This afternoon the House of Lords voted at Committee stage against the Government and in favour of an amendment to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. The amendment – one of many – was to add the following:
Within three months of exercising the power under section 1(1), Ministers of the Crown must bring forward proposals to ensure that citizens of another European Union or European Economic Area country and their family members, who are legally resident in the United Kingdom on the day on which this Act is passed, continue to be treated in the same way with regards to their EU derived-rights and, in the case of residency, their potential to acquire such rights in the future.
The debate was long and passionate. The chamber was packed – standing room only. I listened to the entire debate very carefully, but, when I went to speak, the House wanted to bring the debate to a conclusion and the Minister to respond; so, I missed my chance to add to the word count.
When it came to the division, I felt conflicted. I heard clearly the plea not to frustrate or delay the progress of the bill – or to compromise the Government’s freedom to negotiate once Article 50 has been triggered. However, I eventually voted for the amendment because I think the Government has not explained the reciprocal linking of the situations of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU. We have some power in the case of the former, but none in the case of the latter.
Furthermore, and as I have questioned in the House before now, there is no bargain to be struck between the two parties. EU negotiators know (given that they watch the telly and read newspapers) that we cannot throw out EU immigrants already in the UK because much of our construction, academic, agricultural and NHS sectors would cease to function. On what ‘reciprocal basis’ do we think we can negotiate when our hand is already declared? The Government is right to refuse the language of “bargaining chips” because there are none – there cannot be a bargaining where a bottom line has already been assumed and articulated. Contrary to the assertions of some, there is no “equal footing” for the two groups.
One of the intriguing features of this debate for me was to try to listen through the ears of Angela Merkel or other Europeans. We do speak as if we are holding a private conversation. We spent over forty years telling European partners that they are corrupt, lazy and incompetent… and now we expect to get a great deal from them? Had France or Italy done what we are doing, we would have outstripped Merkel in our indignant “make them pay” calls.
Two other elements of the debate are worth moaning about, too. (a) The ‘moral high ground’ was claimed repeatedly. Yet, there is never any definition of what makes a position moral in the first place. What we usually mean is that the ground I stand on is moral, whereas the ground you stand on is not. This is a poor – and rather grandstanding – way of conducting a moral argument. (b) The language of ‘moral gesture’ was used by several speakers, and I know what they mean. But, Parliament is there to do moral good, not to make gestures. This way lies trouble.
That said, I voted for the amendment as the whole purpose of the House of Lords is to scrutinise and question, sending stuff back for further perusal by the Commons. This amendment will not slow down the triggering of Article 50 and will not ultimately frustrate the Government’s will (although the mass of correspondence – most of which I simply could not respond to – was divided on what was morally imperative and how I would be personally judged in the matter). But, it does make a statement that our democratic institutions should not bow to unconvincing arguments about process, and have the duty to raise questions of moral purpose … even where the language of such gets messed about.
EU nationals in the UK need reassurance and security now. I cannot see any reason why they should not be given it – in their interests and in the interests of the country.
The bill will now go back to the House of Commons where (I expect) the amendments passed in the Lords will be resisted; it will then return to the Lords quickly, and we will see what happens.
Beware the Ides of March…