With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the European Council meeting held in Brussels—
Order. I think I need to explain this for the benefit, clearly, of the Minister of State, and of the House. The Minister is not “with permission” making a statement; he has toddled into the Chamber to respond to an urgent question application from the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash), which I have granted. The Minister has not volunteered a statement; he is responding to a requirement to come to the Chamber. That is the position.
Thank you, Mr Speaker. It gives me very great pleasure to respond to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) on my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s attendance at the summit in Brussels on 14 and 15 March.
Discussions focused on economic issues and growth, and in particular on the European semester process. The Council also covered the deteriorating situation in Syria and the EU-Russia relationship. The Prime Minister took the opportunity to offer the Council an update on key issues to be covered in the UK G8 summit in Lough Erne in Northern Ireland in June, which include tax, transparency, trade and terrorism.
The Prime Minister pushed for reforms to make the EU more competitive. Working with our European partners, including Chancellor Merkel, he set out practical steps that need to be taken to boost European economies and create jobs and growth, including reducing the red tape that continues to constrain our businesses, especially small and medium-sized enterprises. The European Council agreed that the European Commission will set out proposals on how to reduce burdens on small and medium-sized enterprises and, in autumn 2013, a list of unnecessary EU rules to be scrapped.
On Syria, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Hollande of France argued that, with 70,000 dead, and with more than 1 million refugees destabilising the region, it was important for the EU to be able to respond to the pace of events and the deterioration of the situation on the ground. The Prime Minister and President Hollande secured agreement from European partners that, ahead of the deadline for renewing, amending or ending the EU arms embargo at the end of the May, EU Foreign Ministers should consider further changes to broaden support for the National Coalition.
The Council also discussed EU-Russia relations. The Prime Minister made the case for working together for prosperity and security while being honest about matters on which we disagree with one another.
Given that there are 11 pages of European conclusions, who decided to report to the House on the European Council for the first time by way of written ministerial statement, and why? Why did the Prime Minister not make the statement on the EU Council, as announced by the Leader of the House last Thursday? Does the Minister agree that, as the Prime Minister negotiated at the European Council, he should also make the statement and answer all questions?
The conclusions astonishingly state that much has been accomplished in the EU in recent years. Given the dysfunctional nature of the EU, the eurozone crisis and low growth, and the state of affairs in Greece and Italy, and now in Cyprus and Spain, how can such a statement be justified?
What specific steps are being taken to help small and medium-sized businesses, given that, despite all the protestations and initiatives, and 20 summits in 20 months, there is zero growth in the EU? Why is that? How does the Minister believe the single market can be a key driver for the UK’s growth and jobs when our trade deficit with the 27 EU member states is £48 billion, whereas we have a surplus of £20 billion with the rest of the world? Given past hopeless performance, what reason is there to believe that the burden of European regulation on small and medium-sized businesses, and other businesses, will ever be reduced?
Finally, what are the specific legislative proposals for the single resolution mechanism, and how will the level playing field be achieved for the City of London given the current state of play?
I sometimes hope that my hon. Friend will see something good in the EU, but that might take a lifetime. It is to the credit of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that he takes his responsibilities extremely seriously. Since he took office, he has given 15 oral statements and two written statements following European Councils. He issued a written ministerial statement this morning, and I understand that my hon. Friend had a discussion with him on this subject yesterday.
Had my hon. Friend been with us at the debate earlier today on UK Trade & Investment, he would have recognised the feeling across the House—in fact, not right across the House, because there was nobody there from the Opposition. [Interruption.] Well, the Opposition spokesman was there, the Democratic Unionist party was there, but the Labour party was not there because it does not seem to be interested in small and medium-sized businesses. If my hon. Friend had been there this morning, he would have recognised the feeling that while SMEs are the way forward, they are over-regulated. Small and medium-sized enterprises provided 85% of new jobs in the EU in the past decade. As a result of the Council, we now have concrete measures to reduce regulations, including the top 10 most burdensome EU regulations, by June. The measures include rules on chemicals, product safety and customs. We believe the single market is the way forward and that EU trade agreements are vital. That is our vision of Europe, and one that I hope my hon. Friend shares.
I recognise the importance of yesterday’s events, but I seek reassurance from the Minister that the Prime Minister will continue to make oral statements to the House after European Council meetings.
