Commons Urgent Question
The following Answer to an Urgent Question was given on Tuesday 19 May in the House of Commons.
“I am grateful for this opportunity to update the House on the progress of our negotiations with the European Union. I have today laid a Written Ministerial Statement before the House, which provides a comprehensive update on the third round of our negotiations with the EU on our future relationship. We have also today made public the UK’s draft legal texts. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for International Trade has also published the new tariff schedule that we will operate at the end of the transition period for those countries with which we do not have a free trade agreement.
Negotiators from the UK and the EU held full and constructive discussions last week via video- conference. The talks covered trading goods and services, fisheries, law enforcement and criminal justice, and other issues, with both sides discussing full legal texts. The discussion underlined that a standard comprehensive free trade agreement, alongside other key agreements on issues such as law enforcement, civil nuclear and aviation, all in line with the political declaration, could be agreed without major difficulties in the time available. There remain, however, some areas where we have significant difference of principle, notably on fisheries, governance arrangements and the so-called level playing field. The EU, essentially, wants us to obey the rules of its club, even though we are no longer members, and it wants the same access to our fishing grounds as it currently enjoys while restricting our access to its markets.
It remains difficult to reach a mutually beneficial agreement while the EU maintains such an ideological approach, but we believe that agreement is possible if flexibility is shown. The agreements that we seek are, of course, built on the precedents of the agreements that the EU has reached with other sovereign nations. To help facilitate discussions in the fourth round and beyond, the Government have today published the full draft legal text that we have already shared with the Commission and which, together with the EU’s draft agreement, have formed the basis of all discussions. The UK texts are fully in line with the Government’s document entitled The Future Relationship with the EU: The UK’s Approach to Negotiations, which was published on 27 February. Copies of the legal text have been placed in the House of Commons Library and are also available online at GOV.UK.
The Government remain committed to a deal with a free trade agreement at its core and we look forward to the fourth round of negotiations beginning on 1 June, but success depends on the EU recognising that the UK is a sovereign equal.”
The Answer was considered in a Virtual Proceeding via video call.
While I was grateful to hear the Answer from Mr Gove, it is a shame that we cannot question the actual negotiator, David Frost, who seems to be following something other than the political declaration signed by the Prime Minister in October, and whose unprecedented letter to Michel Barnier yesterday called the EU proposals “unbalanced” and “egregious”, claiming that the EU is treating the UK as unworthy to be a partner in trade talks. Can the Minister confirm that this letter was signed off by a Minister, that it represents the UK’s attitude and that it is the normal way of undertaking delicate talks?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is always critical of the role of Mr David Frost, the Prime Minister’s Sherpa. Mr Frost acts on behalf of the UK Government and, in my view, is doing an outstanding job. I think many noble Lords would agree that his letter was not unreasonable, but reasonable in setting out some of the areas of difference which we hope can be clarified. I believe that it is still very possible, as Mr Frost said, to agree a “modern and high-quality” free trade agreement and other agreements. He has suggested ways to find a rapid and constructive way forward.
How can the Government reproach the EU for being inflexible and ideological when they are insisting on many club membership benefits that they know are incompatible with the rather thin, minimalist relationship in which they reject the EU’s rules? Why, on the other hand, are they being so unambitious in areas such as foreign and defence policy, given that the UK surely has a great deal to contribute to a common European effort in an era of such uncertainty about the US and China? Why is there no proposed treaty on these matters, and why are the Government cavalier about a no-deal outcome at the end of the year? Are they refusing to contemplate an extension to the transition period because they think that the dire economic effect of no deal would be hidden by the effects of the corona- virus?
My Lords, I certainly reject the last part of the noble Baroness’s question. I noted that today the Liberal Democrats introduced in another place a Bill to extend the transition period for two years until January 2024—a Bill, by the way, that comes without a financial memorandum. I just wonder when the party opposite is going to clock the decision made by the British people. The British Government are negotiating in good faith with ambition, hope and a constructive state of mind to reach a free trade agreement with the EU. We are confident that that is possible.
