My Lords, I last met Vice-President Šefčovič informally, in Brussels, on 15 April. That was principally to discuss the Northern Ireland protocol. No date for a future meeting has yet been fixed, but we and our teams are in regular contact about a range of issues, regarding both the withdrawal agreement and the trade and co-operation agreement. I am confident that we will meet again soon.
My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for meeting me and other noble Lords recently to discuss the question of an SPS veterinary agreement, which is causing such difficulties for our shellfish and agricultural exports. We discussed the possibility of an equivalence regime, which would continue until either we or the EU found it unsatisfactory because of further changes. It seemed to me that pragmatic ideas like this might be a way forward. When the Minister meets the Commissioner, might he discuss them further?
My Lords, these ideas are very much on the agenda in our discussions, although the differences between our position on the subject and that of the European Union remain significant. Nevertheless, we hope to have a constructive dialogue and see whether there is room to explore this further. As I have noted, the EU has been reluctant to move forward to an equivalence-based agreement, but we remain open to that and hope that it will also be in due course.
My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that, while it is good news that the TCA was ratified by the European Parliament, parts of Mrs von der Leyen’s speech, with its talk of baring “teeth” and imposing tariffs, was deeply disappointing, not to mention rather unfriendly? By contrast, Monsieur Barnier said Brexit was
“a failure of the European Union and we have to learn lessons from it”.
When my noble friend meets Mr Šefčovič, will he stress that we want partnership and co-operation, and not continuing antagonism? It is time to put hurt behind them.
My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend. As I made clear yesterday, I hope that we can now begin to move forward on a new chapter together, as Europeans. We want a relationship based on friendly co-operation between sovereign equals. That is what we have always wanted. I note that, a few days ago, the EU head of mission said:
“We are still in the process of accepting that the UK is no longer a member of the European Union.”
I hope that that process of adjustment can be completed as soon as possible, that the language on the EU side can be toned down and that we can move forward together.
My Lords, in the Minister’s recent statement following the meeting with Vice-President Šefčovič, can he clarify what the “outstanding issues” are, what “positive momentum” was established and, more crucially, what the remaining “difficult issues” are? The statement said that Vice-President Šefčovič
“agreed there should be intensified contacts at all levels in the coming weeks.”
Can the Minister expand?
My Lords, quite a large number of issues are on the table between us and the European Union. We classify them differently, but the EU has talked of a number in the 20s, which is reasonable. We hope we are working on a joint programme to resolve some of them, but we have different perceptions of the problems. Some of the outstanding issues are SPS and food standards, pharmaceuticals, VAT and other technical arrangements. We are working intensively, at all levels, to move positions closer together and find solutions.
My Lords, an HMRC email I received at the beginning of April said:
“When exporting goods from a roll-on roll-off port or any other listed location, you, or the person submitting your customs declaration, must submit your declaration as ‘arrived’.”
So before British businesses can export and have their goods leave the country, they must declare them as “arrived” in another country. When the Minister meets the Vice-President next, can he clarify that the EU is similarly asking businesses to declare their goods as arrived before they have left, or is this an insanely irrational and confusing bureaucratic requirement from his business department alone?
My Lords, this is possibly not the moment to get into textual exegesis of HMRC guidance. I can say that we are doing our best to support UK businesses dealing with the practical consequences of leaving the customs union. There is a good deal of—I hope—intelligible guidance available to them, and most companies have now been able to deal with this new situation and are exporting successfully.
My Lords, I too hope that we can move quickly to solve some of the current problems facing businesses. Given the Minister’s welcome willingness to meet Members of the House, can I ask him to meet me to discuss specific ongoing problems faced by some businesses in the north-east which are threatening to jeopardise or even destroy the export trade to the EU that has been built up over many years?
My Lords, I am always happy to meet Members of this House on EU exit and the practical issues that have emerged from it. On the broader point that the noble Baroness makes, the latest statistics published by the Office for National Statistics and HMRC show that trade in goods is close to previous levels and that companies are exporting successfully. There of course remain difficulties, which we are doing our very best to try to resolve.
My Lords, today, the European Commission held a press conference on what better regulation might look like, delivered by Mr Šefčovič. It just so happens that, also today, the City of London published its findings on the digital sandbox, an example of real-life better regulation in action. Does my noble friend the Minister agree that, post Brexit, the City of London will retain and enhance its position as one of the most competitive and innovative financial centres in the world?
My Lords, I very much agree with my noble friend. One of the huge benefits of Brexit is that we can set regulations and rules for ourselves, for our own conditions and our own needs, rather than having to join a lowest common denominator that has been set for a wider group. We are committed to making the UK the most open and dynamic financial centre in the world, and we have every confidence that the City will prosper with our support in this new post-Brexit environment, with world-class regulation and a huge depth of expertise and entrepreneurialism.
My Lords, I am in relatively frequent contact, remotely and face to face, with Vice-President Šefčovič. I am not sure that I can commit to meeting before every one of those meetings. I have committed to provide agendas for joint committee and Partnership Council agreements and to appear before scrutiny Committees frequently, so that the House has a good idea of the grounds of discussions.
My Lords, the Minister has recognised several times the problems that exporters are having with standards. Can he tell us how many times since January he has raised this issue with his counterpart, and, when they next meet, will he be proposing practical solutions that can significantly reduce the trade barriers that the lack of alignment has created?
My Lords, the question of support for business in this new environment is being taken forward by a large number of government departments, at all levels. We have a good dialogue with the member state customs authorities that we deal with, and implementation is going forward in a very pragmatic fashion. I expect that, at the Partnership Council, practical difficulties of the kind the noble Lord mentioned will be very much on the agenda when we meet for the first time, and going forward.