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Commission Work Programme 2013

Volume 556: debated on Monday 7 January 2013

[Relevant document: The Twenty-first Report from the European Scrutiny Committee, HC 86-xxi.]

We are obliged to the Whip for his enthusiasm, but it would be useful to hear the reasons for considering the question. I call the Minister to move the motion.

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 15691/12 and Addendum, a Commission Communication on the Commission Work Programme 2013, and welcomes the Work Programme as a useful summary that enables the Government and Parliament to plan their engagement.

I welcome the fact that the European Scrutiny Committee has referred this subject for debate. Today’s debate on the 2013 work programme of the European Commission provides us with a timely opportunity for both Government and Parliament to look ahead and plan our consideration of forthcoming European Union business.

As is always the case, the work programme sets out the European Commission’s priorities, in this instance for 2013 and early 2014; and it may be the last substantial work programme under the current Commission, whose term ends in October 2014. The substance of the Commission’s plans is contained in the annex, which previews 58 initiatives, making it shorter than previous work programmes. However, we know that the list of initiatives is unlikely to be exhaustive; previous experience suggests that reactive work will arise. As the House is aware, various European measures from previous Commission work programmes are already in the system, and work on those will be ongoing over the next 12 months or so.

The Minister mentioned reactive legislation. Is any reflective work done? Eleven years ago, 2012 was supposed to be the year when Europe was the most competitive economy in the world. What went wrong?

We could spend a fair time debating exactly what went wrong and the extent to which fault should be laid at the door of European institutions or of various national Governments who failed to implement the right economic measures to inculcate greater dynamism. I make no bones about the fact that the European Union as a whole would benefit from focusing—perhaps not to the exclusion of everything else, but ahead of all other priorities—on the urgent need for Europe as a whole to rediscover economic dynamism and economic growth through trade and open markets, because in the face of a dramatically changing global economy, that is the only way Governments of European nations can ensure that future generations enjoy both the material standards of living and the degree of social protection that we have come to take for granted in our day.

I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether there is provision in the Commission work programme to deal with the new relationship for the United Kingdom that I believe the Prime Minister will be sketching in his forthcoming speech.

I appreciate that my right hon. Friend finds it hard to contain his excitement at the prospect of the Prime Minister’s speech. He will, however, understand if I decline to be drawn into speculating about the contents of that speech today. I am very confident indeed that when my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister makes his promised speech on European policy, it will address the important issues facing both the United Kingdom and Europe as a whole, and will chart a way forward that is in the interests of the people of this country in particular and the peoples of Europe more broadly.

As the Minister is waxing eloquent about the Prime Minister’s forthcoming speech, could he tell me whether the Prime Minister intends to consult the Deputy Prime Minister and his own Back Benchers?

I do not know whether that was a bid from the hon. Gentleman to be involved in the No. 10 drafting team. The Prime Minister will prepare his speech in the way he normally prepares such speeches within Government. The hon. Gentleman will not have to wait long to see the speech and I am sure that he will be first in the queue to express enthusiasm and a warm welcome for what my right hon. Friend has to say.

Again, I have to say that the hon. Gentleman must wait to see what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has to say in his forthcoming speech, but I am sure that the answers to the questions that he and other Members have about the speech will be answered in full when my right hon. Friend makes it.

I will, but I hope that the House will understand that I then wish to make progress in this time-limited debate.

Further to the questions from Opposition Members, can my right hon. Friend assure me that the Prime Minister will look at the Fresh Start project manifesto that he and other colleagues on the Government Benches received in draft form over the Christmas recess? It proposes significant reforms to Britain’s relationship with the EU.

My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary and I follow closely the work that my hon. Friend the Member for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom) and the Fresh Start group are doing. We think that their ideas represent an extremely creative and valuable contribution to the debate about this country’s future in Europe.

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to allow me to continue. Perhaps he could try to intervene later; I will seek to give way to him then.

Overall, we agree with the Commission that the No. 1 task facing the European Union is to tackle the economic crisis, return Europe to growth and enable its member states to compete in the global economy. Globalisation means that the EU faces increased competition from rapidly developing countries outside Europe, but it also brings us opportunities to build new markets for our products and services. To meet those challenges, the European Union should prioritise the promotion of trade, within the EU and outside it. It should seek to free private enterprise and enable businesses to compete, and it should support those priorities by ensuring that the limits of EU power are respected. I would therefore like to highlight three cross-cutting themes that are of the highest importance to the Government: growth, better regulation, and safeguarding the interests of the United Kingdom. I shall deal first with growth.

The Minister is talking about the importance of European Union member states competing in the world, and indeed with each other. The only way that they can do that fairly is if they have an appropriate value for their currency. They cannot have that when they are fixed inside the euro.

I think that this country’s decision to stay outside the euro was right. I am certainly not in the least tempted to see the United Kingdom abolish sterling and participate in the euro, but I say to the hon. Gentleman that we, as a democratically elected House, have to respect the sovereign decisions of other European democracies that have chosen, for reasons of their own that they have explained publicly, to commit themselves to the single currency project.

Will the Minister explain to the House how the work programme will fit in with the principles of the presidencies that will take place this year? As he knows, Ireland has taken over the presidency, and has presidency priorities. In six months’ time, another country will take over. How will that fit in with what the Commission intends to do?

The way this works, as the right hon. Gentleman will know from when he held my position, is that the Commission, under the treaties, has the right to initiate legislation, but even in the post-Lisbon world, the rotating six-monthly presidency chairs the various sectoral Council meetings and working groups, and has considerable influence in determining the relative priorities given to particular measures. A presidency may choose to try to fast-track a particular measure, and use its diplomatic resources to seek early agreement on it; it may place another measure, about which it cares less, on the back-burner. There is negotiation between the presidency and the Commission in that respect.

The Government have long argued for the Commission to come forward with measures to help boost growth, through agreements with important trading partners, and by strengthening and deepening the single market. I am sure that the House will welcome the news that, last month, the European Union successfully concluded a free trade agreement with Singapore, which will create new opportunities for United Kingdom businesses, particularly in the export of services, green technologies, automotive, electronic and pharmaceutical items, and medical devices. There are also opportunities to bid for public procurement contracts in Singapore.

We will continue to work on many more such agreements. I hope that it will be possible to conclude the proposed EU free trade agreement with Canada in the coming weeks, to open negotiations between the EU and the United States by the summer, and to take forward free trade negotiations with Japan. We will also continue to support efforts to achieve EU free trade agreements with India, Malaysia and other countries.

On free trade agreements with the United States, does the Minister agree with me and with many commentators that the chances of the European Union getting effective agreement with the United States will be significantly less if the UK is not part of the negotiation, and that it is in the UK’s interests that the European Union is able to negotiate effectively with the United States and other countries, which would not be possible if we were outside?

