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EU: Negotiations

Volume 802: debated on Tuesday 17 March 2020


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what contingencies they have put in place in the event of any delay to the negotiations with the European Union due to COVID-19.

My Lords, the Government are giving the highest priority to the welfare of all citizens—and, indeed, those of friendly nations—in the coronavirus crisis. Given the latest developments, we are of course in regular contact with the European Commission to explore alternative ways to continue discussions and we will be guided by scientific advice.

I am pleased about that last comment, because we need not just Brexit but the right Brexit. This week’s talks have been cancelled because of Covid-19, and the attention of not only our Government but all the EU Governments is on that crisis. I ask the Government to take account of that, and of the fact that businesses are concentrating more on their survival than on preparations that they will have to make for the end of the transition. Should it become advisable not to walk out of the talks in June if we have not made enough progress, will the Government not be hidebound by their repeated holding on to a particular date and, if necessary, allow the talks to continue? With this global crisis, surely it is important to get the right Brexit, not just a rapid one.

My Lords, both sides remain fully committed to these negotiations. Discussions are about not whether but how to continue them.

My Lords, in his reply to the debate on the EU Committee’s report yesterday, the Minister made an absolutist statement that “under no circumstances” would the Government “accept an extension”. This contrasted interestingly with an earlier response to my noble friend Lord Oates by the Minister’s colleague the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith of Richmond Park, at Question Time, who said:

“Were it the case that the … Government felt the need to do such a thing”—

amending the EU withdrawal Act—

“they would take the step that the noble Lord has outlined”,—[Official Report, 16/3/20; col. 1274.]

so that they have the power to extend. However, that is not the Government’s view today. The answer from the noble Lord, Lord Goldsmith, was much more flexible. Does the noble Lord, Lord True, accept that a flexible rather than absolutist, rejectionist policy towards extension would be regarded by the House and by the country as statesmanlike, rather than as some kind of cave-in?

My Lords, I do not accept the noble Baroness’s adjectives or colourful language. Parliament has enacted that we should complete this by the end of the year. That is this Government’s policy.

My Lords, is more uncertainty not the last thing that business needs at the moment? For the Government to sound an uncertain note on our determination to leave the European Union, as has been agreed, would be a great mistake. When the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, talks about the right Brexit, we all know that she thinks that the right Brexit is no Brexit at all.

My Lords, the Minister talked about the ongoing discussions and the coronavirus emergency in his Answer. Could he tell the House what discussions are going on about relationships with the European Medicines Agency? I hope that we will have new vaccines and new medicines, which need a speedy, combined and accepted recognition and licensing process. It would be a great shame, since we no longer have the European Medicines Agency here, if we were not in the closest co-operation with it over this very urgent matter.

My Lords, this is a global challenge; Her Majesty’s Government are in contact with Governments around the world on the best methods of dealing with coronavirus.

My Lords, Parliament did indeed accept the ambitious timetable of the Government but, since then, an amendment has been moved—namely, the crisis of coronavirus. Surely the Government should be sufficiently flexible to see that things have changed and to realise that perhaps the conference calls and so on will not deal with a situation where many of the potential negotiators are unable to leave their own countries because of lockdown.

My Lords, I hear what the noble Lord says and understand where he is coming from, but I must repeat that both sides remain fully committed to these negotiations and to continuing them. Of course we are looking at the possibility of videoconferencing and conference calls as he suggests. That is the resolve of both parties in this negotiation.

Can the noble Lord tell the House whether the emergency legislation that we will be considering, either at the end of this week or the beginning of next week, will contain power for the Government to amend the withdrawal Act?

My Lords, I doubt anyone would disagree that the absolute priority—a term we sometimes use loosely—of the Government at present must be to deal with the virus. However, in the way that different countries have reacted, is it not at least worthy of reflection—I put this in as neutral a way as I can—that when individual citizens of individual countries face a real crisis, they look not to supranational bodies to resolve it, although of course they want countries to co-operate with each other, but to their own Government? In many cases, that leads to them closing their own frontiers. Does that not give some pause for thought about the continuing expectation of the populations of individual nation states to look to their own Government in times of crisis?

The noble Lord makes a very interesting point. Of course, it does not in any way resile from the views of those countries about their membership of the European Union. It is not for us to comment on the policy of other countries, but he is certainly right that different approaches are being made by different countries. Each one will adopt policies, as we are, in the interests of securing the livelihoods and lives of its citizens.

My Lords, since I doubt that the Minister will agree with anything I say about the European Union, can I try to find some consensus with him? Will he agree with me that one of the very few positive things to come out of this awful coronavirus epidemic is the fact that a second Scottish independence referendum is off the agenda for the foreseeable future?