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Economic Governance (EU)

Volume 517: debated on Wednesday 27 October 2010

(Urgent Question): I have an urgent question for the Prime Minister, which is being answered in the name of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, as to what negotiating position the Government intend to adopt on the conclusion of the taskforce on strengthening economic governance in the European Union that was presented to the European Council on 21 October with the claim that the endorsement—[Interruption.]

Order. First, I appeal to right hon. and hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber to do so quickly and quietly. Secondly, may I say to the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), who has 26 years’ experience in the House, that this is not the point at which he is supposed to dilate? He will have his opportunity. He has said what the substance of the matter is, and we look forward to the Minister responding.

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not get too excited: he will have his opportunity. I have granted him his chance, and he should not worry: we will come to him in due course.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to update the House on the conclusion of the taskforce on strengthening the economic governance of the European Union, and to report on the UK’s position on the taskforce. In particular, I wish to restate that the UK is exempt from the current and future sanctions regime.

Heads of State and Heads of Government commissioned the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, to produce a report on EU economic governance and report back to the October Economic Council. Mr Van Rompuy chaired a taskforce meeting consisting of EU Finance Ministers, and the Chancellor represented the UK on the taskforce. The report has been agreed by the taskforce, and the European Council is expected to endorse it tomorrow. Copies of the report, along with the Chancellor’s submission to the taskforce, have been placed in the Library of the House this morning.

The report concludes that the EU should take steps to reinforce fiscal discipline and that the euro area in particular must face tougher surveillance of its fiscal policies, with sanctions for non-compliance with the pact where appropriate. It also recommends measures to improve EU-level co-ordination of macro-economic policies. That will ensure that any harmful macro-economic imbalances between member states can be identified and corrective action taken. Finally, the report notes that there should be a permanent crisis resolution mechanism for the euro area. The UK supports its conclusions.

A strong and stable euro area is firmly in the UK’s own economic interests, given the high level of UK exports to those countries and our close economic ties. In the years before the crisis, fiscal discipline was absent, and not just in states in the eurozone. High levels of debt have exacerbated the problems that some member states face during the economic downturn. The taskforce recommends that there should be greater focus on member states’ public debt levels in future, and the Government agree with that approach.

I am pleased to note that the report explicitly states that sanctions cannot be applied to the UK under the stability and growth pact. Domestic fiscal frameworks play a crucial role in ensuring that member states act responsibly. EU surveillance is useful, but as the House knows, national Parliaments and national institutions must hold Governments to account for their economic and budgetary policies.

Let us be absolutely clear: yes, we want to see a strong and stable eurozone. That is in our interests just as much as those of our neighbours. The UK has led the way on economic governance. Multi-year budgets and independent statistics and forecasting have already been introduced, and we have a clear fiscal mandate to eliminate our structural deficit. We are leading the eurozone, and our high standards have already received international endorsement. We will examine any proposals to help the eurozone overcome its problems.

However, as the Prime Minister has just said, we will not agree to any changes to EU treaties that move more powers from this country to the EU. The UK’s exemption from the sanctions proposal will be explicit, and there will be no shift of sovereignty from Westminster to Brussels. The report makes that clear, agreeing that

“strengthened enforcement measures need to be implemented for all EU Member States, except the UK as a consequence of Protocol 15 of the Treaty”.

While we are looking at problems in the EU, I should like to say that we have serious concerns about the proposed size of the 2011 EU budget. I was shocked to see that on the day of the spending review, the vast majority of Labour MEPs voted against a freeze in the EU budget. When countries across Europe are taking tough decisions to put their public finances in order, it would be wrong—unjust, even—to have a 6% rise in next year’s EU budget, as has been suggested. We cannot accept that and will fight it hard. We are protecting British interests in the EU and doing what is right for our country and our people, and the Prime Minister will update the House next week.

I am most grateful. Unfortunately, the explanation that we have just heard from the Minister does not answer all the questions that arise in this matter. In particular, the Chancellor of the Exchequer was on the taskforce, and the Council’s recommendation is that these moves should strengthen economic governance

“in the EU and the euro area”,

in other words not excluding the UK,

“and can be implemented within the existing Treaties.”