My Lords, I am not chasing either my noble friend or the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, into descriptions of other people’s positions with epithets. Mr Barnier is an excellent negotiator, but my noble friend is right that the EU mandate is perhaps somewhat less viable than that of Monsieur le Duc de Talleyrand. It is a pity that those mandating the EU negotiations have not noticed that 23 June 2016, 12 December 2019 and 31 January 2020 have changed much in this country, and it does not serve in these circumstances to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing.
I doubt if the Statement or Mr Frost ‘s letter will greatly advance the negotiation. I am struck by its petulant and querulous tone and the view that we are entitled to pick and choose. The Statement ends by saying that progress is possible only if the EU recognises that we are now a sovereign equal. I have two quick questions on sovereignty for the Minister. First, does he regard France, Spain, Germany and the 27 sovereign states as equally entitled to determine their own interests? Secondly, when we called in the political declaration for an overarching institutional framework that could be an association agreement, we must have had a different view on sovereignty because we now say that such an agreement is appropriate not for a sovereign equal but only for applicants for EU membership. I am really puzzled about this sovereignty doctrine. Is Israel or South Africa applying to join the EU? Do we think Ukraine is not a sovereign equal?
My Lords, Question Time is not the moment for a debate on sovereignty. I must say I think the noble Lord probably used some much firmer language than Mr Frost in his diplomatic career occasionally. One of the issues is a sense that the EU wishes to exercise influence and authority within this country after the end of transition. The noble Lord quoted Latin the last time he spoke. I commend to him the wise advice of the Emperor Augustus, “consilium coercendi intra terminos imperii”—that is, a power should stay within its own fixed bounds. On issues such as the so-called level playing field, the jurisdiction of the ECJ and fisheries, we are asking the EU to recognise that the UK has chosen to be an independent state.
My Lords, in the last week my committee has had meetings with senior representatives of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the EU 27. An emerging theme has been the need to rebuild mutual trust, and a vital part of addressing that is interparliamentary work. When asked about the EU proposals on inter- parliamentary work, the Minister told the House on 12 May:
“the government are keenly supportive of such proposals”.—[Official Report, 12/5/20; col. 657.]
Michel Barnier talked on 15 May of a “lack of ambition” on the respective roles of the European Parliament and the British Parliament. I ask the Minister: which is correct?
My Lords, I do not think there is any distinction between the two. The Government wish to see good relations between this Parliament—both your Lordships’ House and the other place—and other parliaments around the world, including the European Parliament. But it remains the Government’s view that while we are of course supportive of dialogue between parliamentarians, it is for your Lordships and those in the other place to determine how they wish to engage; it is not for a Government to bind this and future Parliaments to a particular methodology by a treaty.
My Lords, the Sherpa’s letter states that the draft fisheries agreement put forward by the UK is very close to the EU-Norway agreement, yet surely the success of an EU-UK fisheries policy will be that our produce—particularly that coming from a long distance, such as shellfish from Scotland—will have access to the French, Belgian and Dutch markets. How does my noble friend the Minister think that will be achieved by what is set out in the letter?
My Lords, we have published a framework text to assist the negotiations on fisheries. It is based on precedent, but arrangements obviously will differ, as it is usual for those sorts of agreements to be tailored to the specific fisheries interests of the coastal states. That will be so in this case.
Lord Morris of Aberavon? He does not seem to be there so I will move on.
My Lords, I congratulate David Frost on reaching out to member states and remind him of the wise words of his late namesake, Sir David Frost, who said:
“Diplomacy is the art of letting someone else have your way.”
Will the Government encourage Mr Frost to stand up for British values for the benefit of this country, and not just to think about the economy?
I must raise the arbitrary dismissal of Eleanor Sharpston, the British advocate-general at the European Court of Justice. She was sent packing before her term ended, even though her post is not attached to UK membership. If you sack a member of the court, judicial independence is meaningless. This is not a court that we can remain subject to. I hope the Government will make representations on behalf of Eleanor Sharpston.
Virtual Proceeding adjourned at 7.13 pm.