Like many people, I watched with incredulity as the House of Lords voted through an amendment to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill on Wednesday. It seems like such a self-defeating notion; a group of people widely regarded as “unelected, undemocratic and out-of-touch” actively voting to bind the United Kingdom to a customs union it no longer wants, between the UK and another group that is widely regarded as unelected, undemocratic and out-of-touch. I wanted to say the Lords were attracted to the EU like a magnet, but then I remembered that like magnets repel one-another.
But then I took a look at the amendment that was finally voted through. There were several amendments put forward and of those, this seems to be the least bad. Some, like the one proposed by Baroness McGregor-Smith et al., required the UK to”ensure that the withdrawal agreement provides for … the United Kingdom’s participation after exit day in a customs union with the European Union.”; a demand that would destroy the UK’s ability to negotiate anything during the withdrawal period.
So what does the amendment that the Lords actually voted to accept say? Here it is, in full:
“(3) The condition in this subsection is that, by 31 October 2018, a minister of the Crown has laid before both Houses of Parliament a statement outlining the steps taken in negotiations under Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union to negotiate, as part of the framework for the United Kingdom’s future relationship with the European Union, an arrangement which enables the United Kingdom to continue participating in a customs union with the European Union.”
This amendment, proposed by Lord Kerr of Kinlochard et al., actually requires very little of the Government. It calls for a statement to be laid before both Houses, nothing more. It doesn’t bind anyone during the negotiations; it doesn’t demand any particular action outside of laying a statement before both Houses. It’s useless in practice…
… except it’s not, is it? It’s here to provide ammunition to the Remain camp; or at least that’s the only real use of it that I can fathom. The fact of the matter is that it is the Government’s position that the United Kingdom will not be remaining inside the Customs Union (as you will no doubt recall, there have been lengthy arguments about this since before Referendum Day and those arguments show no sign of abating). Would a Government have attempted to negotiate an arrangement to continue participating in the customs union after we leave the EU when it’s not their policy to do so? I doubt it.
So the statement that would be laid before both Houses of Parliament will very likely state that the Government has undertaken no such action; or words to that effect. Maybe the statement will say the Government had planned such a negotiation as an option but then not taken that option forward. Either way, it’s going to be new documentation for the Remain crowd to use in its endless campaign against Brexit.
That, in my view, is the only reason this amendment exists. I don’t see another logical reason for it, given that it doesn’t make any specific requirements of the Government save for a statement. The other amendments did, but this one does not. If you can think of a different reason for this thing to be here, please do let me know because I’m genuinely curious.