I am grateful to the Minister for agreeing, as I suggested, that he should place in the Library a copy of the taskforce report and the Chancellor’s submission to the taskforce on 9 July, so that everybody can read them.

The point remains that the six regulations and directives that the European Scrutiny Committee will consider this afternoon are still on the table. Mr Van Rompuy indicated yesterday at a meeting of COSAC—the chairmen of European scrutiny committees—which I attended, that there are uncertainties about the legal position. I think I am getting his words correct and that he said that the situation did not totally respect all the traditional rules of the European Union. Mr Van Rompuy also called for agreement because, he said, people are our citizens and not just voters.

Given that there are now six legislative proposals—it is claimed that they are based on the existing treaty, but we cannot assume that they are—and that the ESC will consider them today, and that they appear to carry forward in part the Van Rompuy recommendations, what requires a new treaty?

The treaty will affect the UK and our sovereign Parliament in respect of its control over UK fiscal policy, tax and economic governance, including the question of the rebate. We are glad to hear that the Government reject the increase proposed by the European Parliament, but will the Minister reply to this simple question: will the Government veto the treaty, and if not, will they guarantee that, in accordance with the wishes of the voters in the United Kingdom, we have a referendum on that issue?

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for raising those points. May I just advise him that the final meeting of the taskforce took place on 18 October? I attended that taskforce, as did my right hon. Friend the Chancellor. We ensured that the language in the taskforce report guaranteed that sanctions would not apply to the UK. Paragraph 18 of the taskforce report refers

“to the specific situation of the UK in relation to Protocol 15 of the Treaties.”

In addition, paragraph 4 states that the measures set out in the taskforce report can be implemented through

“EU secondary legislation…within the existing legal framework of the European Union”,

so nothing in the report requires a treaty change. I am aware that France and Germany have suggested that there may be treaty changes, but we have yet to see the details of such proposals, which would be made to the European Council at the weekend.

Will the Minister explain why the Prime Minister needs a further week before he updates the House on those matters? Could that be because he has yet to figure out exactly what the Government’s position is? Surely after looking at those negotiations, he recognises that this is an embarrassing position for the Government to be in, because the coalition’s policy on new European initiatives as they are introduced is far from clear.

We are still none the wiser, even though this issue was supposed to be debated today. It remains under “Future Business” on the Order Paper under a motion tabled by the Minister, which proposes that the House

“supports the Government’s approach to improving the functioning of the eurozone and reinforcing economic stability across the EU.”

If the Government are asking us to support their approach, could the Minister tell us what his policy is? It is clear to the House that one lesson we need to learn from the financial crisis is the need for better co-operation between Governments at European and global—G20—level, obviously to ensure that we address the imbalances in the worldwide economy that were the root cause of the crisis.

Of course, the euro area needs to sort out its own difficulties. We have supported eurozone countries in that respect in the past while making it clear that the UK taxpayer cannot be expected to bear the burden, but does the Minister agree that our focus in this country needs to be on jobs, housing and growth, not further rounds of navel-gazing on European governance?

If the Government were regarded as a serious player in Europe, they would have led and not followed these developments over the weekend. There are several reports from various quarters about a set of different policy outcomes—the President of the EU says one thing, and the French President and German Chancellor look set to propose changes to the treaty—but where was the Prime Minister during those conversations?

The Government are quite clearly too scared to talk even to some of their own Back Benchers on that question, but has the Prime Minister spoken to the Deputy Prime Minister about these matters? Whatever the Minister says, there are three wings to the coalition: half of the Conservative party want to leave the EU, the Lib Dems want to go head first into the euro, and the rump of the Government, represented by the Minister, are left straddling those two positions—they are the only ones with nothing to say. Is it not clear that the Prime Minister is isolated within his own coalition? It is no wonder that he is isolated in Europe.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has been absent from the House for some time, and he is a little rusty on some of these things, but I am sure that he will recollect that the practice followed by previous Prime Ministers was to report back to the House on the Monday after a European Council, not before. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will make the statement that would be customarily expected of him.

