlier: they formalise hugely positive relationships that the EU is embarking upon with third countries across the world. Your Lordships are familiar with what the individual orders seek to do. It is important that we deliver on the Prime Minister’s commitment to continue to be a supportive EU member state until we leave the EU. It is very important that the UK is not seen to be obstructive, difficult or disruptive in relation to these matters. Also, as an EU member state the UK has been a key driver in all these agreements. I would repeat that, at a time when we are strengthening ties with countries around the world, it would be wholly counterproductive to be seen in any way to be hindering the aspirations of those countries to have closer relations with the European Union.

I have just been issued with a note of correction: these orders will not enter into force before we have left the EU. Sorry, I must have been so busy trying not to repeat great chunks of text that I misspoke. Misspeaking is clearly fairly fashionable these days, so I do apologise. These orders will not enter into force before we have left the EU.

To conclude, I will take this opportunity to discuss these two orders and answer questions from your Lordships.

My Lords, I sat in the other place last Wednesday and followed the same procedure that it adopted when considering the ratification of all the agreements before your Lordships’ House. As much as anything, I have some remarks for the record as well, since the opportunity presents itself. The Minister has kindly taken us through the Government’s thinking and I thank her for that, but perhaps I might explore this further.

What is the central American instrument expected to achieve in both purpose and benefit, given the slide towards an unsettled region? I recognise that central America is 50 million people strong and might be considered a key future partner for the UK. It should also be remembered that countries at peace with themselves form a part of the region at large. One could imagine Belize and Costa Rica being in that bracket, though I recognise that they may not form part of the exact agreement itself. Nevertheless, I place on record my disquiet as to the goings on in the region. El Salvador is having its challenges. Events in Nicaragua are troubling. There are ominous signals from Panama and Honduras. Venezuela is not before us, but, with all its well-documented instability, it is making active overtures to Cuba, which is.

Cuba is a Caribbean island extending into a peaceful region with which the UK has a more direct association. Anglophone neighbours have long expressed anxiety as to the effect that that country will have on the economies of the islands when it enters fully the mainstream economic affairs of the region. There is nothing wrong with that in principle, but it should start to be a concern when we factor in Venezuela’s ever-closer ties with Iran and so, potentially, with Cuba. This week’s Economist has surmised:

“Although it has … far less attention, Nicaragua is following”,

the lead,

“of Venezuela, in which an elected dictator clings to power through repression and at the cost of economic destruction”.

I trust that this ominous assessment proves to be wide of the mark and not the manner of things to come in the region. Those of us of a certain age will remember the Iran Contra hearings of 1987, addressing covert arms transactions with Iran. We should now add to that the current United States policy of expelling immigrants back to El Salvador, which has the possibility of giving the US nightmare scenarios on its border regions and of further flaming regional discontent.

While distress signals are on the horizon, nevertheless, not ratifying will have a negative effect on the countries in that region and on the UK. I therefore offer support, somewhat guardedly, to these instruments, but I respectfully request of the Government, as we move on from this being an EU instrument to a post-Brexit bilateral circumstance, that we make this ratification process work to the benefit of the region and of the UK—and, of course, the EU. At the very least, it fulfils my core belief in the principle of engagement.

It may be remembered that President Obama underlined in a now famous speech delivered in Cairo that if a policy has not worked for 50 years it is perhaps time to think again. Cuba, a part of the region to which I have referred, is testament to that. Let us hope that those aspirations come into being in central America and become a lesson for all of us in other geopolitical arenas. My negative remarks should not distract from the importance of this agreement.

My Lords, I again thank the Minister for her introduction and explanation. I think that this is the first ever EU-Cuba agreement. Before this, Cuba was the only country in the region not to have a legal basis for co-operating with the EU. It is very welcome that this is now happening. Obviously, some change has happened in Cuba. I hope that this agreement will help to promote more change and the reform process in Cuba. It is indeed welcome.

