by Dick Barry
29 March 2017
The Prime Minister (Mrs Theresa May) Today, the Government act on the democratic will of the British people, and they act, too, on the clear and convincing position of this House. A few minutes ago in Brussels, the United Kingdom’s permanent representative to the EU handed a letter to the President of the European Council on my behalf confirming the Government’s decision to invoke article 50 of the treaty on European Union. The article 50 process is now under way and, in accordance with the wishes of the British people, the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union. This is an historic moment from which there can be no turning back. Britain is leaving the European Union. We will make our own decisions and our own laws, take control of the things that matter most to us, and take the opportunity to build a stronger, fairer Britain— a country that our children and grandchildren are proud to call home. That is our ambition and our opportunity, and it is what this Government are determined to do.
At moments such as these—great turning points in our national story—the choices that we make define the character of our nation. We can choose to say that the task ahead is too great. We can choose to turn our face to the past and believe that it cannot be done. Or we can look forward with optimism and hope, and believe in the enduring power of the British spirit. I choose to believe in Britain and that our best days lie ahead. I do so because I am confident that we have the vision and the plan to use this moment to build a better Britain.
Leaving the European Union presents us with a unique opportunity. It is this generation’s chance to shape a brighter future for our country—a chance to step back and ask ourselves what kind of country we want to be. My answer is clear: I want the United Kingdom to emerge from this period of change stronger, fairer, more united and more outward-looking than ever before. I want us to be a secure, prosperous, tolerant country, a magnet for international talent and a home to the pioneers and innovators who will shape the world ahead. I want us to be a truly global Britain: the best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe, too—[Interruption.]
Mr Speaker Order. I apologise for having to interrupt the Prime Minister. Mr Boswell, calm yourself. You must try to learn to behave in a statesmanlike fashion. That is your long-term goal—it may be very long-term, but it should be a goal. I say this to the House: you can study the record; I will want all colleagues to have the chance to question the Prime Minister. This is a very important statement, but it is reasonable to expect that she gets a courteous hearing, and that every other colleague then gets a courteous hearing.
The Prime Minister I want us to be a truly global Britain: the best friend and neighbour to our European partners, but a country that reaches beyond the borders of Europe, too—a country that goes out into the world to build relationships with old friends and new allies alike. That is why I have set out a clear and ambitious plan for the negotiations ahead. It is a plan for a new deep and special partnership between Britain and the European Union—a partnership of values; a partnership of interests; a partnership based on co-operation in areas such as security and economic affairs; and a partnership that works in the best interests of the United Kingdom, the European Union and the wider world. Perhaps now, more than ever, the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe—[Laughter.]
Perhaps now, more than ever, the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe—values that the United Kingdom shares. That is why, although we are leaving the institutions of the European Union, we are not leaving Europe. We will remain a close friend and ally. We will be a committed partner. We will play our part to ensure that Europe is able to project its values and defend itself from security threats, and we will do all that we can to help the European Union to prosper and succeed.
In the letter that has been delivered to President Tusk today, copies of which I have placed in the Library of the House, I have been clear that the deep and special partnership that we seek is in the best interests of the United Kingdom and of the European Union, too. I have been clear that we will work constructively in a spirit of sincere co-operation to bring this partnership into being, and I have been clear that we should seek to agree the terms of this future partnership, alongside those of our withdrawal, within the next two years.
I am ambitious for Britain, and the objectives I have set out for these negotiations remain. We will deliver certainty wherever possible so that business, the public sector and everybody else has as much clarity as we can provide as we move through the process. That is why tomorrow we will publish a White Paper confirming our plans to convert the acquis into British law so that everyone will know where they stand, and it is why I have been clear that the Government will put the final deal agreed between the UK and the EU to a vote in both Houses of Parliament before it comes into force.
We will take control of our own laws and bring an end to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice in Britain. Leaving the European Union will mean that our laws will be made in Westminster, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast, and those laws will be interpreted not by judges in Luxembourg, but in courts across this country.