I have always taken the view that if the United Kingdom were to walk away from the table, the most ardent and most influential champion for free trade and open markets would be removing itself. I am quite clear in my mind, particularly with the pressures that we can observe globally for protection rather than free trade, that it is important that we continue to bring our influence to bear within the European Union and within other multilateral organisations to promote greater freedom of trade across the world.

My right hon. Friend, in line with many other members of our party, is deeply committed to the idea of free trade, but given that the European Union has exclusive competence in relation to trade, and with the qualified majority vote and with our having only 8% now, and only 12% even when the Lisbon treaty proposals are introduced in a few months, how will we be able to exercise the degree of influence that he claims, and how will we maintain bilateral trading relations, which will be the answer to all these problems?

I have more confidence than does my hon. Friend in our ability to form alliances with other countries to achieve the objectives that he and I share. Our right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has already discussed at length with Chancellor Merkel their shared objective of an ambitious free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States. The leaders of our country and of Germany recognise that the prize at stake is not only the phasing out of tariff barriers but the elimination of non-tariff barriers, thereby establishing, in effect, global regulatory standards agreed on a Euro-Atlantic basis, which would have to become the model for the rest of the world and which other parts of the world would find it difficult to challenge.

It is often said that if this country were to leave the European Union, we would get all the disbenefits of all the European laws, without any of the benefits implied. Will he tell us, therefore, how many EU laws Singapore has adopted, or any EU laws that the United States will adopt if a free trade agreement is arrived at?

The arrangements for dismantling barriers, for the mutual recognition of each other’s standards or for a common standard are negotiated and set down in writing in the terms of a free trade agreement. I am happy to send the hon. Gentleman a copy of the EU-Singapore free trade agreement if he wishes, so that he can inspect this in detail.

It is to the advantage of business and, therefore, ultimately of workers and consumers in the United Kingdom that more such free trade agreements are achieved, particularly with the fast-growing economies of Asia and Latin America.

I am grateful to the Minister, who is being extremely generous. I have great concerns about Colombia and the move towards EU free trade with the Colombian regime, as I refer to it. Under President Santos there are ongoing human rights abuses and there is a huge issue concerning the current peace discussions with the FARC. When considering the work programme, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind the huge problems with Colombia?

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman knows, there are standard human rights clauses in all EU free trade agreements. I am aware that these human rights issues, particularly the rights of trade unionists in Colombia, have long concerned politicians and Ministers not just in the UK but in a number of other European countries. This is a live issue and it is one that we raise bilaterally with our friends in Colombia.

The European Council has called on the Commission to publish the proposals already identified in its communication on the Single Market Act II by the spring of this year, and it is encouraging that the work programme includes measures to improve the single market in both services and digital, such as those on access to regulated professions, reducing the cost of broadband deployment and e-invoicing.

We also welcome measures that aim to put the EU economy on a more sustainable long-term footing, including through innovation and the green economy, such as a new climate and energy framework up to 2030. We also support measures to improve transparency and customer protection and to tackle systemic risks in financial services. Better financial regulation is necessary to financial stability, and common rules are essential to safeguard the single market and the competitiveness of the UK’s financial services sector.

However, the Commission also needs to ensure that its proposals on complex financial services dossiers are properly worked out through the legislative process and that new proposals do not simply add to the existing backlog. We believe that the Commission should prioritise only the most important issues to ensure that sufficient time and expertise can be devoted to them, and that proper consultation takes place with practitioners in that sector.

We are concerned about the potential impact of a relatively small number of measures that are labelled as growth promoting. Those include the review of the institutions for occupational retirement pensions directive, which could significantly increase the cost of occupational pensions and reduce investment.

Right across the range of single market and other measures, we are working closely with the Commission, other member states and the European Parliament to encourage them to follow smart regulation principles. This brings me to the second important theme for the Government in the work programme.

Tackling regulatory burdens on business is vital for boosting economic growth. While EU regulation is needed in some areas—for example, in eliminating barriers to the single market—we need to reduce unnecessary costs to business from EU regulation. Our chances of heading off or shaping new EU regulations are much higher if we influence the European Commission before it has published a formal legislative proposal, so the Government use the Commission work programme to identify forthcoming proposals, and challenge the Commission about these in the early stages. We share feedback from British businesses on the potential impacts of proposals and build alliances with other member states so that we speak with a louder voice in Brussels.

I am grateful to the Minister for recognising that it is extremely important that Select Committees of this House are made aware at an early stage of developing legislative proposals in Europe in time to influence them, and I hope that he will continue attempting to ensure that the invaluable help that comes from UK representatives to Select Committees is strengthened and that they are enabled to do this vital job.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for what he says. It is true that the departmental Select Committees of this House can play an important role complementing the work of the European Scrutiny Committee by trying to look ahead of formal legislative proposals being tabled for scrutiny. The sort of work that the Select Committees can do in taking evidence from those business sectors that may be affected by a particular Commission initiative, producing evidence-based reports, can help better to inform the Government’s negotiating position and, on occasion, can have a direct impact on thinking within the European institutions themselves. I welcome what my right hon. Friend says and I hope that other Select Committee Chairs will look to the example that he and, in fairness, a number of others have set.

My right hon. Friend will know that the European Scrutiny Committee is currently holding an inquiry into European Scrutiny Committee matters. Does he accept that timing is very important? What my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Sir Alan Beith) has just said is, of course, extremely welcome, but does the Minister not accept that unless the Government are prepared to release the information they have early enough, it could turn out to be far less valuable? Therefore, could not the Government ensure that we all get the information as early as they do?

I am always willing to explore how the Government can help to make information available to Parliament, particularly its Committees, in a way that enables a better informed debate and allows Parliament an input at the earliest stage in proceedings. As my hon. Friend will be the first to understand, there is always a balance to be struck between our wish on the one hand to do that and our concern on the other hand not to divulge ahead of negotiations all the details of our negotiating position, including on those areas that are the highest priority objectives and those on which we might be prepared to make concessions. However, I am always happy to look at concrete ideas for improving how we do business.

In the interests of better scrutiny, does not my right hon. Friend also agree that it would be a good idea for this House to consider whether we ought to have European business questions periodically, rather than just on these unusual occasions? Without wishing unilaterally to promote him, should not it also be considered whether Secretary for Europe should in fact be a Cabinet post?

It is always nice to be flattered, but to attempt an answer really would be well above my pay grade—

Order. I am sure that the Minister of State hopes that the point has been heard by the Whip on duty.

Mr Speaker, the Whips on duty hear everything.