The Council conclusions call for member states to introduce short-term, targeted measures to boost growth and prioritise growth-friendly investment. Will the Minister tell us how the Government will put the measures he signed up to in Brussels into practice here in the UK, given that our economy is still flatlining? Specifically, what will the Government do to implement the youth guarantee mentioned in the Council conclusions signed up to by the Government in February?
On Syria, the crisis, killing and violence continue unabated. An estimated 70,000 people have lost their lives and there are more than 1 million refugees. There are major concerns about moves to lift the EU arms embargo. Once an arms embargo is lifted, it is close to impossible to guarantee in whose hands weapons will end up. That presents dangers, both now and after the conflict. How do we ensure that the lifting of the arms embargo does not simply lead to a further influx of weapons to the Assad regime, or spill over into other countries in the region? Finally, would the lifting of the arms embargo heighten or diminish the prospect of political transition in Syria? The primary aim of the Minister and the Government should be to ensure a reduction, rather than an intensification, of violence.
The hon. Lady raises a number of issues. First, there is a precedent for a post-Council statement to be made by a written ministerial statement, if it is not possible for an oral statement to be made on the next sitting day. For example, the Prime Minister gave a written ministerial statement on 11 October, following the European Council on 16 Sept 2010. Yesterday, we were rather busy deliberating on Leveson.
We have secured exemptions and lighter regimes for small and medium-sized enterprises in 17 areas in the past year. We recognise that, with our European partners, we need to do a lot more to reduce the burden of regulation. As the hon. Lady acknowledges—it is acknowledged right across the House—SMEs are the growth engines and the wealth generators of tomorrow. We therefore have to drive this forward and ensure that we do not just talk about cutting red tape to SMEs, but deliver.
The situation in Syria is extraordinarily important. I do not want us to get ahead of ourselves. I made a statement a week or so ago, before the Foreign Secretary made a statement, on the change in the embargo regime for Syria. The hon. Lady will be aware that the situation in Syria deteriorates by the hour. She quite properly alluded to regional instability and spill over into countries such as Jordan, which is very worrying. We have taken a decision, with our European partners, to see what more we can do. The French are keen on not necessarily waiting until May-June, but on reviewing the situation on a regular basis. I think that that is the right thing to do. We should watch the situation as it develops and see how better we can respond to help those who are afflicted by this appalling tragedy. The bottom line is that Assad has to go and we have to do everything we can to support a credible opposition in order to bring some kind of peace and then some kind of democratic accountability to any replacement Government, and we will work with our European partners to that end.
The United Kingdom should be very proud of the role it is playing in alleviating the hardship by providing money and finance to refugees. Charities, NGOs, the Department for International Development and other organisations are stepping up to the plate, and it would be good if other countries followed our lead. It is an horrific and appalling situation that we see on the news every night, so it is right that we do everything we can and examine every avenue available to bring it to a speedy end.
No ones disputes that the situation in Syria is appalling, but does my right hon. Friend understand that some Members have grave reservations about the apparent move by Britain and France towards the supply of arms to the opposition—reservations, because it is a principle of intervention that we should intervene only when satisfied that we would make things better? Secondly, what does he say about the prospect of a proxy war between permanent members of the UN Security Council being fought out in Syria?
The right hon. and learned Gentleman, of all people, will be aware of the situation—as I have said, 70,000 people are dead and there is a huge refugee and humanitarian crisis. The bottom line is that Assad is still in place and is being strongly supplied and strengthened by others. I am not going to talk, however, about our arming anyone, as it might never happen. We have made our position perfectly clear. There are Members on both sides of the House who, for understandable reasons, are extremely nervous about getting dragged further into this appalling situation, but I stress that we are not, at this point, discussing arming anyone. Were that to occur in due course, and were our European partners to take that decision, clearly it would need to be properly debated in this House. There is no change in our position, however, as was stated very clearly in the last statement.
It is just tawdry to pretend that the Prime Minister could not have given an oral statement. He could perfectly easily have done so today, and he should have done so. We do not do EU scrutiny well in this House, and are doing it even worse as a result of today.