It is important to ensure that we learn the lessons from the financial crisis. It was clear in the run-up to that crisis that fiscal discipline was lax not just in the euro area, but in the UK and other states. We have led the way in this debate by introducing the Office for Budget Responsibility, with a clear fiscal mandate for eliminating the structural deficit by 2014-15. The fact that we have led the debate is recognised by international bodies such as the OECD, the International Monetary Fund and others. We have set our mark on the debate in Europe, which is the right thing to do. It is right that other member states should achieve the same high standards of fiscal discipline as we do. We are leading the debate in Europe, not following it. The previous Government were silent on that, so what is the Opposition’s position now?

Order. I would remind the House that if I am to accommodate a reasonable number of colleagues within the very limited time frame available, brevity in both questions and answers is essential.

Can the Minister confirm that even if the proposed treaty concerns only and exclusively the member states of the eurozone, it would still require the support of the British Government to go ahead? Can he assure me that that support will not be given without obtaining concessions in return, such as the return of powers to this country that were unnecessarily given? Can he assure me that we will not give that support without demanding a price? This is the ideal opportunity to obtain that price.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point, but I would point out to him that, at the moment, there are no proposed treaty changes on the table. That may happen at the European Council next weekend, and we should respond to those treaty changes as they arise. However, I go back to the comments that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made: we will not agree to any changes to EU treaties that move more powers from this country to the EU.

The Minister says that there are no treaty changes on the table. Theoretically that is true, but he must be aware that in the statement issued after the meeting between Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy last week in Deauville, they made it explicit that they intended to put forward treaty changes and that the ambition of those changes would extend beyond simply the eurozone, which will have clear implications for the United Kingdom. In that case, will the Minister re-emphasise his clear statement—which I welcome—that the United Kingdom will not contemplate treaty changes that interfere with the right of the British Government and of this House to determine our own economic policy, including our own exchange rate policy?

Indeed, that is why we have secured a clear and explicit exclusion in the report from the Van Rompuy taskforce—an exclusion based on the Lisbon treaty, but also based on the opt-out that we secured from the Maastricht treaty—so that the sanctions do not apply to the UK. As I have said, at the moment there are no detailed treaty changes on the table. We will have to wait and see what the French and Germans put forward at the weekend.

May I remind my hon. Friend that those of us who opposed the formation of the euro in principle warned that it would be a disaster, and that we have been vindicated by events? May I warn him now that the Government’s aspiration somehow to assist in creating a stable and strong euro area will be a vain attempt? The Government had better plan for the continuing disaster of a currency without a state, which is bound to be unstable in the long term.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. There are many sound arguments against the euro, and that is why we have ruled out joining it. However, it does us no favours to see a weak and unstable eurozone. It is important for eurozone countries to have strong fiscal discipline to ensure stability. The taskforce introduces a mechanism for eurozone countries to try to deliver that.

Have you noticed, Mr Speaker, that all the Liberal Democrats have mysteriously disappeared from the Treasury Bench as this subject has been debated? I would welcome the views of the right hon. Gentlemen on the Treasury Bench on housing benefit, but may I say to the Minister that I welcome, I think, his clear statement to the House that he is not prepared to go and dwell on planet Cash? He has made it absolutely clear that the Government are not going to veto the treaty, and I welcome that sensible Euro-pragmatism from the new Government.

I am not entirely sure which planet the right hon. Gentleman is on at the moment. We need to ensure that the eurozone functions effectively, but we have secured an opt-out from the sanctions proposals, originally through the opt-out in the Maastricht treaty and reinforced by the Lisbon treaty. That is the right place for this country to be in, and that is why the coalition Government are right behind that position.

May I congratulate my right hon. and hon. Friends on their refreshing approach of standing up for Britain’s interests in Europe, in contrast to that of Labour Members and their MEPs? Will they bear in mind, however, that there is little appetite for any extension of the competence of the EU into economic governance through any legal framework, whether by treaty or otherwise? There is still less trust in the institutions of the European Union, including the Commission, given the way in which the competence of the EU is for ever being expanded and the fact that previous safeguards in other areas have turned to dust.

