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European Union

Volume 534: debated on Tuesday 25 October 2011

3. What the Government’s priorities are for the European Union in the next year; and if he will make a statement. (76295)

The Government’s immediate priority is for the eurozone to find a sustainable response to the current economic crisis, and to do so in a way that protects the rights of all 27 member states to take decisions over areas such as the single market. Beyond that, we shall continue to press for tight limits on EU spending and action to promote growth and jobs, through free and open markets, and by cutting regulatory costs on European business.

I thank the Minister for his reply. Just in case the House has not debated Europe enough in the past 24 hours, can he shed any light on why the Leader of the Opposition thinks that the Prime Minister was mistaken to stand up to the French President at the weekend? Is it not essential that Britain is represented at the EU meetings this week for the sake of our economy?

Order. This question is on the responsibilities of the Prime Minister and not those of the Leader of the Opposition.

My hon. Friend is right. Not just this House but the country will be glad that they have a Prime Minister who will stand up for the interests of this country, even at the cost of an occasional row.

But how is UK influence enhanced by the loose talk by the Prime Minister and other senior Cabinet Ministers of the repatriation of powers? What exactly is the Government’s policy on that? Can the Minister name a single other EU country that would support it?

The reality is that if the eurozone proceeds, as economic logic demands, towards closer economic and fiscal integration, there will be consequences for the whole EU. As part of that negotiation, we intend to insist that, as a first step, the interests of the 27 are protected over matters such as the single market, and that the particular British interest in financial services is properly safeguarded.

Those of us who opposed the creation of the single currency when John Major’s Government were sitting on the fence view with horror the prospect that its failure may now lead to the economic unification and economic government of Europe. Will the Minister reassure us that Britain would not countenance supporting such a mad and undemocratic idea?

Part of the critique that both my hon. Friend and I have consistently made of the single currency is that, in the absence of closer fiscal and economic union, a single monetary policy and interest rate would not be sustainable. However, it is the sovereign right of other European countries to choose whether to pursue closer integration now, and it would be disastrous for the UK were the eurozone to suffer a financial collapse or prolonged recession.

I want to take the Minister back to the repatriation of powers. The Government’s coalition agreement from last May promises that the Government

“will examine the balance of the EU’s existing competences”.

What progress has been made on this examination, has it come to any conclusions and, if so, will the Minister place them in the Library of the House of Commons?

The work has started. It is in its early stages, though, because in our first year in office we gave priority to implementing the referendum lock to try to repair the damage done to public trust in the EU by the right hon. Gentleman’s Government and their denying people the referendum on the Lisbon treaty that had been promised. That work will continue, and I would welcome constructive suggestions from the Opposition as much as from any part of the House as that work is carried forward.

I thank the Minister for that elucidating answer. This morning, the Deputy Prime Minister said that the return of powers from the EU to Britain was not going to happen. How does the Minister reconcile those remarks with the earlier remarks this morning from the Education Secretary? Do these remarks suggest that the coalition Government have no intention of seeking the transfer of powers and that all the Conservative party’s talk on this issue is simply an attempt to placate its own Back Benchers?

My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister spoke about rebalancing the responsibilities of the EU and member states in the light of potentially dramatic changes to how the EU is organised. Frankly, it is a bit rich for the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire South (Mr Alexander) to lecture us, given that his party leader will not rule out joining the euro, rejects the idea that Brussels has too much power and claims that the President of France speaks for the British people. That makes the right hon. Gentleman a spokesman for a party that has no relevant contribution to make to the future of Europe.