We will strengthen the Union of the four nations that comprise our United Kingdom. We will negotiate as one United Kingdom, taking account of the specific interests of every nation and region of the UK. When it comes to the powers that we will take back from Europe, we will consult fully on which powers should reside in Westminster and which should be passed on to the devolved Administrations. But no decisions currently taken by the devolved Administrations will be removed from them. It is the expectation of the Government that the devolved Administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will see a significant increase in their decision-making power as a result of this process.
We want to maintain the common travel area with the Republic of Ireland. There should be no return to the borders of the past. We will control immigration so that we continue to attract the brightest and the best to work or study in Britain, but manage the process properly so that our immigration system serves the national interest. We will seek to guarantee the rights of EU citizens who are already living in Britain, and the rights of British nationals in other member states, as early as we can. This is set out very clearly in the letter as an early priority for the talks ahead.
We will ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained. Indeed, under my leadership, the Government will not only protect the rights of workers but build on them. We will pursue a bold and ambitious free trade agreement with the European Union that allows for the freest possible trade in goods and services between Britain and the EU’s member states, that gives British companies the maximum freedom to trade with and operate within European markets, and that lets European businesses do the same in Britain. European leaders have said many times that we cannot cherry-pick and remain members of the single market without accepting the four freedoms that are indivisible. We respect that position and, as accepting those freedoms is incompatible with the democratically expressed will of the British people, we will no longer be members of the single market.
We are going to make sure that we can strike trade agreements with countries from outside the European Union, too, because important though our trade with the EU is and will remain, it is clear that the UK needs to increase significantly its trade with the fastest growing export markets in the world. We hope to continue to collaborate with our European partners in the areas of science, education, research and technology so that the UK is one of the best places for science and innovation. We seek continued co-operation with our European partners in important areas such as crime, terrorism and foreign affairs. And it is our aim to deliver a smooth and orderly Brexit, reaching an agreement about our future partnership by the time the two-year article 50 process has concluded, and then moving into a phased process of implementation in which Britain, the EU institutions and member states prepare for the new arrangements that will exist between us.
We understand that there will be consequences for the UK of leaving the EU. We know that we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy. We know that UK companies that trade with the EU will have to align with rules agreed by institutions of which we are no longer a part, just as we do in other overseas markets—we accept that. However, we approach these talks constructively, respectfully and in a spirit of sincere co-operation, for it is in the interests of both the United Kingdom and the European Union that we should use this process to deliver our objectives in a fair and orderly manner. It is in the interests of both the United Kingdom and the European Union that there should be as little disruption as possible. And it is in the interests of both the United Kingdom and the European Union that Europe should remain strong, prosperous and capable of projecting its values in the world.
At a time when the growth of global trade is slowing and there are signs that protectionist instincts are on the rise in many parts of the world, Europe has a responsibility to stand up for free trade in the interests of all our citizens. With Europe’s security more fragile today than at any time since the end of the cold war, weakening our co-operation and failing to stand up for European values would be a costly mistake. Our vote to leave the EU was no rejection of the values that we share as fellow Europeans. As a European country, we will continue to play our part in promoting and supporting those values during the negotiations and once they are done.
We will continue to be reliable partners, willing allies and close friends. We want to continue to buy goods and services from the EU, and sell it ours. We want to trade with the EU as freely as possible, and work with one another to make sure we are all safer, more secure and more prosperous through continued friendship. Indeed, in an increasingly unstable world, we must continue to forge the closest possible security co-operation to keep our people safe. We face the same global threats from terrorism and extremism. That message was only reinforced by the abhorrent attack on Westminster bridge and this place last week, so there should be no reason why we should not agree a new deep and special partnership between the UK and the EU that works for us all.
