Robin Walker is Under Secretary of State at the Department for Exiting the European Union, and is MP for Worcester.
The Article 50 Bill will be much debated once again this week and, after many hours of lively debate in the Lords, it will then return to the Commons. It is vital both to the interests of the UK as a whole and to the dynamics of the upcoming negotiations that it should progress swiftly and without amendment. The Bill does not set the terms of our EU exit; it is not about whether we leave – that decision was taken by the British people on June 23rd last year – it is simply the permission from Parliament, in line with the judgement of the Supreme Court, for negotiations to begin.
For all those of us who want to achieve a strong and positive partnership with the EU after the UK’s exit, it will be important to begin negotiations on the right foot. A swift move to secure the rights of both EU nationals living in the UK and UK nationals living in the EU at the start of negotiations will be a powerful message of solidarity, demonstrating that we value the contribution of those who have chosen to make their futures here, and understand our moral and legal obligation to look after UK citizens wherever they live. It is also profoundly in the economic interests of the vast number of businesses in the UK who employ people from around the globe. Britain’s position as a global trading nation, as well as our relations with important markets to which we want to secure access, will be protected by such an approach.
The Prime Minister and David Davis have repeatedly made clear that we stand ready to reach such a deal now. But the EU has been clear that there can be no negotiation without notification and therefore, as the Archbishop of York pointed out during debate on the Bill in the Lords last week, passing it is the best and quickest way to resolve the issue and provide reassurance.
Virtuous and tempting as amendments that seek a unilateral declaration on these matters may seem, they misunderstand some of the complexities that are best dealt with through a reciprocal agreement, and they fail to acknowledge our responsibility to ensure UK citizens enjoy the same protections as those we will extend to those from the EU. The Bill is simply about getting the process underway, and getting on with it is the best way to enable the right deal.
In that Lords debate, we heard a wide range of opinions about the progress of negotiations and the means by which Parliament should influence it. We’ve already seen dozens of debates, statements, regular questions and select committee appearances, and I have no doubt that Parliament will continue to have an enormous influence. Parliament will pass all the legislation, from the Great Repeal Bill to consequential primary and secondary legislation, that will determine the nature of our legal and constitutional position on exit and, as the Prime Minister has also made clear, there will be a vote of both Houses on the final agreement. The Government will ensure that Parliament is kept informed throughout the process and has at least as much information as the European Parliament.
But it was clear from much of the Lords debate that some of those who were calling for a “meaningful final vote” are looking for a choice that simply isn’t there. Too much of the debate in some quarters was a refighting of the referendum, and when some peers suggest that they would be prepared to see the Government brought down to change the result of the referendum, it is clear they are not so much focused on Parliamentary sovereignty as on finding a backdoor way to thwart and reverse the decision of the British people
If we were to pretend, contrary to the wording of Article 50 itself, that the whole process could simply be reversed at the last minute, or that Parliament could say no to a deal and return us to the status quo before the referendum, it would only serve to incentivise the most negative and aggressive approach from our negotiating counter-parties. This would be profoundly against the interests of a good negotiation and the UK national interest.
Waiting to trigger Article 50 until after the UK could prepare and set out its strategy was the right thing to do. We are in consequence better prepared, better informed on the needs of business and all sectors of the economy, and we have built up a better understanding of the steps that need to be taken during and through the process to secure the best outcome for the UK.
Delaying the Bill, complicating it or making elements of it justiciable would however be profoundly damaging not only to the UK, but to the whole prospect of a future partnership between the UK and the EU. We need to get on with negotiating, to show our counterparts that our approach and our requests are reasonable, and to reassure millions of people living on both sides of the Channel.
The straightforward passage of this Bill, already supported by a majority of five to one in the Commons, is the best way to achieve those aims.