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Brexit: Negotiations after 29 March 2019

Volume 796: debated on Wednesday 20 March 2019


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what meetings have been scheduled to take place after 29 March 2019 between Ministers and representatives of the European Union, and what matters are planned for discussion at such meetings.

My Lords, as set out in the political declaration, both the UK and the EU have committed to, and stand ready to begin, negotiations on the future relationship immediately after exit. Those discussions cannot begin until the withdrawal agreement has been signed and the UK is a third country. We will schedule talks as soon as possible once that signing has taken place.

I thank the Minister for her factually accurate reply. Is the agreed collective position of the Cabinet that only a short extension of the Article 50 period—to 30 June—is required, and not a longer extension? If the Prime Minister’s proposed deal is not agreed by the Commons in that time, is the Cabinet’s agreed collective position that we should leave without a deal on 30 June?

The Prime Minister made the Government’s position very clear when she responded to questions in the other place this morning. She made clear that a short extension is workable on the basis of wanting to get a meaningful vote and get her deal through. She pointed out the considerable difficulties that attach to a long extension. I think these difficulties are obvious to everyone. That is why she has written to Donald Tusk requesting an extension of the Article 50 period to 30 June. She wishes to secure that to provide time for the meaningful vote to take place as soon as possible, as she indicated in her letter.

On the other issue, of the extension period being granted but it not being possible to get the meaningful vote and the deal through before the expiry of that period, it would be a matter for the Cabinet and the House of Commons to determine if that unfortunate—and frankly unwelcome—situation arises.

My Lords, it has been 1,000 days since the referendum, there are nine days to go and we have now applied for an extension for another 93—you could not make it up. The length of the extension is perhaps less important than its purpose. Is it just time to batter the ERG into submission to agree her failed deal, or will it be used sensibly to engage with the Opposition to try to negotiate a different deal that is acceptable to the Commons and the country?

The noble Baroness is right: a lot has happened since the referendum in 2016. Nobody is more conscious of that than the public of this country. I do not know what the noble Baroness picks up, but I know what I pick up outside the Westminster environment. It is a marked degree of frustration and anger at the inability of politicians to deliver what has now been clearly expressed in two votes: the referendum and the general election, in which both major parties pledged to deliver the referendum result. It is a matter of great regret that Her Majesty’s Opposition have not been more constructive in securing delivery of that objective. The position is very clear: if the extension is granted—and the Prime Minister has made crystal clear why she seeks it—she will then want to hold the meaningful vote as soon as possible in the hope that the withdrawal agreement can be agreed. I think there is a yearning desire throughout the country to get this long, protracted and challenging matter brought to the phase where the next part of the proceedings can commence.

My Lords, while I wish the Prime Minister well, does my noble friend agree that, had the other place listened a little more carefully to the withdrawal Bill as it reached them from this House, we would not be in the position we are in today?

Wisdom is a great virtue, particularly with hindsight, but the challenges confronting the other place and the country at present were predictable from the time we commenced the process. Both Houses commenced that process, both Houses passed an Act of Parliament to trigger Article 50 and both Houses passed the European Union (Withdrawal) Act. The consequences of that were always clear and there is now a huge responsibility on politicians to resolve these issues and to endeavour to restore the public’s faith.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the latest YouGov poll today, which shows that around six in 10 people are now in favour of remain, so leave is no longer the will of the people? We need a people’s vote to confirm that. While enthusiasm on these Benches for the European elections is unbounded, does the noble Baroness accept that there are different legal views about the implications of a long extension? Therefore, will the Government be creative in exploring the other possibilities? I fear there has been some misrepresentation, particularly of the European Parliament’s legal opinion, so will the Government explore the opportunities of a longer extension?

To answer the first part of the noble Baroness’s question, about a second vote of some kind, I think the frustration of the public is such that voters would be entitled to say at this juncture, “Stop asking us what we think and get on with delivering what we said”. There is a public sentiment out there that politicians must start to attune with. On the latter part of her question, there will always be, I imagine, different legal interpretations, but our understanding is that a longer extension, beyond 30 June, would require this country to take part in the European Parliament elections. Given the result of the referendum three years ago, that would be a profoundly undesirable consequence.