Angela Smith's speech in the House of Lords, 24th October
These EU Council meetings are undoubtedly trickier and more awkward for this Prime Minister than for her predecessors.
For all the hope and talk of ‘being in until we’re out’, there is a worrying picture emerging of the UK already starting to be side-lined. I suppose it’s inevitable and understandable but it is nevertheless significant and of concern.
I think this is the first time that a British Prime Minister hasn’t had important bi-lateral meetings with the key EU leaders, such as France and Germany. The three bi-laterals she had, with Estonia, Romania and Greece, were cordial and discussed important issues, but they weren’t issues central to the UK exit from the EU and our future.
And when our Prime Minister spoke to the other 27 Leaders about Brexit, if accounts of the meeting are accurate, she just had 5 minutes to do so.
But my Lords, that may have been long enough for the key messages she wanted to give. Because here we are, 4 months after the referendum result, and we are no nearer to understanding the Government’s negotiating position. And what is of more concern – there’s no confidence, either at home or in the EU, that the Government is any nearer to clarifying its position.
So our Prime Minister wanders into these high level EU Council meetings at a disadvantage before they even start. And whilst that is understandable for her first or even second meeting, it cannot continue.
I read the transcript of her statement and press conference. There are only so many times, that we can fall back on abstract and general terms about ‘finding the balance’, ‘maintaining a good relationship’, or ‘paying a full role in the EU whilst we remain’, before we have to start the serious work of negotiations – and before we do that the UK has to have a position.
We can sense the frustration from the EU in some of the comments made from other Leaders who are as keen as we are to understand the position of the UK Government.
Before I turn to the specific conclusions I want to add something about the process in our Parliament. I read reports at the weekend, that a Cabinet Minister, has responded to concerns raised about Brexit by members of YLH, that the Government could do a ‘Lloyd George’ and create another 1000 Peers.
Here we go again.
Let us be clear. There are few in this House who don’t have genuine concerns about the future of the UK outside of the EU and the Government’s apparently confused and unsettled approach to negotiating our exit. And we take our responsibilities seriously in assisting the Government to make the best possible arrangements for the UK.
We will use the expertise and knowledge in this House to fully understand the implications of Brexit, to advise the Government and to do whatever we can to ensure that these issues are effectively addressed, both through our highly regarded EU Committees and on the floor of Your Lordships House.
We will scrutinise. We will examine. But my Lords – we will not block. But neither will we be bullied into abdicating our responsibilities.
We have to be adult about this. We can’t have the most enthusiastic Brexiters crying foul every time Parliament asks for more details or seeks to scrutinise.
This can’t be the only issue on which the Government is allowed a blank cheque without any accountability. It’s complex, it’s difficult. And the Government should see this House as an asset and not try to avoid helpful scrutiny.
And I have to say my Lords, the Government’s mantra of ‘no running commentary’ is becoming embarrassing and sounds like code for ‘we haven’t a clue’. Can I suggest that the Government abandons this and sees Parliament as a resource for getting this right.
On migration my Lords – it didn’t seem to me that there was anything new coming out of this Council meeting. On the first page, it states that ‘the European Council took stock of the latest developments….. Highlighting the importance of implementation’. It just reads as an update on actions going back, as indicated on page 2, ‘many years’, and a call for more action of previously agreed policies.
Given the scale of the crisis, can the Noble Lady highlight anything new, or any real progress that was made on this issue?
With the final paragraphs of the Report on External Relations and the atrocities on civilians in Aleppo, the language is strong. But a statement that ‘The EU is considering all available options, should the atrocities continue’ really doesn’t appear to have worried President Putin very much, as his military flotilla sailed through the English Channel.
Can the Noble Lady say anything more about the Prime Minister’s role in these discussions, and what action she urged on the EU?
On Trade, obviously there were discussions regarding the stalled EU-Canada Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement. The Prime Minister has repeated in her statement today that she isn’t looking at any existing model for future UK trade agreements but that the UK will create something new and specific to the UK.
Although we have been unable to have anything other than very informal discussions with other countries regarding future trade agreements, clearly the EU negotiations with Canada, Japan and other trade partners including South America will impact on the UK, and on our future discussions. Just saying, as the Prime Minister does in her statement, that it won’t have any impact, does not make that the case.
Can I ask what role the UK is playing in these negotiations and what serious assessment is being undertaken of the future impact on any UK negotiations with these countries and the EU?
And finally my Lords, although the Prime Minister didn’t have a formal bi-lateral with the Spanish Prime Minister, was there an opportunity for an informal conversation, either at ministerial or official level on Gibraltar?
I know the Noble Lady will understand the concerns of the Government and people of Gibraltar. Is she able today to provide reassurance that they will never be used as any kind of bargaining chip in pursuit of a wider settlement?
Baroness Angela Smith of Basildon is Shadow Leader of the House of Lords. She tweets @LadyBasildon
Published 24th October 2016