In this first contribution to the report stage of the EU Withdrawal Bill, Lord Bilimoria opens by noting the imperfections of the EU but also that it is the UK’s biggest trade partner. He notes the discussion around “going global” and notes the the length of time it took for the EU to negotiate an agreement with Canada, which is in itself inferior to EU membership. He notes the other 53 agreements and their importance and also the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting taking place. He states his desire to do more trade with the Commonwealth but notes trade with them is only 9% in comparison to the EU which is 50%. He states that for India the priority is a Free Trade Agreement with the EU not the UK. He concludes that in the referendum people did not vote to leave on any basis, the purpose of Parliament is to limit the damage and this amendment will do this as the best option is to remain in the Customs Union.

European Union (Withdrawal) Bill Report Stage

18 April 2018

Lord Bilimoria:

My Lords, the noble Lords, Lord Howarth and Lord Lamont, have given the other side of the argument to what the noble Lords, Lord Patten and Lord Kerr, have proposed. Of course, the European Union is not perfect; of course, with the customs union, there will be disadvantages and advantages, but the bottom line is this: whether free trade between the UK and the EU is 50% or whether it is declining and is now approaching 40%, it is still by far the biggest element of our trade. To have duty-free free movement within that customs union is a huge advantage—that is point number one, before you look at anything outside the European Union.

Then there is this whole talk about going global. What a lot of nonsense. We have always been a global trading nation; we have always been an open economy, an open market, and respected for it, which is why we are a recipient of among the highest levels of inward investment in the world. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Patten, about this taking time, the Canadian free trade deal, CETA, took eight years; it is also, to my knowledge, thousands of pages’ long. It is nowhere near as good as the free trade agreement that we have at the moment with the European Union. Our other 53 agreements representing almost 20% of our trade beyond the European Union are good but nowhere near as good as that with the European Union. We cannot just substitute them. The noble Lord, Lord Patten, gave as just one example the South Korean deal, where they say, “Don’t expect us just to roll over—65 million versus 500 million. No, it is a different deal altogether”.

CHOGM—the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting—is taking place here. I would love to do more business with the Commonwealth— 2.4 billion people; India has 1.25 billion people. What is our total trade with the Commonwealth at the moment? It is 9% of our trade—9% versus the 50% that we have with the European Union. Let us get real. We would love to do more with India—I am the founding chairman of the UK India Business Council. How many free trade deals does India have with any country in the world on a bilateral basis? It has nine, and not one with a western country. Here is the crux of it; I know this from the horse’s mouth—Prime Minister Narendra Modi is over here in the UK today. If you ask India what its priority is, an EU-India free trade agreement or a UK-India free trade agreement, you will be told that an EU-India agreement is much more important to India and it has been working on it for several years.

On the referendum and point about the manifesto, when people voted to leave, they did not vote to leave on any basis. They did not vote, saying, “Please leave the customs union”. The red lines of leaving the single market and leaving the customs union were put down by the Prime Minister, not by the people who voted to leave: they did not say on what basis to leave. Our job as Parliament, what we are trying to do here, is damage limitation. This amendment is about damage limitation, because the best thing by far is to remain within the customs union—for our economy, for our businesses, for our citizens and for our country.

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