Richard North, 09/05/2018  

I can't say I was at all impressed by the standard of debate in the Lords on the EEA amendment to the Withdrawal Bill, but in this game you take what you can get.

That was a defeat for the government with 245 voting for an amendment requiring the government to include as a negotiating objective an international agreement that will enable the UK to continue to participate in the EEA after exit day.

In all, 83 Labour peers defied Jeremy Corbyn's instruction to abstain from the vote, joined by 50 crossbench peers, 17 Conservatives and 84 Lib Dems. With 218 voting against, and that makes for the 13th government defeat in the Lords on this one Bill, but by far the most significant. It strikes at the entire core of Mrs May's Brexit strategy, and puts the Commons on notice.

However, with neither Mrs May nor Corbyn supporting the amendment, it would take a remarkable turn of events for it to succeed in the lower house, requiring an independent turn of mind that has rarely been seen in a bovine assembly where tribal loyalties are the driving force.

It would have helped if the Lords had framed their debate in a way that could carry the case through and give the MPs a head start. But, with the motion sponsored by Lord Alli, we had a very poor advocate for the Efta/EEA option – one who did us no favours at all.

"The customs union amendment that we passed overwhelmingly a few weeks ago", he started off by saying, "is only one half of the equation", then telling us that: "The customs union deals only with goods".

"That", he said, "is very important: it deals only with goods - tangible items such as cars, washing machines and televisions - where we have a £96 billion trade deficit". On the other hand, he averred, "the EEA deals with services - such as retail, tourism, transport, communications, financial services and aerospace, where we have a £14 billion trade surplus".

Thus, according to this noble Lord, "the customs union only will benefit our European neighbours in their imports, but without an EEA equivalent, it will damage our profitable export business and therefore the jobs and livelihoods of many thousands of people". For that reason, he concluded, "we need to ensure that any continuation in the customs union must include continuation in the EEA or its equivalent".

This is issue-illiteracy at a very advanced level and with friends like him, one has to ask, who needs enemies?

Nevertheless, the motion had enemies aplenty, with assassin-in-chief coming in the form of Labour's Baroness Hayter of Kentish Town. A former chief executive of the European Parliamentary Labour Party, she was doing her duty by the party leader, Jeremy Corbyn, by formally asking "colleagues" to abstain on the amendment.

Making the cogent and entirely correct point that the UK could not be a member of Efta and the customs union, she chose to weigh in behind "this House's support for a customs union". Having regard to what she argued were "possible practical problems associated with Efta membership", she turned the debate into a binary issue – an either/or choice between the customs union and the EEA.

From the other side, we then got Lord Callanan who, in opposing the motion on behalf of the government, trotted out all the same turgid clichés, with only the slightest of modification to take in the years of vibrant debate on the issue.

The EEA, the noble lord opined, "would not deliver control of our borders or our laws". Ignoring completely Article 112 and the Liechtenstein/Swiss strategy, he further opined that, "on borders, it would mean we would have to continue to accept all four freedoms of the single market, including freedom of movement".

"On laws", this dim creature continued, "it would mean the UK having to implement new EU legislation on which, in future, we will have little influence and, of course, no vote".

Callanan, true to the best traditions of the House, had ignored previous contributions to the debate. Had he been listening, he would have heard a reference to Articles 112 and 113 from Baroness Altmann, with her noting that "if there is serious economic, societal or environmental difficulties immigration can be curtailed". But, even that limited intelligence was tempered by Altmann's insistence that this was "an emergency brake".

Earlier, Labour's Lord Howarth of Newport added his ignorance to the community pot, earnestly telling us that that agriculture and fisheries were "not part of the terms of reference of the European Economic Area". Therefore, he said, "membership of the EEA would do nothing to assist us in resolving the problems of the Irish border".

Notwithstanding that food safety and marketing standards are part of the EEA acquis one should also not that there is provision for including both agriculture and fisheries within the EEA structure, in country-specific protocols. This is part of what makes the EEA Agreement a uniquely flexible structure which would allow the UK to negotiate a "bespoke" deal specific to its needs.

But such a concept is way beyond the pay grades of their noble Lords. But then, given their extraordinary ignorance demonstrated during the customs union debate. I suppose we should not be surprised by this. But it does knock one back a bit to realise the depths to which our legislators have sunk.

Two decades ago, we used to look to the Lords as a repository of good sense, where experienced people could be relied upon to raise the standard of debate above that prevailing in the mere, vulgar Commons. But no more. The lack of grasp of the essential issues has sunk so low that not a single contributor to the debate would have lasted seconds on these blog comments, before being ripped apart.

Let no one say, therefore, that the vote turned on the oratory or wisdom of the House. Fortunately for us, a rebellious mood prevails and, in retrospect, it would appear that the outcome was pre-ordained. Together with a vote on agency participation and another removing the specific exit date from the Bill, that made for a hat-trick of defeats for the government, all in one day.

Once the EEA amendment reaches the Commons, it will have as its champion son of Neil Kinnock, the hyperactive Stephen who, by contrast with their lordships, is a repository of knowledge.

Writing earlier in the day, in the Guardian, he managed to cover most of the bases. And even though his knowledge is skin deep, he positively shines in comparison to his colleagues.

Unfortunately both he, and his co-enthusiast Chuka Umunna are both positioned in the "remain camp" and thus allow detractors to present their support for this cause as an attempt to dilute Brexit, or make it easier in the future to rejoin the EU.

This in turn rests on the canard that the EEA is a halfway house to joining the EU, an error even I made in the early days. The history of the Agreement, however, clearly shows that it was cast as an alternative to the EU, not as an ante-room. And, as a member of Efta, the UK could not be a member of the EU. It could not even take part in a customs union with the EU.

However, if yesterday's vote has catapulted the EEA to the top of the UK political agenda, it is only to the extent that it will now be churned over by a clueless media and then subject to a parade of ignorance in the Commons. It is too much to hope that MPs might educate themselves on the issues prior to the debate. They've had years to do that and have failed spectacularly. They are hardly going to start now.

In the meantime, we still have to go through the charade attendant on Mrs May's "customs partnership", and the irritating distraction on Mr Johnson's posturing. When these two have finished, they will be left with an agreement (or not) on a structure that has already been rejected by the EU, and will not gain acceptance no matter how it is dressed up.

With Irish popular sentiment turning away from the contortions of the UK government, and falling behind the EU, to an unprecedented level, taoiseach Varadkar is able to assert that if real and meaningful progress on Brexit is not achieved at the June European Council, "it is difficult to see how we will be able to come to an agreement by October at all".

That is the real world intruding – one that is being ignored by the UK legacy media and politicians alike. Their parade of ignorance trumps anything else, and only when they have run out of time with they finally have to concede that their noise has achieved nothing at all.

Rather, their ignorance is set to drive us over the cliff edge. And for all the high drama of yesterday, all that really happened was that we came another 24 hours closer to the edge. The only good thing is that, on 9 May, this is the last "Europe Day" we will celebrate as members of the EU.

It's a shame that the price set by our own politicians is so unnecessarily high.

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