I am curious about the timeline. I believe that this was approved by the European Parliament a year ago. I wonder why it has taken a further year for it to reach the Westminster Parliament. I am sure that the political and human rights dialogue will be challenging because, although it is starting to change, there are still a lot of repressive measures in Cuba. I hope that there will be a monitoring mechanism to track progress and that there will be some reality and substance to the human rights clauses. Although this is not particularly my area of expertise, I know that MEPs used to deplore the rather window-dressing nature of human rights clauses in the EU’s international agreements. Everyone declared that they were all in favour of human rights, but there were not any real levers of influence and change in the country. So I hope that the Cuba one will make a reality of the political and human rights dialogue.

Of course, I welcome the fact that this agreement extends to trade and the reduction of non-tariff barriers to trade. So it represents a good step forward in having, for the first time, a legal framework for EU-Cuba co-operation. Compared to where we were 20 or even 10 years ago, it is good progress.

The central America association agreement is pretty substantial. It covers political dialogue, co-operation and trade. I was a little puzzled by the calculation of the benefits in point 10 of the Explanatory Memorandum on impact. It does not say over what period the total benefit to business is expected to be £1.1 billion. I did not understand the point about discounting the benefits from the first 10 years of provisional application, such that taking into account the different stages of liberalisation results in a total benefit to business of £1.1 billion. Perhaps the Minister could clarify over what period that is expected to be. It is a not insignificant amount, and apparently the UK is expected to have about 14% of the benefits of this agreement.

Will the Minister explain why this has taken so long? The agreement was signed six years ago and I believe that it has been provisionally applied. The European Commission has been implementing the trade pillar since 2013. But I wonder why it has taken so long. So far 23 EU member states have ratified. Why has the UK been arguably a little slow off the mark in ratifying this?

Lastly, I, too, will ask about human rights issues. There have been great worries about human rights in some of the countries concerned, including El Salvador and Nicaragua, not least over women’s rights. Women in Nicaragua and El Salvador have been criminalised for having an abortion. It is very discouraging on those grounds. Is that an area where the human rights and democracy dialogue would have some effect and give some hope to the people—at least the women—of those countries?

I said “lastly” but it was second-lastly, because I, too, want to talk about migration issues. Would we expect to give some support and encouragement to those countries, as against the disgraceful treatment by President Trump’s Administration: the detention and criminalising of anyone who is an irregular migrant to the United States? To be an irregular migrant is not in itself to be an illegal person, let alone a criminal. We look with dismay at what has happened there, including the separation of parents from children, which, as many Americans have said, is completely un-American. Would we expect those aspects to be covered? Could our knowledge from our central American partners of what is happening in migration enlighten and educate the contribution that the EU, including the UK, might make in international fora such as the UN to try to improve the situation between the US and central America?

I have in mind the date of 2015 for the central American agreement, so I concur with the noble Baroness that it would be more helpful if the agreements came before us on a speedier basis. I want to say something to government at large on upcoming bilateral agreements. I know that the Security Minister will address certain issues in the coming months and years. He mentioned a period of 90 days for bilateral agreements to go through before coming to Parliament for ratification. We would all welcome that.

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, for his intervention. I had 2012 in mind for when the agreement was first signed. I start by saying that we very much welcome any arrangements that allow for the further integration of Latin American countries into the global economy and that encourage improvements in human rights, democracy, good governance and regional and political relations. All those aspects are very welcome.

As the noble Viscount said, since 2012 some countries have not moved in a particularly positive direction, which is extremely worrying. The noble Viscount mentioned Nicaragua, where we have seen further unrest and the deaths of around 300 people. It is important that the international community takes the initiative. The Opposition welcome the fact that the United Nations is now on the ground and able to make a full and proper assessment of the problems there. We do not support calls from some parts of the US Administration that seek a non-democratic change of government. I know that the Minister has responded to all the questions on this subject, but I hope that she can assure the House that we will remain committed to United Nations action in this regard rather than any unilateral action that may be considered by the US Administration.