I know that this is a day of celebration for some and disappointment for others. The referendum last June was divisive at times. Not everyone shared the same point of view or voted the same way. The arguments on both sides were passionate. But when I sit around the negotiating table in the months ahead, I will represent every person in the United Kingdom: young and old; rich and poor; city, town, country, and all the villages and hamlets in between; and, yes, those EU nationals who have made this country their home. It is my fierce determination to get the right deal for every single person in this country for, as we face the opportunities ahead of us on this momentous journey, our shared values, interests and ambitions can—and must—bring us together.
We all want to see a Britain that is stronger than it is today. We all want a country that is fairer so that everyone has the chance to succeed. We all want a nation that is safe and secure for our children and grandchildren. We all want to live in a truly global Britain that gets out and builds relationships with old friends and new allies around the world. These are the ambitions of this Government’s plan for Britain—ambitions that unite us, so that we are no longer defined by the vote we cast, but by our determination to make a success of the result.
We are one great Union of people and nations with a proud history and a bright future. Now that the decision to leave has been made and the process is under way, it is time to come together, for this great national moment needs a great national effort—an effort to shape a stronger future for Britain. So let us do so together. Let us come together and work together. Let us together choose to believe in Britain with optimism and hope, for if we do, we can make the most of the opportunities ahead. We can together make a success of this moment, and we can together build a stronger, fairer, better Britain—a Britain our children and grandchildren are proud to call home. I commend this statement to the House.
Jeremy Corbyn (Islington North) (Lab) I would like to thank the Prime Minister for an advance copy of her statement. Today, we embark on the country’s most important negotiations in modern times. The British people made the decision to leave the European Union and Labour respects that decision. The next steps along this journey are the most crucial. If the Prime Minister is to unite the country, as she says she aims to do, the Government need to listen, consult and represent the whole country, not just the hard-line Tory ideologues on her own Benches.
Britain is going to change as a result of leaving the European Union; the question is how. There are Conservatives who want to use Brexit to turn this country into a low-wage tax haven. Labour is determined to invest in a high-skill, high-tech, high-wage future, and to rebuild and transform Britain so that no one and no community is left behind. The direction the Prime Minister is threatening to take this country in is both reckless and damaging, and Labour will not give this Government a free hand to use Brexit to attack rights and protections and to cut services, or to create a tax dodger’s paradise.
Let me be clear: the Prime Minister says that no deal is better than a bad deal, but the reality is that no deal is a bad deal. Less than a year ago, the Treasury estimated that leaving the European Union on World Trade Organisation terms would lead to a 7.5% fall in our GDP and a £45 billion loss in tax receipts. Has the Treasury updated those figures or do they still stand? If they have been updated, can they be published? If not, what deal could be worse than those consequences of no deal? It would be a national failure of historic proportions if the Prime Minister came back from Brussels without having secured protection for jobs and living standards, so we will use every parliamentary opportunity to ensure the Government are held to account at every stage of the negotiations.
We all have an interest in ensuring the Prime Minister gets the best deal for this country. To safeguard jobs and living standards, we do need full access to the single market. The Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union seems to agree on this. He stated in this House on 24 January that the Government’s plan is:
“a comprehensive free trade agreement and a comprehensive customs agreement that will deliver the exact same benefits as we have”.—[Official Report, 24 January 2017; Vol. 620, c. 169.]
That was what was pledged, so will the Prime Minister confirm today that she intends to deliver a trade and customs agreement with “the exact same benefits”? The same goes for protecting workers’ rights and environmental standards, protecting Britain’s nations and regions, protecting Britain’s financial sector and services, and making sure there is no return to a hard border in Northern Ireland.
When does the Prime Minister expect to be able to guarantee the rights of all those EU nationals who live and work in this country, and make such a massive and welcome contribution to it, and of those British nationals who live in all parts of the European Union, including by guaranteeing that their UK pensions will not be frozen post-Brexit?
Brexit would be a huge task for any Government, yet so far this Government seem utterly complacent about the scale of the task ahead. Government Ministers cannot make up their minds about the real objective. The Foreign Secretary—he is in the Chamber today—said in October: “Our policy is having our cake and eating it. How apposite from the Foreign Secretary. Today, on BBC Radio 4, the Chancellor said: “we can’t have our cake and eat it”. Maybe they should get together and talk about that.
