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UK-EU Relationship

Volume 834: debated on Tuesday 5 December 2023


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs what discussions he has had with the European Union about the future development of the UK-EU relationship.

My Lords, last week I met with Vice-President Šefčovič. We discussed issues including the Windsor Framework, and support for Ukraine and the Middle East. An important part of my role is to make the UK-EU relationship work to deliver on UK interests, including on migration, energy security and trade. The trade and co-operation agreement remains the basis of our relationship with the EU and we are committed to maximising its opportunities.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord very much, particularly because I know he is committed very strongly to the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. He is also the only member of the Cabinet who has not had anything to do with either the protocol or the Windsor Framework, so he comes with clean hands. I hope that he understands the difficulties that the Windsor Framework is causing to people in Northern Ireland, with businesses not sending goods to Northern Ireland any more and the break-up of the internal UK market. Can he give a commitment to the people of Northern Ireland that, when he next meets with the European Union, he will actually talk about alternatives that could be brought forward, with modern technology, trust and common sense, that could do away with the Irish Sea border and not divide our country?

I thank the noble Baroness for her question. It is very nice to be reunited with her. My first job in politics was as the candidate’s researcher at the Vauxhall by-election, where she got elected and my office was picketed every day by local residents. At least we have ended up in the same place.

As the noble Baroness said, I had nothing to do with negotiating the Windsor Framework, so I can say with real feeling that I think it was a superb negotiation. The EU said it would never reopen the withdrawal agreement and it did; it said it would never give an emergency brake, yet it did when it came to Stormont; and it never really makes exceptions for single market access for non-single market countries, yet it has. I absolutely understand her concerns and worries about it, but I think it was a good negotiation. I think it can fulfil the seven tests that the Democratic Unionists have put forward. I know that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is working extremely hard to try to put the institutions back together again.

My Lords, the Foreign Secretary mentioned that one of the areas of common interest was migration. Given the signing of the treaty with Rwanda today, can he tell the House what discussions he had with the EU and its member states on that? Can he also tell the House whether Parliament will have the choice to debate and agree that new treaty?

One of the things that has changed the most in my seven-year absence from all this is that the debate in EU countries about migration has completely changed. Many more of them are extremely worried about the scale of illegal migration and the need to do some quite creative thinking about how to deal with this problem. I did speak about this with Commissioner Šefčovič. I fully support what the Government are doing because we have to stop these illegal boat crossings. There is nothing more destructive to a country’s immigration system than to have a continued and very visible amount of illegal migration. The approach that is being taken is to break the criminal gangs and their ability to say to people, “We will get you to the shore of the UK, and from then on you are safe”. We have to stop that, and that is what the Rwanda plan is all about. I am sure it can be debated to a great extent in this House, and I am sure that my colleagues would be very happy to take part.

My Lords, the trade and co-operation agreement contained a structure of 24 committees to assist the process and trade. Following the Windsor Framework agreement, the European Affairs Committee of this House produced a report about the future of the relationship between the UK and the EU. I hope that the Foreign Secretary will have a chance to read that report. One of its key themes was getting these 24 committees really humming, meeting—and their structures meeting—and transacting so that there could be mutual benefit to both sides in improving the trading relationship. Can the Foreign Secretary give us a sense of whether that is now happening, and of his determination to keep it going?

I thank the noble Earl for his question. These structured dialogues seem to work. Only yesterday, the one on citizenship met—I think for the 14th time—and made some important progress. I think there is a role for them, but also for using all the connections, structures and other meetings we have to try to push forward British interests. For instance, in my meeting with Commissioner Šefčovič, there is the whole issue of having an energy partnership. I think that is an excellent idea, but we have to get to grips quickly with electricity trading. It makes sense: we have these interconnectors, so let us trade the electricity and try to have lower prices here and lower prices there. That is an obvious example of win-win co-operation, but we should have a more structured dialogue at the same time, of course, and I will certainly read the report to which the noble Earl refers, which I have not yet seen.

My Lords, I am delighted that my noble friend decided to come to this place—a decision that is probably much wiser than the one he made when he sent me here. May I ask him about relations with Greece? I declare my interest in the register as a member of the Parthenon Project, whose objective is to create a privately funded foundation to encourage exchanges of teachers, professors and students between our two countries, and also to share our priceless cultural objects and artefacts, which include the Elgin marbles—yes, it is not just the loony left. In our really crappy world, is it not right that we should reach out and use as much soft power as we can to reforge and strengthen our relations with our old friends?

I thank my noble friend for his question. I well remember sending him here, because a week later we lost a vote by one, and he was the responsible noble Lord. I remember having some words with him after that—although, clearly, it had absolutely no effect. I do not agree with what he says about the Elgin marbles. The Government have a very clear position on that, which has been set out. I met the Greek Foreign Minister while I was at the NATO conference, and we had a great discussion about all the other aspects of our relationship, where we are strong friends, allies and partners.

My Lords, when the Foreign Secretary spoke of the issues he was talking to the EU about, I think he left off one very important one—perhaps the most significant. That is the issue of international security. I take him back to those halcyon days of May 2016—he will recall them well—during the height of the EU referendum campaign. He was clear then that

“much closer security cooperation between our European nations”

is “essential”. Given his previous commitment, I was surprised that he did not mention it in the list of things at which he was looking at the moment. What will he do to renew and strengthen that security relationship between the EU and the UK? Is he willing to consider negotiating an EU-UK security pact that will complement our commitment to NATO?

Well, I had a feeling that some of my past words might be served up for me and I am sure that, as another former Prime Minister said, they will make a very fulfilling and satisfying diet as I eat them.

Yes, we did talk about security issues—specifically, we talked about security in the western Balkans—when I met Commissioner Šefčovič. Ukraine is perhaps one of the greatest elements of proof that the UK can make this relationship with the EU—of friend, neighbour and partner, rather than member—work. We co-ordinate with it very closely on how we support Ukraine, how we sanction Russians and all the rest of it. Of course, that is part of the relationship. Frankly, the other thing that has changed is that NATO has had an enormous boost from Putin’s actions. It is now bigger and stronger, with new members joining, and that is the ultimate guarantee of our security.

My Lords, I am certain that the Foreign Secretary has some sympathy and understanding that the agreement has been a fairly harsh blow to the British Overseas Territories. I apologise that I missed his maiden speech in this House because I was in the Falkland Islands, where people told me that for their fishing industry, the largest part of the economy of the Falkland Islands, they are now spending more than £15 million a year to be Spanish-flagged vessels as a result of the lack of access to the EU market, which is their largest. I understand that the Foreign Secretary will be visiting the Falkland Islands, so will he take to them the good news that he will now negotiate an agreement that means that British fishermen on British vessels fishing in British waters will not have to do so under a Spanish flag?

I thank the noble Lord for his question. I can tell him that Minister Rutley from my department was in the Falklands just a couple of days ago. I will certainly take the noble Lord’s point away. I am very committed to working with all our overseas territories. We had them all in the Foreign Office just a couple of weeks ago to discuss a whole range of issues, and I am happy to add that to the list.