Overall, the Government have achieved some success in trying to shift the Commission away from a culture of regulation. Our reform agenda has widespread support and 12 other member states joined us in November in backing a 10-point plan for EU smart regulation. On 12 December the Commission published a new better regulation strategy, which includes a proposal that the Commission should use EU common commencement dates, which ought to help businesses plan for changes in regulation. It has also promised to introduce summary sheets for impact assessments to make it easier for businesses to assess the cost of new legislation.

Has not the EU been legislating all my lifetime? It has far more regulation than anyone could conceivably want. Why does it not have a year off? How can the Minister possibly say that it is going our way when all we see is more and more needless, time-consuming and costly regulation?

To be fair, that is a charge my right hon. Friend has levied not only at the European Union but at successive Governments in this country. I certainly agree that too often the European Commission’s first instinct—to be fair, too often it is the first instinct of Departments of State in this country—is to measure its activity and political success by the number of new legislative measures it invents and takes through the legislative process. Often—I certainly believe this is true at European level—more could be achieved more effectively and significantly more cheaply through a sensible exchange of best practice, by looking at what works in one member state but perhaps does not work in another and seeing whether it is possible to encourage the dissemination of best practice rather than always looking at legislative measures as the first step.

I do not want to exaggerate the extent to which the Government have been able to shift a deeply ingrained culture that looks to legislation, but I think that it is important that the House appreciates that we have managed to secure some changes that none of our predecessors, of either party, managed to secure. Last year we got agreement to a measure under which businesses with fewer than 10 employees should be exempt altogether from any new EU legislative proposals unless there was a good reason for their inclusion. This is the first time in the EU’s history that the default position has been that there should be an exemption from regulations rather than the inclusion of all companies within them. Agreement was reached, too, that lighter regimes should be developed for those occasions when such businesses needed to be included. For example, in March last year agreement was reached that exempted up to 1.5 million UK small businesses from certain European Union accounting rules.

The Minister says that there will be an exemption unless proved otherwise. What is the mechanism whereby we keep track and action is reported back to us, because we hear this year after year but nothing happens?

The hon. Lady makes a perfectly fair comment. That is why at European Council after European Council my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister keeps coming back to the charge and saying, “We all agreed as Heads of State and Government two or three months ago that the Commission should come forward with a set of proposals on smarter regulation; now we want to see what it has actually been doing in the meantime.” One of the key objectives of the Prime Minister and of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills is to ensure that we do not simply relax having achieved a paragraph in the conclusions of a European Council that commits everybody to a measure of deregulation but follow it through so that in all our conversations with the Commission, in our work with MEPs, and in the work that we do bilaterally with other member states we try to co-ordinate a more growth-friendly approach across the European Union. These high-level declarations need to be nailed down in terms of concrete action, and the Commission should be expected to report back. We are making progress on that. I am the first to say that there is still a great deal more to do, and we will encourage the Commission to consider further and more ambitious measures.

I suggest that the Minister uses the word “ambitious” because annexe 2 of the programme refers to “simplification” and “administration burden reduction initiatives”. There are three of those, two of which are legislative and one non-legislative. If one turns to the rest of the work programme and goes through the entire list, one finds that 48 of the 58 are new legislation. I am afraid to have to say to my right hon. Friend that ambition is one thing and vanity is another.

My hon. Friend displays his usual prescience in these matters, because I was about to refer to the list that he recited. The Government welcome the inclusion in the work programme of a list of simplification measures, but we need to be vigilant to ensure that they deliver genuine savings for business. The list of 14 withdrawn proposals that the Commission has published is disappointing, because those measures are obsolete already or are due to be replaced by further proposals. The Commission needs to do much better than that to remove unnecessary or excessive legislation from the statute book, and not only the Government of the United Kingdom but the Governments of a significant number of other like-minded member states are committed to achieving that.

On the commitment to reducing the burden of these legislative measures, does the Minister have any idea of how many we would like to get rid of? Are we suggesting that anything is dropped instead of just waiting for the Commission to show us what it is proposing?

Yes. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills keeps returning to this point. The working time directive is one example that the Prime Minister mentioned again in his television interview on Sunday. The best thing I can do for my hon. Friend is to undertake that I or one of my colleagues in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will write to her with more detail on this point.

A third important theme for the Government is safeguarding the United Kingdom’s interests as a sovereign state. As set out in the coalition agreement, we will not participate in the establishment of a European public prosecutor and the UK will not exercise its opt-in for this measure, which is proposed in the Commission’s work programme. Several other measures in the area of justice and home affairs will also trigger opt-in decisions. These will be considered on a case-by-case basis, with a view to maximising our country’s security, protecting civil liberties, preserving the integrity of our criminal justice and common law systems, and controlling immigration.

We also have concerns about subsidiarity in relation to a small number of items in the work programme, such as those with regard to standardising VAT forms throughout the EU. Parliament, of course, has an important role to play in this regard, not least in deploying the additional powers that it has under the Lisbon treaty to issue a reasoned opinion when it considers that a proposal is not consistent with the principle of subsidiarity.

I hope that today’s debate will set the tone for close consultation between Parliament and Government on European Union issues in 2013 and beyond. We consider Parliament’s role to be vital in strengthening democratic oversight of EU activity and, more broadly, in improving trust in the decision-making process between citizens, Parliament and Government, and fuelling a well-informed public debate on EU matters.

Of course, responsibility for most of the measures in the work programme lies with other Government Departments and not the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, but I will be happy to discuss further, both with the European Scrutiny Committee and departmental Select Committees, how best to engage in a deeper dialogue about EU issues during all stages of their development. The scrutiny of EU legislation by Parliament is vital to the robust functioning of democracy.

I say to the Minister that we and the Liaison Committee have had that dialogue and that it is now delivery time.

It is right to say that it is delivery time, but that means that it is delivery time for Parliament as well as for Government. It has to be for each of the relevant Select Committees to decide the way in which they should give, perhaps, a higher priority to their EU responsibilities, which are, after all, included in their terms of reference under Standing Orders. The Government are taking their responsibilities seriously and I look forward to working with not just my right hon. Friend but the other Committee Chairs in successfully providing the level of scrutiny and debate on European matters that I think we all wish to see. That is why I welcome the opportunity for debate today and I commend the motion to the House.

I welcome the opportunity to discuss the European Commission’s work programme for 2013. In opening, I apologise to you, Mr Speaker, and the House for missing the first couple of minutes of the Europe Minister’s speech, but I promise him that I listened attentively to the rest of it.

As set out in the European Scrutiny Committee report, the work programme follows on from the Commission President’s annual speech last September and serves as a blueprint for the Commission’s activities over the next 12 months. I agree with the Committee’s assessment that the work programme is a useful tool for the departmental Select Committees. The Liaison Committee has underlined that examining Commission proposals is one of the core tasks of the departmental Select Committees, and as such the proposals in the work programme will, I hope, be a useful starting point for further scrutiny.