My hon. Friend makes an important point. I know that he thinks about these issues very deeply, and I would encourage him to read the final report of the taskforce. It sets out our exemptions explicitly, and he will recognise that they will protect the UK’s position and help to develop a strong and stable eurozone, which is also in our long-term economic interests. The document makes it clear that we are outside the sanctions regime that applies to members of the eurozone and others.

I spent yesterday in Berlin talking to German politicians, and I think that the British Government will discover treaty changes pretty quickly. Those politicians feel that the stability and growth plan is dead, and that it is not the mechanism to take us forward. May I urge the Minister to answer a specific question? Given that 25 of the 27 member states either are members of the eurozone or will have to become members under treaty obligation, and that only two have an opt-out, does he agree that anything that would strengthen the financial and economic co-ordination of the 25, plus the two with opt-outs, would represent a diminution of our sovereign ability to exert our influence and would therefore be subject to a referendum here?

As I reiterated earlier—and as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made clear—we will not endorse a treaty that transfers sovereignty from Westminster to the EU. The hon. Lady takes a close interest in these matters, and I know that she will recognise that views among member states about the desirability of treaty changes vary, and that the UK is not the only one that is concerned about this.

In June, Ministers made a big deal of the fact that the UK Budget would not need to be submitted to EU institutions before it was brought to the House of Commons. Will the Minister confirm that, in fact, the UK pre-Budget report data are part of the European semester process, and that, while we might be exempt from sanctions, we are part of that surveillance? Will he be honest and admit that we are part of the EU fiscal scrutiny process?

I believe that this Parliament should hear news about this country’s finances before the EU does. We have secured that situation and that was the right thing to do.

The Minister also mentioned the increase in the EU’s budget by 6%. Does he agree that many people in this country—in fact, the vast majority—will be deeply disappointed by the Prime Minister’s reply to the hon. Member for Vauxhall (Kate Hoey) during Prime Minister’s questions, in which he seemed to be limiting his ambition to reduce the size of the increase in the EU budget? Should not the Government just go there and argue for, and deliver, a cut in the EU budget?

The right hon. Gentleman needs to remember that we voted against the budget increase in Council. We have taken a tough line, not only by arguing against it but by voting against it as well.

The Minister has drawn our attention to paragraph 18 of the report. I am curious about paragraph 16, which refers to “New reputational and political measures”, including the threat of “enhanced surveillance”. Would the British fiscal position be subject to enhanced surveillance in certain circumstances, and what would that mean?

I take the view that the measures that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has announced in relation to strengthening the fiscal framework, and the consolidation that he announced last week, will ensure that we will not be subject to any surveillance whatever.

It is all very well for this taskforce to report on the fiscal discipline of eurozone countries, but what about the fiscal discipline of the European Union generally? It has not even got its accounts properly audited. What are we going to do not only to stop the budget going up but to achieve a cut in the amount of money that we have to pay to the European Union? If we want to ask people what they feel about this, let us have a referendum on whether we should be paying more to the European Union.

The hon. Lady makes some sensible points about this matter, but she needs to speak to some of her own colleagues in the European Parliament, because they voted against the freeze on the budget. And of course it was her right hon. and hon. Friends who gave away some of our rebate as well. That is part of the problem that this Government are trying to sort out.

Whenever the Minister defends this country from a power grab and a cash grab by the European Union, he will have the enthusiastic support of Members on these Benches. Some of us are rather nervous, however, because when the Conservatives were in opposition, they opposed the European External Action Service, yet they sang its praises when introducing it in the House not long ago. They also opposed giving more money to the European Union, yet they recently rubber-stamped an increase through this House that had been agreed by the previous Government. Does the Minister agree that his Government should be judged on what they do, and not on what they say?

Absolutely. That is why I would encourage my hon. Friend to read this document. He will see the gains that we have managed to secure in Europe to defend our position.

Does the Minister welcome the united approach of the coalition Government working together, under which the Prime Minister sent the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) to Brussels yesterday to duff over the EU President and soften up the EU so that the Prime Minister can finish the job this weekend?

I reserve judgment at this stage as to whether the expression “duff over” constitutes parliamentary language, but the hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) has got away with it on this occasion.