I share the comments made by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, in relation to issues such as the increase in gender violence in some countries, which I hope the Minister will respond to. I also reiterate the concerns of the noble Baroness about the human rights of central American migrants. In particular, the agreement contains a commitment to ensuring effective employment protection and promotion of human rights for all migrants. How does that compare with the US Administration’s record on the human rights of central American migrants?

I also want to pick up the point about Cuba. Progress is being made on integrating Cuba into the global economy and its positive impact. Of course, we remain concerned about its human rights record—particularly, from my personal viewpoint, its attitude to LGBT rights. I do, however, accept that engagement has resulted, and will result, in progress. Again, this agreement was signed some time ago, and we now have a new US Administration who have decided to reinstate restrictions on Americans travelling to and having business dealings with Cuba—another possible policy rift between the EU and the US Administration.

I ask the Minister: what is our response to these potential rifts over the policy that we have worked with and supported within the EU? How will they impact our foreign and security policy post Brexit, particularly with regard to the US Administration? This relates to my original question about the Government’s assessment of future foreign and security policy. It is not so much about how it affects our attitude to bilateral relationships—we can certainly have those, and I welcome the commitments that the noble Baroness has made on ensuring that we maintain our strong relationships with old allies—but about the consequence of our not influencing EU policy, and the impact of a possible divergence of policy in the future. That is the sort of assessment we would like to hear about.

I respect the Minister’s ability to respond to questions, but doubt her ability or willingness to answer that specific question. It is, however, a matter which all opposition parties, certainly in this House, will be pressing the Government to address over the coming months. It is vital for our security. We are close neighbours of the European countries and—as the Government have repeatedly said—whether in or out of the EU we need to make sure that we have the strongest possible relationship with them.

I had a couple of other points, but I think that the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, have addressed them, so I look forward to the Minister’s response.

My Lords, I once again thank the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, the noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, for their contributions. A number of important points arose and I will deal with them as best I can.

The noble Viscount, Lord Waverley, raised the legitimate question of what the EU-Central America association agreement does. It is a perfectly proper question. The agreement is intended to strengthen relations between the EU and its member states and central America, by promoting political dialogue and co-operation in areas of common interest, including climate change and the environment, counter-narcotics, counterterrorism, human rights and migration. It also makes extensive provision for future trade relations. The noble Viscount did the discussion a service, because his question made it clear that beneath these agreements —and which may at first look less than visible—there are some very strong subliminal factors that can only make a contribution.

That leads me to the next important point raised by the noble Viscount: regional issues. Where is all this in relation to central America? I would suggest that these orders are a positive contribution. He will understand that respect for democratic principles and fundamental human rights is an essential element of the agreement. A significant number of central American countries are now prepared to sign up to that, which is extremely positive and encouraging, and I am sure that others will look and want to follow by example.

Of course, these agreements contain clauses giving prominence to upholding human rights. This issue was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins. They also introduce measures to tackle poverty and inequality, strengthen civil society and consolidate democracy. We believe that the political dialogue established by the agreement will be an effective forum for the promotion of human rights in the region.

The noble Viscount specifically raised Nicaragua. I remember recently in the Chamber dealing with an Oral Question on that country. We are deeply concerned by human rights abuses and excessive use of force by security forces and pro-Government armed gangs in Nicaragua. We condemn violence against peaceful protesters; it is inexcusable. We condemn media restrictions, and the use of live ammunition is unacceptable. We are shocked by the number of deaths, and think that it is in the region of 300, which is truly shocking, including those of a journalist and minors. There have been many injuries and reports of torture and intimidation. We strongly condemn that in the most unambiguous terms, and we have made that clear.