I echo the Europe Minister’s welcome for the 2013 work programme’s improved coherence and greater strategic focus compared with previous years. Last year there were 129 policy initiatives; this year there are 58. It is right that the Commission focuses on the areas in which it can be most effective. The initiatives are largely grouped into seven strategic areas and I will start by considering the first and most important of those areas, namely the establishment of a genuine economic and monetary union.

The eurozone crisis will rightly continue to dominate the EU’s thinking and activities in 2013. Last year ended with some positive steps towards banking union being taken at the December summit, and the measures set out in the work programme will build on those positive steps. Putting the single currency on a stable long-term footing is in the interests not only of eurozone countries, but of non-eurozone countries such as the UK. It is therefore right that that is a priority.

The eurozone crisis was triggered by a crisis in the global financial sector. Concerns remain about the solvency of some of the larger medium-sized European banks, so it is necessary to establish the means to separate the link between weak and undercapitalised banking systems and sovereign debt. Such an agreement will help to build confidence in the eurozone and bring about greater long-term stability. We therefore support the progress towards building a genuine economic and monetary union in the proposals contained in the work programme for 2013. Within that process, it is crucial that the interests and rights of non-eurozone member states such as the UK are respected, and that the integrity of the single market is protected. We welcome the Commission’s commitment in the same section to

“take action to fight tax fraud and evasion, including an initiative on tax havens”.

I turn to the Commission’s proposals on deepening the single market. The European Union’s single market is a great success story. In a world dominated by economic giants such as the US, China and India, countries around the world are co-operating more closely with their neighbours. Increased regionalisation has become a defining force. For example, south America has Mercosur and south-east Asia has the Association of Southeast Asian Nations. The European single market is often a model from which others take inspiration.

The European Commission is right that to remain competitive in the global economy, the single market must continue to adapt and develop. Without reform, the potential of the single market will not be realised. That is why we continue to support the completion of the single market, particularly with regard to the digital economy and the services sector. It is our view that the progress in those areas is often too slow.

I imagine that the hon. Lady does not recall the White Paper published by the European Commission in June 1985—a huge great thing about an inch deep—on completing the internal market by 1992. Here we are in 2012, some 30 years later. Does she believe that there has been progress?

I was alive during that year, but I know that the hon. Gentleman was already reading documents and making speeches on these issues then. We must consider the complexities of the markets in question and the number of member states—as a country, we pushed for a European Union of 27 member states. No other regional co-operation in the world has produced a more successful single market. As I have said, many bodies around the world that want to co-operate more closely and to form similar internal markets are looking to the EU as a source of inspiration. I hope we can now get back to 2013.

The Leader of the Opposition recently made a very interesting speech, in which he said that Labour had probably been a little too lax on migrants coming into this country during its period in office and that there was going to be a new policy. What would the hon. Lady like to see in the Commission’s work programme to ensure that we can have proper controls on our borders?

That would be an innovative use of the Commission’s work programme, given that that is not an element of it. The Leader of the Opposition did say in a recent speech that we got it wrong in government and that we should not have had an open-door policy in 2004. I think that we should have been more in line with our European partners. We were one of the small handful of countries that had an open-door policy right from the start. Germany and other countries had transition periods, and we are certainly committed to them in the future.

Developing modern and efficient infrastructure, both digital and physical, is central to ensuring that the single market adapts to a rapidly changing world. It would be impossible for member states of the EU to meet the challenges of tomorrow using the tools of yesterday. We therefore welcome many of the proposals in the “Connect to Compete” section of the programme, particularly those to tackle obstacles to electronic payments across borders.

In the “Growth for jobs” section of the work programme, the Commission is right to express the concern that

“high unemployment, increased poverty and social exclusion risk becoming structural”

in Europe if no action is taken. It is an absolute tragedy that one in every two young people in Greece and Spain is out of work. Here in the UK, youth unemployment is too high and long-term unemployment is a real problem. Last year, including over Christmas, more people than ever before had to use food banks for their families’ basic needs. The Government seem to have few answers or solutions to those problems. The Opposition believe it is incredibly important that effective policies are formulated and implemented both here in the UK and across the EU to reduce unemployment drastically and to reduce poverty.

My hon. Friend rightly refers to food banks and poverty, and we could talk about mass unemployment. Do not those problems derive directly from the heavy deflationist influence of the European Union?

In some other member states, such as Germany, there is a low rate of unemployment, and Germany has done better than we have in exporting to some of the key emerging markets around the world. Tackling unemployment very much depends on the policies of individual countries and individual Governments. The EU could certainly do more, but it is down to domestic Governments in member states.

In the “Europe as a global actor” section of the work programme, reference is made to ongoing negotiations on free trade agreements with various countries. I echo the Minister’s comments on that matter. Agreements have been reached with South Korea and Singapore and are being negotiated with Japan, the US, India, Canada and Mercosur. Such trade deals would result in significant European job creation. According to the Commission’s own figures, the free trade agreements with the US and Japan would create almost 1 million new jobs.

Finally, I turn to the section of the programme entitled “Building a safe and secure Europe”. I hoped that the Minister would make a winding-up speech, because I wanted to take the opportunity to ask him at what point the Government would make a decision on the mass opt-in to or opt-out from the justice and home affairs measures contained in the Lisbon treaty. It is important that we have some clarity on that issue at some stage. I respect what the right hon. Gentleman said today about the individual proposals contained in the work programme: there is not enough meat on the bone or enough detail for the Government to have a developed position on them. We look forward to learning in due course their position on whether they will opt into or out of the proposals in that part of the programme.

As I said at the outset, we welcome the broad objectives of the Commission’s work programme and its more strategic focus. I hope that the proposals, once they are submitted, will be given additional scrutiny by departmental Select Committees. It is important to remember that Europe is not purely a foreign policy issue and that decisions taken by our Government, in Brussels, and voted on by our MEPs have a major impact on domestic policy. Departmental Select Committees should therefore be thoroughly involved.

Order. I remind the House that we have less than 45 minutes to go, and that at least seven colleagues are seeking to catch my eye, so there is a focus on brevity.

Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, and a happy new year.

I can be brief, for the simple reason that we have before us a list of initiatives, and although there may be fewer than 129, there are still 58, while the number of proposals to reduce regulation of a legislative nature amount to no more than two. The second thing to say is that the Commission work programme is crucial, in that it gives us the route map for where the European Commission is going.

The European Union is dysfunctional: it is not working as it was claimed it would work. Indeed, as I pointed out, referring to the White Paper that the European Commission produced in 1985, here we are, 20 years on from 1992 and nearly 30 years on from 1986, with a provision that simply does not match up to either the aspirations or the promises made. If the single market had worked as I hoped it would when I voted for it in 1986, we would perhaps be better placed than we are now. Unfortunately, it simply has not worked in that way.

