Speech by Sir David Lidington and Stephen Hammond MP

Sir David Lidington:

Ladies and gentlemen, friends, thank you for coming along. My colleague Stephen Hammond MP is delayed in the division lobby at the moment, but I will kick off, and I hope Stephen will join us as soon as the whips have released him from their eager embrace. Can I first thank Lord Tugendhat for hosting the meeting in the House of Lords today and also my colleagues on the Conservative European Forum Executive Committee. Michael and David Westover deserve a great deal of thanks from us all.


The genesis of this report that we're publishing today was a feeling on my part and of my colleagues in the Conservative European Forum that we had reached a moment after the Windsor framework when we could start to talk seriously and needed to talk seriously about how to try to build a better and more fruitful relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, which is going to remain our most important trading partner in the world for as far ahead as I can see.


Ukraine is very clearly going to be a significant element in the response of the European democracies collectively to the challenge we face from Russian aggression and the threat to the democratic order in Europe as a whole, which stems from that. We felt, with justice, I think, that what the Windsor Framework had done was to establish a new baseline. It had started the work of rebuilding trust, which had been very badly damaged by the acrimonious relationships of the previous few years.


This is not about rejoining the European Union. Whatever view any of us took about the decision in 2016, that position was taken for good or ill. And if you talk to any EU government or institution, the reality is that they have moved on. They've got other things on their agenda to think about than the United Kingdom, but they do want to have a decent and constructive relationship with us. That works to common advantage, because what Ukraine has demonstrated is that there are far more important things for us and other European democracies to be thinking about and talking about than the rules governing the content of sandwich fillings in Northern Ireland. Take, for example, one thing that's occupied too much time recently.


We decided as a group to put forward a report which would advocate practical and attainable changes both to the Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which, of course, is coming up for review anyway in 2025-26, alongside the review and, I hope, renewal of other things like the fisheries agreement and the EU decision on data adequacy.


To do this, we took evidence from about 40 different witnesses. We were very struck by how eager business and professional representative organisations were to come forward and tell us not just what was wrong or inadequate about the present setup, but what practically might be done to deliver improvements. We also had a number of witnesses, such as people from some of the embassies in London, who did give us evidence but did not want to have anything on the record. We took evidence from more than 40 different organisations and individuals in total.


What we have published today is a plan to start the work of building a more strategic and more harmonious partnership in the future between the UK and the European Union and its member states. We advocate, for example, a strategic partnership on defence and security matters, something that is actually in the Political Declaration negotiated and agreed by Boris Johnson and David Frost, and therefore should be completely uncontroversial across the Conservative Party and more widely.


We advocate an agreement to be negotiated on veterinary and phytosanitary checks. New Zealand has a deal with the EU. Switzerland has a deal, albeit of a different type in content, but again on SPS (Sanitary and Phytosanitary) issues. This is something the National Farmers Union and organisations representing the UK's significantly important food and drink sector have expressed a desire to see.


We advocate seeking to negotiate an arrangement for the mutual recognition of conformity assessments, so that the European Union might agree to recognise the validity of decisions by UK regulators. This means that the assessment of whether a product or service meets the EU's legally required standards would be accepted as valid by the authorities in the European Union member states.


We also suggest, based on our witnesses' testimony, a range of quite detailed, and some might say meticulous, measures. These measures are ones that particular sectors or organisations have indicated would make a practical difference to them and would also assist in rebuilding trust and enhancing the quality of the relationship more generally between us and our nearest neighbours.


There is a programme here which I hope the Conservative government will look at seriously, take up, and consider which elements to prioritise. Some elements may require a potentially quite tricky and challenging negotiation with the EU, where we would need to demonstrate that there is something in it for the EU side as well.


Others lie entirely within the gift of the UK government. A repeated complaint from business sectors was that the UK could do more simply to coordinate the provision of up-to-date information to businesses about what is required of them to meet EU standards or to deal with the various regulatory checks governing trade and investment, now that we are a third country outside the membership of the European Union and outside the Single Market and Customs Union. I think this is good practical work. It's not a panacea, and I'm sure it's not a complete guide as well, but it is a first attempt to represent what British business wants to see and which I believe will be in the interests of the prosperity and security of the people of the United Kingdom. What I think the government and the Party need to do now is to accept that.


The decision of 2016 is behind us. The EU27 are not interested in a debate about the UK rejoining. We have to move forward and try to make the relationship work as well as it possibly can for us under these new circumstances. Business has shown us how this might be achieved, and I believe we owe it to the British people, regardless of how they voted in 2016, to strive for the best possible UK-EU relationship in the future. This is an attempt to set out our approach and suggest how it might be accomplished. Thank you very much.


Stephen Hammond MP:


In 19 years, if you haven't learned not to try and upstage David Lidington, you haven't learned much. I only want to express two points. First, my thanks to Tim Kirkhope for sponsoring the room and to David Westover, Michael Cluff, Christopher Tugendhat, and Simon Saunders, who played a significant role in collaborating with David and me on this report.


I'd add to what David's saying, it was very clear in our minds that when you read this report, there are a lot of recommendations that have come from business. It's absolutely clear that the government needs to be very focussed on what is achievable.


There are far too many people, I think, who think this is going to be a terribly easy. The reality is that the EU think this arrangement is working and it is working relatively well for them. I think we need to be very clear about the things inside the TCA that are already there that aren't working the way we want. As David has pointed out, to move forward, but in a more limited way, and the things that we and the EU could do unilaterally, which would make a difference.


I think whoever is negotiating this needs to keep at the forefront of their mind that there are achievable ambitions here. This is going to be a hard but relatively limited negotiation, but it will build on the success of the Windsor framework.


I hope you find this report both interesting and valuable.  I know there are a couple of other reports out there, but I hope this will make a contribution to the debate, and I hope that the government and our Party will look at it and actually embrace much of what's in it.