My Lords, it is both a pleasure and a privilege to participate in this debate, which has begun with three most excellent speeches—not all of which I agreed with—on an issue which is of fundamental importance. After all, the first obligation of any Government is the protection of their citizens.
I have changed my mind over Europe. Lest my noble friends on the Front Bench think this is a public declaration of apostasy, amid the chagrin and disappointment to which I was subject immediately after the decision, in the debate that followed in this House, I expressed a view, at least by implication, that there was little role for Parliament in the process which we were about to begin. However, this debate shows that there is more than such an opportunity, and I will spend a moment or two just putting this into what now seems to be the political context. It seems to me that the attitude of the present Government—Brexit means Brexit—is by implication creating a rather novel constitutional principle. We say here that Parliament is sovereign, and we know that no Parliament can bind its successor. That is why we can have a great repeal Act; that is why we can alter legislation. Yet the doctrine which appears to be emerging is that once there has been a referendum, Parliament is bound by it: there is no going back, even if Parliament is wholly opposed or has significant reservations. Even if there is a material change in circumstances, Brexit means Brexit. That seems to me to have an impact on our understanding of the sovereignty of Parliament—a novel understanding, with which we should clearly be concerned.
Supposing the decision had gone the other way and that by 2% the people of the United Kingdom had voted to remain. Do we imagine that the noble Lords, Lord Lawson and Lord Forsyth—unhappily, neither noble Lord is now in his place—would have heard the words, “Remain means Remain” from the lips of the Prime Minister, and packed their tents and silently stolen away? Of course not. They would have invoked the rights and sovereignty of Parliament to challenge that decision. That is why it is unfortunate that recourse has had to be made to the courts here in order to underline the sovereignty of Parliament and its right not only to be consulted but to have a part in the decision-making on an issue of such fundamental importance to the future of the United Kingdom.
I offer just this point, which I have made reference to previously. It is essential to understand that we are negotiating not just with the European Union but with 27 other countries, all of which will have individual national interests that they will be determined to promote. I just ask the following question, which has been brought to my attention in representations made by representatives of Gibraltar, who are much exercised about the consequences for Gibraltar of Brexit. Suppose the Spanish Government were to decline to sign an agreement that was in other respects accepted unless they were granted joint sovereignty over Gibraltar. What then? Who would sign that? Who would take the responsibility for something of that kind—the Government alone? I should have thought that an issue of that kind should be determined by Parliament.
Suppose—this is perhaps slightly less significant—the Spanish Government were to say, “Unless the present arrangements for fishing remain, we will not sign any agreement”? That would drive a horse and cart through the enthusiasm of the fishing community in this country. Yet, so far as I can understand, the Government have no intention of having a vote other than one to accept or reject, with no opportunity for making particular points or for suggesting an agreement containing different clauses.
I have never flinched from my view that the EU is both economic and political, just as NATO is both defensive and political. The political strength of Europe is an essential feature of European membership and an essential component of our security. I offer two contributions made by Europe to our security. The first is the extraordinary part played by the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, in helping to forge the agreement over nuclear issues with Iran, and the second, although again perhaps less significant, is the EU’s contribution to civilian policing in the Balkans. Had the UK sought to achieve either of those on its own, I doubt very much that we would have had any success. I believe, too, that our security is best to be found in the successful application of soft power, in political alliances and in asserting the common values and the respect for human rights that lie at the very heart of our political system. All these are dimensions that we can more effectively conduct through the opportunity provided by the EU. It has already been pointed out that there was very little discussion of these issues in the course of the debate prior to the referendum, and hardly any since then either.
It is said that NATO is sufficient. NATO most certainly provides hard power—not enough, some would argue, because of the failure of its members to meet even the minimum obligation of 2% expenditure of GDP on defence budgets—but hard and soft power are not alternatives; they are complementary. The EU and NATO are complementary, too; if they are not, why does President Putin set out with such enthusiasm to undermine the one and destabilise the other?
I am not starry-eyed about defence and Europe. I think there are risks in the notion being advanced by some, not that there should be greater European co-operation but that somehow there should be a European army, with a separate circumstance—command and control, for example—from that already in place in NATO. Indeed, a senior general told me that he would vote to leave the EU because of the proposal for a European army. The paradox is that by withdrawing, we will no longer have a veto on something that we would regard as contrary to our interests and contrary to NATO. I will avoid the totally vulgar comment of Lyndon Baines Johnson but I shall put it this way: it is much better to be inside the tent than outside it.