The suggestion is that the strategic focus of the work programme is to

“Help business thrive and become more competitive in the global market, by reducing the costs of EU law,”

but I am afraid that is simply not substantiated by the facts. Furthermore, there is also a proposal—the Government welcome all of them—to

“Prioritise action to boost growth through improving the single market in services and digital, and ambitious free trade agreements.”

It gives me great pleasure to recall that it was Monsieur Jacques Delors, no less, who only last week proposed in Handelsblatt that it was about time that the United Kingdom got its act together and decided what it was going to do. I hope the Prime Minister will do that when he makes his much anticipated big speech on Europe, by following Monsieur Delors’ advice and going for either the equivalent of an enhanced economic area or alternatively—as he himself put it in stark terms—a free trade area between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

I say that because we have another provision:

“Help develop the single market in financial services, as the basis for a strong and sustainable financial sector.”

Tell it to the marines: ask the City of London whether it believes that is the direction in which things are going. The House should look at the problems of qualified majority voting. Despite the attempts to change the voting arrangements, the problems remain. The manner in which jurisdiction over the City’s regulatory system was transferred to Europe by the previous Government—endorsed and acquiesced in by those in the present Government—has been a catastrophe and will remain so.

The document also mentions—the Government welcome this, too—measures to

“Support an environment that encourages innovation, including helping drive the transition to a green economy.”

There are many aspects of the green economy that may or may not turn out to be sustainable, but I shall mention just one, in deference to my hon. Friends the Members for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) and for South Northamptonshire (Andrea Leadsom). [Interruption.] Whichever constituency she represents, I know she does a great job for it. The question of wind farms is part and parcel of this, and they are growing exponentially.

The Government also applaud the work programme for helping member states

“to work together more effectively to strengthen the external border and protect citizens from terrorism and serious or organised border crime.”

Again, these are important aspirations; the question is whether that is actually happening. Indeed, I would say the same about increasing

“the EU’s influence on external policy issues”.

Over and over again, we get the aspirations and we are given the promises, but the question asked repeatedly in this dysfunctional European Union is: where is it going and to what extent is it delivering the kind of things that the people in this country vote for in general elections? They put their votes into the ballot box, then find that things are implemented through the Commission’s work programme, which goes to the Council of Ministers, and in almost every area, and driven by qualified majority vote or consensus, we end up with legislation that was not sought, called for, or promised in manifestos in our general elections.

The hon. Gentleman criticises the Commission for trying to do something about cross-border crime. He was against the introduction of the European arrest warrant, but it is working well and providing tangible results. Why is he critical of it?

For the simple reason that we would have achieved the same results had we put in place our own operation through our own legislative system. Furthermore, there are many examples of the European arrest warrant being used to convict innocent people in absentia, including someone in Staffordshire who was recently convicted of a murder that they could not have committed because they were serving in a restaurant in Leek at the time. There might be some advantages to aspects of the co-operative arrangements, of which I am in favour, but that does not mean that the panoply of powers associated with the European arrest warrant is justified.

The Government have expressed reservations about certain proposals, but the key question is: what are they actually able to do about this? We can express reservations and argue against the proposals, but the qualified majority voting system operates in such a way as to prevent us from exercising our much-vaunted influence. I have to say to the Minister and the Government—and through them, I hope, to the Prime Minister in relation to the speech that he is about to make—that if that influence cannot be effective, it is worthless.

I have considered the evidence that has accumulated over the past 40 years since we came into the European Union. I wished you a happy new year earlier, Mr Speaker, but we must also remember that it is the 40th anniversary of our accession to the European Union, through the European Communities Act 1972. This is a time for serious reflection. It is a time not only for mere reform but for a fundamental change in the relationship. There is a disconnect between the legislation that is going through the House, in relation to the implementation of sections 2 and 3 of the Act, and what is being offered to the British people in manifestos.

The hon. Gentleman talks about a new relationship and mentions a free trade arrangement. Does he accept that, if the United Kingdom were to leave the European Union and simply have a free trade relationship with what would be the remaining 27 states after Croatia had joined, we would be in a similar position to Norway, in that we would have integration without representation? We would have to pay in and comply with the EU rules without having any say on how they were being formulated.

I have great respect for the hon. Gentleman, who has been vociferous on European matters for a long time, albeit on the other side of the agenda from me. He might be interested to know that the Norwegians are now getting restless and using their arrangements within the European economic area to challenge directives. I heard only a few hours ago that that was happening.

Yes, but that one instance demonstrates a principle. For 15 years, I have been advocating that we use the “notwithstanding” formula, and when my party was in opposition, we agreed that we would do so. If we were to use it just once now we are in government, it would send out an appropriate signal. Unfortunately, however, that is not happening. We hear about aspirations and reservations, and that it would be a good idea to change the relationship and to repatriate powers, but I have very little confidence that we will achieve anything when it comes down to it. Even more dangerous is the raising of expectations only to have them dashed by reality. As Churchill said, offering something to the British people but not fulfilling that promise is the best way to ensure that they will no longer trust us.

There are many aspects to this work programme—including a proposal for a European public prosecutor’s office, which I was glad to hear the Minister say we will not accept—but I shall not go into other matters this afternoon because they are so numerous and because others wish to speak. Let me simply make the point that we are now at a threshold and that there is no turning back. Messrs Barroso and van Rompuy, unelected as they are, have thrown down the gauntlet to the British people. They have said, “We are going to have a federal system,” yet it is unthinkable that this country would get involved in federal arrangements, be they in the eurozone or indeed in the European Union as a whole. We must have a clear strategy; we must have a fundamental change in our relationship. What goes with that has to be a return to the British people of the right to determine the legislation that they voted for in general elections. That is the principle on which this House was founded, and that is the principle on which we have to stand.

Just ahead of the debate, I checked one of the political blogs and saw the following phrase:

“Over a hundred million pounds over budget, four years late, and the subject of a National Audit Office investigation”

and I thought that must be about the European Union. No, it was about the BBC’s rebuild. That brought it home to me that this House collectively pays great attention to the BBC, gives it more scrutiny and is better informed about how it runs than it is of the entire Commission work programme. As this is probably the last European Commission work programme before the 2014 election, at which the Conservative party might find itself beaten into second place by the UK Independence party vote, and we are moving into a time when matters European are going to be important across all the parties, I want to discuss the way in which we talk about the Commission programme.

It has been interesting to note that over the past hour, we have talked just about process and there has been very little on the substance. The truth is that debating an entire Commission programme in an hour and a half is a bit like saying that the Chancellor’s Budget speech or the Queen’s Speech should be debated by the House of Commons in an hour and a half. That is the equivalent; let us face it. If, as the Minister says, he is throwing a gauntlet down to Parliament, I would like gently to chuck it back to him and say that a number of things need to change if Parliament is seriously to engage with this issue.