At one level, those might seem like flippant exchanges from Ministers, but they do reflect serious differences about Britain’s negotiating aims. The Government must speak with a united voice. However, the Foreign Secretary is the same man who promised our national health service £350 million pounds a week once we left the EU. Now he believes that leaving the EU without a deal would be “perfectly okay”. It would not be perfectly okay—it would damage our economy and people’s living standards. Will the Prime Minister confirm that she rejects such complacency?
Labour has set out our tests for the Government’s Brexit negotiations, and we will use all means possible to make sure we hold them to their word on full access to the single market, on protecting Britain from being dragged into a race to the bottom, and on ensuring that our future relationship with the European Union is strong and co-operative—a relationship in which we can work together to bring prosperity and peace to our continent. If the Prime Minister can deliver a deal that meets our tests, that will be fine—we will back her. More than ever, Britain needs a Government that will deliver for the whole country, not just the few, and that is the ultimate test of the Brexit deal that the Prime Minister must now secure.
The Prime Minister I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for saying that the Labour party respects the outcome of the referendum and the process that is now under way. He said that the next steps are the most crucial—the most important—and, of course, we now enter that formal process of negotiation.
It does seem, however, that the message that the right hon. Gentleman has sent today has not got through to all his Front Benchers. I understand that as the Cabinet met this morning to approve our course, his shadow International Trade Secretary tweeted a photo of me signing the A50 letter, claiming I was “signing away” our country’s future. I am afraid that that is what we see all too often from Labour: talking down Britain; desperate for the negotiations to fail; and out of touch with ordinary working people.
The right hon. Gentleman referred to the tests—I will come on to those—and asked me specifically about EU nationals. I expressly referred to that in the letter to President Tusk and made it clear that I would hope that we could deal with this issue of EU nationals here and UK nationals in other member states at as early a stage as possible in the negotiations. As I have said in this House before, I believe that there is good will on both sides to do that.
The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the tests that the Labour party has set out for the negotiations. I have been looking at those tests because, actually, there are principles that the Government have, time and time again, said we are determined to meet. He asks if the final deal will ensure a strong and collaborative future relationship with the EU. Yes, and in my letter to President Tusk, that is exactly what I set out our intentions to be. Will the deal deliver the same benefits we currently have as a member of the single market and the customs union? We have been clear that we want to get the best possible deal, and free and frictionless trade. Will the deal protect national security and our capacity to tackle cross-border crime? Yes. Will the deal deliver for all regions and nations of the UK? We have been very clear that we are taking all nations and regions into account, as I say in the letter to President Tusk. As I said during Prime Minister’s questions, we expect that, as powers are repatriated, the devolved Administrations will see a significant increase in their decision making.
The right hon. Gentleman’s fifth test is: will the deal defend rights and protections and prevent a race to the bottom? We have been very clear that workers’ rights will be protected—they are not up for negotiation under this Government. Perhaps he should listen to his own Mayor of London, who has said:
“to give credit to the government, I don’t think they want to weaken workers’ rights…there’s been some anxiety…I’ve seen no evidence from the conversations I’ve had with senior members of the government that that’s their aspiration or their intention or something they want to do.”
But the Labour party has set out a sixth test that I do not think the right hon. Gentleman mentioned specifically, and perhaps that is because of the confusion in the Labour party. The sixth test is, “Will the deal ensure fair management of migration?” What we see on that is a confused picture from the Labour party. The shadow Home Secretary says that freedom of movement is a worker’s right, and the right hon. Gentleman himself said:
“Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle, but I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out.”
Little wonder that nobody has any idea of the Labour party’s position on that issue.
As I said earlier, on today of all days we should be coming together. We should be accepting the ambition for our country for the future. We should not be talking down the negotiations as the right hon. Gentleman does. We should set our ambition, our optimism and our determination to get the best possible deal for everybody in the United Kingdom.