On Cuba, the noble Viscount, the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, all raised the issue of freedom of expression and assembly, and the use of arbitrary detention. These are issues of serious concern. The agreement establishes an annual human rights dialogue to monitor the human rights situation. I think that it was the noble Baroness who raised the issue of monitoring. I think that it would be a forum and a means of assessing what is going on and making sure that things are kept on the radar, which is extremely important. It will also provide a further opportunity to support the improvement of human rights in Cuba.

The issue also arose of the issue of the US embargo on Cuba, and the United Kingdom’s position in relation to that. We have been clear that we disagree with the US embargo on Cuba. We, along with the rest of the EU, vote against the embargo each year at the United Nations General Assembly. We believe that dialogue with Cuba is more effective and in the best interests of the UK and the Cuban people. There is UK legislation in the form of the Protection of Trading Interests Act 1980, and EU legislation in the form of blocking regulations to prevent the extraterritorial application of US sanctions on Cuba.

The noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, raised the issue of the projected net benefit to the UK. The figures that I mentioned were between £714 million and £1.1 billion over a 10-year period. That began in 2013, so the benefits will be fully realised by 2023. I hope that that clarifies that point for her. She specifically raised the issue of the delay in ratifying the order. Fourteen other member states have ratified the Cuba agreement, and we are in the middle of the pack. By grouping these agreements, we have tried to make the most effective use of parliamentary time that we can, which has meant that there was some delay on the Cuba agreement. I hope that that explains how that has arisen.

The noble Baroness and the noble Lord, Lord Collins, raised some important issues about human rights in central America. I said earlier that respect for democratic principles and fundamental human rights is an essential element of the agreement. That is crystal clear, if you look at the text. It makes an important contribution to improving the human rights situation in the countries covered by the agreement.

I was also aware of the important question posed by the noble Lord, Lord Collins. It is a very fair question: what is the shape of British foreign policy post Brexit? How will we be guided in our formulation of that policy? The noble Lord is perhaps optimistic in anticipating that I might be able to give him a detailed answer, but I can say that the general shape of United Kingdom foreign policy will be determined by our acknowledged respect for an international rules-based system. That desire is evidenced by the existing help which, particularly through DfID, we provide to many countries throughout the world in our desire to help communities that are disadvantaged and coping with challenges. We are very clear that we wish to continue to be a global presence and we are very clear about the kind of societies that we want to nurture and encourage. In many ways, the agreements we are discussing this afternoon mirror the kind of things we want to see happen. I am absolutely confident that we will seek to replicate that as we leave the EU and try to ensure that the valuable work and benefits that follow from that work will continue.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, and, I think, the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, also raised the issue of gender-based violence. We raise our concerns regularly with the Governments of central America about promoting gender equality and the rights of women. It forms a core part of the work of our embassies in that region. We are very conscious of the challenges of these issues in that area. Again I will say, as an addendum to my earlier observation about the shape of foreign policy for the future, that the United Kingdom has a very good record in helping countries where sexual violence has been an issue. We do what we can to provide meaningful help in the form of education, better protection for women and support for those who have been the victims of appalling criminal activity.

I was asked about representations to the United States and migration policy for central American countries. We in the UK believe that we have a humane immigration system. We are very clear that anyone who requires our protection will be granted it. We encourage other Governments to ensure that their system, too, is humane. I have to say that the pictures we have seen of children separated from their parents at the border were deeply disturbing and heart-wrenching. That activity is wrong and we therefore welcome the reversal of the policy.

I have tried to deal with the points that were raised and I thank those who contributed. As I outlined in my opening speech, these agreements will support our values and objectives long after we have left the European Union. By ratifying them we are demonstrating our good will as a loyal and supportive partner of the European Union and to each of these countries seeking to expand their relationship with the EU. These agreements to not detract in any way from our own prospects outside the European Union. We are enhancing our co-operation with partners across Latin America as we leave the EU, in line with our ambitious global Britain vision. I beg to move.

Motion agreed.