I genuinely mean no disrespect, but if the European Union has this huge influence on our domestic legislative programme, which this work programme shows it does, what on earth is this matter doing in the Foreign Office? This is not foreign; it is domestic. The number of legislative issues that need to be addressed must be addressed by departmental Cabinet Ministers on a regular basis. I know that suggestions have been made about upgrading the role of the Minister for Europe, but I say no: I want UKREP to have a political role. All the negotiations going on need to be answerable on an “in time” basis, not through bits of paper that are fed to us afterwards. That should be done by UKREP, but at the moment it has a diplomatic role. If a Cabinet Minister were answerable from this Dispatch Box for all the negotiations at UKREP level, that Minister would be the equivalent of the Deputy Prime Minister. It is a serious post.

Let me give one simple example. The work programme talks about a “safe and secure” EU. I always remember Matthew Parris once saying that a speech or statement should be assessed on the basis of whether anyone would dare to say it if the word “not” were put in front of it. As I read through the document I thought that that would not apply to a single statement in it. It was a case of cut and paste, add the year, and motherhood and apple pie.

The Commission refers to establishing a European public prosecutor’s office

“to fight against crimes affecting the EU budget and protect its financial interests”.

I remember that 10 years ago, during the negotiations that led to the Lisbon treaty, the UK had to fight tooth and nail to make sure that a public prosecutor would operate on a legislative basis that would require unanimity. Ten years ago, we expended considerable political capital on that, because whenever the veto is exercised or unanimity is insisted on something has to be given back at some stage or other. We are now 10 years on, the basis of unanimity remains but the Commission still wants the office, so this never goes away.

The UK Government have said that they are opposed to the proposal. This House has to have a way of understanding how we are going to be against it—what the political negotiating cost will be of our not being part of such a move. I am afraid that an hour and a half of debate on the Commission’s programme—or even chucking the issue to a Select Committee or the European Scrutiny Committee, however worthy they may be—will not give us an “in time” political debate in order that we may really understand the value of something or the price that we pay for it.

I do not understand why the hon. Lady thinks that Select Committees are incapable of focusing significantly on the issues, obtaining the evidence relating to problems such as those that worry her, and bringing them quickly to the attention of the House. We do it all the time.

That would be true were it not for the fact that we scrutinise on a departmental basis, whereas UKREP’s political “give and take” negotiations in Brussels are cross-departmental. I have been present during such negotiations. Representatives say, for instance, “We will give the Germans a bit on cigarette advertising, and in exchange the Danes will be given a bit of an opt-out on fish and the Greeks will get a bit more money to enable them to grow tobacco.” The House of Commons will never fully understand that kind of give and take, but, whatever our relationship with the European Union, it needs to start to understand it.

I say to the Minister: yes, continue with the Select Committees, but there should also be a much better “in time” flow of information. UKREP needs to play a political role in the Cabinet. It should have a ministerial function, and should be answerable to the House. Moreover, now that we have Westminster Hall, what is to stop us asking Commissioners to go there in 2014 and answer questions from Members about the Commission’s programme? Why is this a “third party” relationship? We all stop and stare in admiration or astonishment when we see one of our Members of the European Parliament in the House of Commons. Most of us probably would not recognise half of them. That shows that there is a very sad relationship between the two legislative bodies.

In 2014, there will be a new Commission. On the assumption that our wonderful coalition will still be in place then, and that the Prime Minister will not go to the country until 2015, I think that the Government should think seriously about asking the incoming Commissioners to come here and explain their work programme in a way that would allow the House to question them directly and on a cross-departmental basis.

Although I disagree with some of what was said by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), I think that her analysis of the political processes with which we are dealing was fairly shrewd and helpful. I also agree with her that there is something unsatisfactory about the way in which we are currently going about this—not least the provision of a mere hour and a half for the debate, although it must also be said that it is taking place at a much earlier stage than the last one, after two months rather than six, and is taking place on the Floor of the House rather than in Committee. However, I do not think that it would be improved by being extended to six or eight hours; I think that what this tells us is that we need more systematic, subject-by-subject scrutiny, as well as some awareness of the give and take that happens not just in European politics but in British politics: a Department will give way on one thing, and will be given something else by another.

It is to the Minister’s credit that he has engaged in dialogue and sought to encourage Select Committees to play the role that I have described. I can say, not just in my Justice Committee capacity but as Chairman of the Liaison Committee, that our discussions with him have been very useful. However, I think that he has found it a bit difficult—and we have found it very difficult—to build sufficiently on qualities that are already there and available.

When Committees go to Brussels and meet UKREP staff, many of whom will have been seconded to UKREP from individual Departments, they find them uniformly helpful, very well informed, and able to give a fair amount of guidance not only on the content of proposals but on the amount of traction that they are likely to achieve. They can say whether the proposals are worth spending time on, or are unlikely to get anywhere. We ought to deploy knowledge of that kind in a process that will engage Committees usefully and in a timely way, so that a British perspective on an issue—the perspective of British business, charities or trade unions, for example—can be brought to bear where it really matters.

We on the Liaison Committee are doing all that we can to encourage Committees to allocate time for such work properly in their programmes. Some of them do it all the time anyway. Most of the subjects for which the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, for example, is responsible are dealt with at a European level, so the Committee is greatly engaged with it, and other Committees regularly have issues as well.

I am genuinely seeking guidance. Which of the Committees of the House could have looked at ash dieback disease, for instance? People now say that, even if we had identified it, the EU could not have stopped the trade in infected trees early enough. Which Committee in our system could have tackled that, traced it back and said, “We need to do something”?

In our system, it follows the departmental responsibility, unless it is the kind of cross-cutting thing the Environmental Audit Committee deals with. In the case that the hon. Lady mentions, however, it would probably have been the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.

There is absolutely nothing preventing Select Committees from seeking to get Commissioners in front of them or from going to Brussels to talk to them. The Justice Committee has questioned Commissioners on our areas of responsibility—for example, we have questioned them a great deal on EU data protection and information proposals. Select Committees have the opportunity to do that kind of work and to report in a timely way to the House. On data protection, for example, the Justice Committee has told Ministers that, in our view, they need to get the Commission to go back to the drawing board in respect of the excessively prescriptive nature of some proposals.

For the process to be engaged in effectively, however, there needs to be a change of attitude in some Departments in recognising what Select Committees can and should do. I think that the Minister is trying to achieve that. The reason I made the rather harsh comment earlier about it being delivery time was that we do not need any more dialogue; we know what needs to be done and what tools are available to help us to do it properly, so let us get on with it.

