In his third contribution on the sixth day of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill Report Stage, Lord Bilimoria discusses the Irish border situation. He argues that a friction-less border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland will not be achieved through only a customs union. It would also need the equivalence of a single market and the free movement of people, capital, goods and services. He goes on to say that talks about the Norway option or the EEA, serves as a proposed alternative. He states that if things come to it and we have to leave the European Union, it should be considered the least worst option. This would help achieve a the softer Brexit that Labour wants.
There was a short intervention by Lord Green and Lord Bilimoria responded by saying that the talk of going global and agreeing free trade deals with other countries will be hard. For example, agreeing on a free trade deal with the USA, or with India without talking about the movement of people would be difficult. The CETA with Canada took over seven years to bring about and does not include services.
Lord Bilimoria also highlighted that a 2004 EU regulation allows all EU countries to repatriate EU nationals after three months if they show that they do not have the means to support themselves. Others countries, such as Belgium, repatriate thousands of people a year. The UK has never used this regulation, yet we say that we have no control over our borders. Why is it so?
He concluded by saying that Europe is full of faults but it is the best option we have, and the role of this House is to challenge and to bring this up as the least bad option.
European Union (Withdrawal) Bill
08 May 2018
My Lords, I have put my name to these amendments, and I will start by putting this in context. When you make a change in business, you do so if there is a burning platform—if you have to make the change—or to make a change for the better, to improve things. Now we keep hearing about equivalence, and about whether we will be able to get terms as good as those we have now when we leave. To follow on from what the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, said, we have heard comments from other members of the Conservative Party, and not just Boris Johnson. Jacob Rees-Mogg has accused the Business Secretary, Greg Clark, of,
“promoting ‘Project Fear’ by saying that thousands of jobs were at risk if Britain did not minimise friction in trade”.
That is the Business Secretary saying that, and it is called Project Fear. Boris Johnson has said that the proposals for a customs partnership after Brexit are “crazy” and that it will not work.
On the Irish border situation, we had the customs vote and the Irish border vote here, which were both won overwhelmingly. That is all about a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. All the discussions and the Government’s plans for a frictionless border are as frictionless as sandpaper is smooth. There is no plan whatever. It is not just about the customs union being the solution to the Irish border situation; the equivalence of a single market is also required to sort out the Irish border—the free movement of people, capital, goods and services.
We have already voted overwhelmingly on the customs union, and now we are talking about this Norway option: the EEA. It is not the best option; we are proposing it as an alternative. If things come to it and we have to leave the European Union, it should be considered the least worst option. It is not about thwarting the will of the people, as the Prime Minister keeps saying, or about how EEA membership would leave the UK a vassal state, as has been said. The complication, which has been addressed, is Labour’s stance on this. Labour said clearly that it wants a softer Brexit and that it wants to remain in the customs union but to stay as close to the single market as possible. Let us go no further than Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit Secretary, and his six tests. First, he asked:
“Does it deliver the ‘exact same benefits’ as the UK currently has as a member of the single market and customs union?”
Am I misreading something? He said “single market and customs union”. The second of his six tests is:
“Does it ensure the fair management of migration ‘in the interests of the economy and communities’?”
The EEA is the best option by far, apart from remaining in the European Union. It incorporates the four freedoms but also gives us freedom: we do not have to be in the customs union; we can we can take the common agricultural policy and fisheries policy out of it; it does not involve the ECJ as it is regulated differently; and there is some flexibility on movement of people.
Lord Green of Deddington :
Is the noble Lord aware that this was looked at in some detail during the referendum campaign, and the Norwegian experience was that they had to show severe difficulties in their labour market, it had to be reviewed every three months, and they never used it because they feared retaliation? It is not as simple as that; there is a major issue with the EEA, which is freedom of movement, and outside this House it matters.
We all know the noble Lord’s views on migration and immigration, so I will not even bother to go into that.
I go back to some senior Labour figures and supporters, including former shadow Business Secretary Chuka Umunna, who lashed out at his leadership, the TUC, Chris Leslie, the former shadow Chancellor, and Wes Streeting. Even John McDonnell says:
“Respect the referendum result but get the best deal you can to protect our economy and protect our jobs”.
Again, he explained that that meant being in a customs union and remaining,
“close to the single market”.
Why can the Labour Party not get behind this totally? I find it astonishing.
As the noble Lord, Lord Mandelson, said, 80% of our economy is services—the EEA would address the services issue. Financial services account for 12% of Britain’s economy—we would have unfettered access, so all this passporting would be allowed—and 50% of our trade is with the European Union. There is all this talk of going global and agreeing free trade deals with other countries. I have said this before: try agreeing a free trade deal with the USA, or with India without talking about the movement of people. It is all about the movement of people and about tariffs and goods. The CETA with Canada took over seven years to bring about and does not include services. The European Union has said that it is not as easy to get the best free trade deal in the world as Liam Fox has claimed it is. What would Canada say about it? Moving on to equivalence, WTO rules are the worst possible option. I do not think the country would accept crashing out under WTO rules. The no deal option would not be acceptable to Parliament or to the people.
Perhaps the Minister can answer the nub of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Green. We have no control over our borders, yet a 2004 EU regulation allows all EU countries to repatriate EU nationals after three months if they show that they do not have the means to support themselves. Others countries, such as Belgium, repatriate thousands of people a year. We have never used this regulation, yet we say that we have no control over our borders. Why have we not used it? Why has no one spoken about this in the past?
In conclusion, the best option by far would be to remain. To quote the Financial Times:
“The EEA is not an ideal port for a ship seeking shelter from the worst of the upcoming Brexit storm, but … it may be the only port available … docking in this port is perhaps better for the UK than sailing straight into the storm just because it is exciting, insisting on a perfect port and nothing less, or maintaining that there is no impending storm at all”.
Today is VE Day and we are celebrating peace. There has been peace in the European Union for 70 years. I thank the European Union for that. It is not just down to NATO; the European Union has been responsible for that peace. A Spanish MEP, Esteban González Pons, recently made a very powerful speech in the European Parliament. He said that Europe’s past is war; its future is Brexit. He went on: “Brexit teaches us also that Europe is reversible, that one can go backwards in history … Brexit is the most selfish decision taken since Winston Churchill saved Europe with the blood, sweat and tears of the English. Brexit is the utter lack of solidarity when saying goodbye … Europe is peace after the disasters of war. Europe is forgiveness between the French and Germans … Europe is the fall of the Berlin Wall. Europe is the end of communism … Democracy is Europe. Our fundamental rights. Can we live without all of this? Can we give up all of this?” He went on: “I hope at the next Rome summit we talk less about what Europe owes us and we talk more about what we owe Europe after everything Europe has given us. The European Union is the only spring our continent has lived in its entire history”.
Europe is full of faults but I think it is the best option we have, and the role of this House is to challenge and to bring this up as the least bad option. I recommend the amendment to the House.