EU Withdrawal Bill

It is great to have the opportunity to speak in this important debate. Yesterday’s was very entertaining and we did make a piece of fudge, and I am pleased to say that my side of the House got the biggest piece—I just want to put things beyond any doubt. Of course it was a fudge, because a lot of this is about compromise. Today’s debate is perhaps less entertaining, because we are debating far more serious issues to do with our economy, jobs and human rights.

I wish briefly to inject a slight note of reality into the debate and perhaps allow my constituents to contribute to it. I was emailed the other day by a small manufacturer based in my constituencyon the subject of how it exports to the European Union. Some 60% of its manufactured goods, with an average price of about £150, go to countries in the EU. It told me that it was not necessarily worried about customs charges, but it is very worried about customs delays. Its customers in Germany and France know that if they order from this firm they get their goods in two or three days. Nevertheless, the costs are real. Its product costs 40% more for Norwegian customers than for Swedish customers, and 50% more for Swiss customers than for German customers. This company sends out 30,000 parcels a month. It is a great British employer, but the punchline is that its new distribution centre is going to be based in the EU, because of the 15% costs that are going to be added to its business by our decision to leave. The reason it has to compete is that its competitors are based not in the United States, Norway or Switzerland, but in Germany, France and Italy, and Brexit has given them an immediate advantage.

That is the reality of what we are talking about. We hear a lot of bluster. Whenever people who urge caution or realism about Brexit stand up, they are told to be optimistic and, indeed, patriotic. One prominent member of the Government compared Brexit to Y2K, which was an issue when, 18 years ago, double-digit computers were switching from the 20th century to the 21st. Apparently, Y2K was a ridiculous scare story and absolutely nothing happened. [Interruption.] This was the millennium bug; sorry, I am so old that I call it Y2K. A constituent emailed me to say that it is true that nothing happened with the millennium bug, but that was because, as he pointed out, thousands of people—he was one of them—delivered millions of lines of code, planned for it for five years and implemented the changes for two years, giving up their nights and weekends. The message to Government Front Benchers—perhaps the Foreign Secretary—is that changes of this nature are complex and difficult, and they take time and require planning. That is why the amendments we are debating are important and why a spirit of compromise and pragmatism must be injected into the debate.

To a certain extent, I am on repeat mode: I always like to have a bit about free trade deals in my Brexit speeches. We have already heard one speech saying that the EU is absolutely rubbish at free trade deals, but if we look at the large trading blocks’ free trade deals, I think it compares pretty well. It certainly compares well at the moment with the United States, which has come out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership and is bitterly renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement. The United States does not have a free trade deal with India or China, so we cannot really castigate the EU. The EU has free trade deals lined up with Japan and Singapore. Indeed, as the trade envoy to Vietnam, my instruction from the Department for International Trade is to secure a trade deal between the EU and Vietnam so that we can piggyback off the back of it.

As I have always said, trade deals are not easy to negotiate, but the EU can hold its head up high. We are often told that the EU holds back developing nations; it does have trade deals with developing nations and encourages them, but it quite rightly expects some give and take—for example, high labour standards, so that there is not unfair competition—and perhaps to have a voice in those countries on issues such as human rights.

I am not a dyed-in-the-wool Euro-fanatic, and I echo what my right hon. and learned Friend Mr Clarke said when he cited Dan Hannan, because we all know that as a pragmatic Brexiteer, Dan Hannan has said repeatedly that we should try to stay in certain elements of the single market—that is in black and white. The ideology has to be stopped, and we have to look at things. That is not to say that the EU itself cannot reform. It should take Brexit as a signal of how it should be more flexible, and its legally based approach to the negotiations is unhelpful. Although I appreciate the irony of the Brexiteers who campaigned against Galileo now saying that we should have our own Galileo, for me it is an example of European Union inflexibly. The amendments are important, and I shall continue to listen to the debate. I look forward to further developments.