There is some sensitivity in this matter, as the Minister referred to when he said that Governments do not want to give away their negotiating position. Obviously, they do not, but these are not cold war negotiations or negotiations with North Korea over weapons; these are democratic states with open Governments trying to discuss with each other well-known concerns in each country. What final decisions Departments come to, when faced with having to give up one thing in order to get another, will probably remain late-stage decisions—as is the case every December at the Agriculture and Fisheries Council, for example—but none of that precludes sensible and timely discussion. Governments have talked about publishing lists that make it clear to the House and the public what questions and issues they have to resolve on matters that the Commission are bringing forward. We ought to be doing that clearly and explicitly.

Those are issues on which the real knowledge is not necessarily inside the House, but out there among the wide variety of bodies from which we take evidence and which are affected. The Justice Committee has been taking evidence from chief police officers about data protection rules and from organisations involving individuals adversely affected by some of these proposals. We have the means at our disposal to do the work, but we need timely information, guidance on issues that the Government recognise are difficult to resolve and not too much sensitivity about, “Oh, we’d better not discuss it with the Committee yet, because Ministers have not decided what they think.” That kind of obstacle is out of date, given that we are trying to deal with an evolving European situation.

I think that there is common ground between those of us who believe that Britain’s place is inside the EU and those who want to achieve fundamental change in it: while we are in it—as I hope we will remain—we must ensure that the legislative process works for us, and in order to do that we should use the tools at our disposal in the House and the House should have the benefit of the knowledge that the Government have at their disposal.

As a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, I am partly responsible—I suppose—for bringing this document to the House, so it is important that I say a few words.

The word “work” will have great appeal to the millions of European citizens currently without work, but that is the problem, because none of the many initiatives in the document addresses the immediate economic crisis in the EU or the eurozone and will not solve the problem in the longer term either. We have mass unemployment and we have economic contraction in a number of countries, and more austerity is being inflicted on Greece. Apparently, Greece’s economy is expected to contract by another 10%—God knows what is going to happen in Greece after that. Spain is in serious difficulty and Portugal is going to inflict on its people a fire sale of public assets; it will simply be selling off the family silver at the pawnbroker’s and that will solve nothing in the long term once the money is spent, as it will be. Other countries are in difficulties and there is worse to come.

Action 58 in the Commission’s work programme deals proposes a

“Comprehensive Approach to Crisis Management outside the EU”.

The document says:

“The European Union more than any other international actor, has a unique array of tools at its disposal to promote the resolution of complex external crises.”

It is said that experience can be learned from, and I guess that the European Commission does have a lot of experience and a lot to teach here.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for intervening. The document talks about solving external crises, but what about solving the internal crises? The European Commission has not shown much ability to do that. The problem is that it has inflicted supply-side measures—most of these are supply-side measures to try to deal with the economic problems—whereas the real difficulty is a serious lack of economic demand. That is the deficiency and macro-economic policy is the problem, as it is failing and is, in most cases, completely misguided. Item 1 in the document refers to an “Annual Growth Survey”—perhaps that ought to be re-titled the “Annual Contraction Survey”.

Item 6 makes the only reference in the whole list to the

“importance of a sound macroeconomic framework”.

I absolutely agree with the importance of that, but there is no sign of such a framework as yet. Indeed, we have the opposite: co-ordinated deflation driving the EU towards deeper recession. Thank goodness this country is somewhat to the side of that. We will of course lose if—[Interruption.] My hon. Friend the Member for Preston (Mark Hendrick) is intervening from a sedentary position, but I cannot quite hear what he is saying. The euro is the primary problem; Greece, Italy, Spain and a number of other countries ought to be able to recreate their own currencies, to depreciate and to reflate behind that.

The hon. Gentleman is a notable voice of reason on the Labour Benches on these issues. Does he think he will be able to persuade his colleagues to join us in arguing for a referendum on our relationship with the European Union—on whether we should stay in or not?

I certainly think we should have a referendum, and I am actively involved in an organisation promoting the idea of one. More than that, we want to get some sensible economic policies adopted, both in Britain and across Europe. We also want to return to some of the common sense that emerged from Bretton Woods in 1944 and led the post-war world to such success, with full employment, rising living standards, growing equality and so on.

Items 9 and 10 refer to state aid. Lecturing those countries in desperate crisis about not indulging in state aids would be completely unacceptable. If they have to use state aids to regenerate their economies, they should be able to do so. Indeed, state aids in the UK should be decided by this Parliament and not by the European Commission. Some may be against state aids in principle and others may think them a very good idea, but we should decide on that, not the European Commission.

Item 13 refers to:

“Reforming the internal market for industrial products”.

That does indeed need dealing with. One of the great problems—the great problem, in a sense—in the European Union is the massive trade imbalances within it. Germany has a gigantic trade surplus with the other members of the EU, including with this country. If we went back to the principles of Bretton Woods, we would expect, in normal circumstances, that Germany would let its currency appreciate—the Americans were rather against that idea of John Maynard Keynes, but it was a sensible one—and that those with trade deficits should be able to depreciate their currencies. That is one of the measures used to get an economy working again.

I come now to some detailed points. No reference to railways is made in the section dealing with transport, although they are a major force for the future in the transport sector. Surprisingly, after 200 years or so, they have turned out to be the mode of transport for the future rather than the past. I have a great interest in railways, but no reference is made to them in this document.

On cigarette smuggling, we lose billions in government revenues every year because nobody pays taxes on imported cigarettes. They are brought in by the billion, I guess, and if we had proper taxes and duties paid on every cigarette smoked, we would gain billions in revenues—enough to pay many times over for free long-term care for all. Cigarette smuggling is a major problem, which we ought to be addressing as a nation rather than simply through the European Union.

Most of the measures in the list could be undertaken by member state Governments on an individual basis, as they felt they were appropriate. If we wanted to indulge in international agreements, we could do that through bilateral and multinational negotiation. The democratic decisions should be taken in this House, by this Parliament, and by member state Governments in general. We have shown that we can co-operate bilaterally and multilaterally and we do not need a European Commission to determine all these things. I am strongly in favour of democracy, which means democracy at a member state level.

It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Luton North (Kelvin Hopkins), who is the voice of reason on these matters, but it was the speech of the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) that made me think about the forms and substance of power in this nation. When Her Majesty’s Government introduce the Queen’s Speech—their legislative programme—there is a great sense of funfair and fête. The House has trumpeters; the imperial state crown comes in its own carriage. Rather splendidly, Black Rod comes and the door is slammed in his face to show the independence of the House of Commons from the Executive.

When the European Union sets out its legislative programme, what do we get? When real power is being exercised, what do we see? A dusty, dry and bureaucratically written text is sent up to a Committee Room for a few people to consider and, if they feel like it, they grant an hour and a half—90 minutes—of debate on the Floor of this Chamber. There is no ability for witty speeches to be made by old and young Back Benchers alike or for jokes to be made by the Leader of the Opposition and the Prime Minister. We do not have three or four days of debate to clear maiden speeches out of the way or delve into the thin gruel that now comes from the Queen’s speech—we know where power really lies.

I am very flattered by that promotion. Perhaps that is the one ornament I can provide to a debate on the European Union’s legislative programme, as it is more thoroughgoing and more powerful than the Queen’s Speech and becomes law more easily and with less scrutiny than anything contained in it.

Of course, the other point is that we usually compare and contrast the Queen’s speech with the manifestos of the parties. As for what happens in Europe, we rarely get it in our manifestos.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is no manifesto; nobody stands for the European Commission saying what they want to do and the programme they wish to propose. No, no—it comes down from on high. Is it not interesting that that which has the appearance of power has none whereas that which has the reality of power uses it as far as possible by stealth?

Annex I contains 58 recommendations, 38 of which are legislative—including some elements that are non-legislative in bits of them. One rather splendidly requires “soft law”, a term that I have not heard before. I wonder whether when up before a judge one could say, “I am not sure whether I broke the law, because it was only soft law—does it have to be hard law?” Another is a negotiating directive that is not law by first degree but becomes law a little later.

Annex II is on simplifications and 17 out of the 18 proposals are legislative. Is it not interesting that when the European Union simplifies, it has to pass more law? It does not just repeal things—not a bit of it—but passes more laws. It reminds me of that quip: “Big fleas have smaller fleas upon their backs to bite ’em, and little fleas have lesser fleas and so ad infinitum.” We go on and on legislating, apparently making things simpler, but it seems to me that we are just being bitten by the fleas of the European Union.

I know that time is short, so I want to go to the absolute heart of the matter, which, as so often, is in the introduction, which refers to the state of the Union speech by Mr Barroso—that reference is wonderfully grandiloquent and makes it sound as if he is President of the United States and a democratically elected and important figure rather than a minor panjandrum—and states:

“The State of the Union speech launched ambitious ideas for the long term framing of the EU—a deep and genuine economic union, based on a political union. This vision must be translated into practice through concrete steps, if it is to address the lingering crisis that continues to engulf Europe, and the Euro Area in particular.”

These are concrete steps about creating an economic union based on a political union; they are not in the interests of the United Kingdom.

I begin with a general point about the European Commission. I am not a great defender or fan of the Commission, but it is important for us to remember that it is not a legislative body. It does not decide laws; it makes proposals and, usually through a process of co-determination or co-decision, other institutions, such as the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, are then involved in determining the law. That is when democracy comes into play. It is important to keep that perspective.

The hon. Gentleman says that the European Commission does not make law, but is it not the case that the European Commission has a monopoly on the proposal of law, and is therefore an essential and necessary part of law-making? To that extent, in European structures it does make law.

The hon. Gentleman is right. The European Commission has the sole right to initiate legislation. Nevertheless, it does not have the sole right to agree legislation; the initiatives the Commission formulates are the result of discussions in the European Parliament, and increasingly in the Council of Ministers. When we talk about democracy inside the European Union, it is important to recognise that this Parliament has a pivotal role. If anything has clearly come out of the debate, it is the fact that this Parliament does not take European legislation and formulation as seriously as it ought to do.

Is it not the case that the European Commission is made up of Commissioners directly appointed by democratically elected Governments and they are interviewed by Members of the European Parliament before their appointment? Members of the European Parliament are directly elected as well.

My hon. Friend makes a very good point indeed, and reinforces what I was saying.

I welcome the debate because it occurs at a time when Europe as a whole is experiencing a deep economic malaise. Against the problematic economic climate that we all face, we must assess the relevance and appropriateness of the Commission’s work programme. The situation is most acute in the eurozone, as I am sure Members will agree, although of late, it has stabilised somewhat. The situation is still serious in Spain and Portugal, and in Greece it is extremely serious. However, there are signs of improvement; in Ireland, things are starting to get better. Nevertheless—

Before my hon. Friend intervenes, I take the point that one of the great weaknesses across the European Union as a whole is the macro-economic policy being pursued by member states. There is too great an emphasis on austerity and nothing else. We need to put a firm emphasis on growth and measures to stimulate our economy so that we can work our way to prosperity once again.

I want to be persuaded that there are signs of improvement in the European Union. Writing in The Guardian at the weekend, a Greek journalist suggested that the Greek economy will contract by a further 10%.

As I indicated, the situation in Greece is still very serious indeed. As we know, deep-seated structural problems afflict the Greek economy but there are signs of improvement elsewhere. Certainly the contagion that many people feared a few months ago does not appear to be materialising. There are signs of stabilisation, at least, across the eurozone. It is therefore important that the European Commission does as much as it can to make sure that we take that a stage further and have a coherent growth strategy. In that respect, the document before us is somewhat lacking, but it does at least recognise the importance of job creation. I cite its opening statement:

“Today’s absolute imperative is to tackle the economic crisis and put the EU back on the road to sustainable growth.”

That is a good starting point. At least there is recognition of the need to put that four-square on the agenda. However, practical measures to realise that goal are somewhat lacking.

One of the positive things about the document is that it recognises the importance of taking forward the completion of the single market. It states:

“A fully integrated and interconnected European Single Market covering telecoms, energy and transport is a prerequisite for competitiveness, jobs and growth. Achieving this requires affordable, accessible, efficient and secure network infrastructure. Accelerating the roll out of the digital economy will bring benefits across all sectors, through enhanced productivity, efficiency and innovation.”

That is particularly true. It is something that the previous Labour Government and this Government have effectively been arguing for.

The importance of the single market, particularly to the United Kingdom, should not be underestimated. In support of that point, I refer Members to the important new-year message from John Cridland, the director general of the CBI, in which, on behalf of British business, he makes it absolutely clear how important the single market and the European Union are to British business. He points out that 50% of Britain’s exports go to other countries in the EU. He argues the case coherently for completing the single market, and says that the EU is vital when it comes to enhancing our international trading relationships. He goes a stage further: he argues that it is vital that we do not just pay lip service to the single market, and that Britain stands four-square behind the European Union and argues the British case consistently inside the decision-making chambers of the EU. He says:

“It’s essential that we stay at the table to bang the drum for businesses and defend our national interest, particularly protecting our world-class financial services industry to maintain our competiveness internationally.”

One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings on the motion, the Deputy Speaker put the Question (Standing Order No. 16(1)).

Question agreed to.


That this House takes note of European Union Document No. 15691/12 and Addendum, a Commission Communication on the Commission Work Programme 2013, and welcomes the Work Programme as a useful summary that enables the Government and Parliament to plan their engagement.