May I ask the Minister specifically about relations with Russia? One year ago, the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Alistair Burt), stood up in the Chamber and accepted a resolution, unanimously agreed by the House, that we would ban people involved in the death and murder of Sergei Magnitsky coming to this country. He said that we would wait to see what the Americans did. The Americans have now passed legislation to ban those people going to the US. When will the Government do the same?
On the hon. Gentleman’s remarks about the Prime Minister, I can do no better than repeat what the Prime Minister said to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) yesterday:
“We now have more European Councils than sometimes is altogether healthy, and certainly more than there have been in the past. There are almost always oral statements, but I think that on this occasion, when it was very much a take-note European Council rather than one packed with exciting things, a written ministerial statement will probably suffice.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 680.]
I have nothing to add to that.
The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Russian Foreign Secretary was in London last week and had extensive discussions with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.
Will the hon. Gentleman allow me to finish? Russia is a major player in the world. We continue to have extraordinarily important discussions with it about Syria and about the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and other issues, and we continue to review—and raise when appropriate—the situation there regarding human rights.
Given the importance of low-energy prices to industrial recovery and jobs, did the Prime Minister take advantage of the summit to ask the Germans how they were managing to run their coal stations for much longer, under EU rules, and to have cheaper energy, and did he give notice that Britain needed to do the same?
With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, no matter how many times the Prime Minister has made statements on the European Council, it is still the Prime Minister’s responsibility to come to the House and make such a statement whenever the Council has met.
On Syria, is the Minister aware that no one in the House disputes for one moment the sheer brutality of the Syrian regime or its total indifference to human suffering? At the same time, however, I believe that there should be a test of feeling in the House—a vote, perhaps—on the issue of arming the other side. Far from helping the situation, it could escalate the violence, the suffering and the crimes against humanity that we see on our television screens. I praise the humanitarian work that the Government are doing, with our support, for the children and the rest. That is absolutely essential.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s second point; he is absolutely right. His first point was somewhat hypothetical. Of course there is understandable concern among Members on both sides of the House about the direction in which Syria is going, and about what might or might not happen, but there is no change in our position today. I have come to the House to explain what was discussed at the summit, and it is absolutely right that we keep all options under review. I think he would agree that what has been done to date has not worked very well, as we continue to see a greater deterioration in the country and greater humanitarian suffering. It is therefore quite right that we keep all our options open.
May I say gently to my right hon. Friend that he is much more likely to persuade my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) to become an evangelist for the European Union than to persuade the European Union to desist from creating burdensome regulations? Is it not deep within the DNA of the European Commission and the European Parliament to go on producing regulations, day in, day out, that impose burdens on our business? Is it not in our national interest to be outside the legal structures of the European Union as much as possible, and does not that illustrate the many merits of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister’s policy of renegotiating our relationship with the European Union and having a referendum on that issue?
It is worth saying that we secured agreement from the Commission at the Council to come up with plans to reduce the top 10 most burdensome EU regulations by June—including rules on chemicals, product safety and customs—and to produce proposals by the autumn on the unnecessary European rules that need to be reversed and removed from the statute book. We also secured agreement on action to improve the implementation of single market legislation, including the services directive. I hope that my hon. Friend will agree that, if implemented directly, those will be welcome steps that will enable businesses in his constituency and in mine to grow.
First we abolished pre-Council discussions; now we are doing away with post-Council statements. Is it the policy of Her Majesty’s Government that the Prime Minister will talk about Europe only when he thinks that the meeting was “exciting”, and that we are otherwise to be kept informed only in writing or through a junior Minister who has been forced to come here?
The hon. Lady is making the great mistake of imagining that I was forced to do anything. I came here very willingly, as the Speaker has pointed out, to respond to the urgent question from my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash). I have stated the Prime Minister’s position and, thanks to the indulgence of the Speaker in allowing me to repeat verbatim what the Prime Minister said on this subject to my hon. Friend the Member for Stone yesterday, I have nothing further to add.
Will my right hon. Friend commend the Prime Minister for setting out the need for a new relationship with our European partners? Is not that need underlined by the fact that, despite vetoing the fiscal union treaty last year, the presidency conclusions contain four new pieces of legislation on economic consolidation that apply to the UK? They include a national fiscal policy making framework, strengthening the surveillance of national fiscal and structural economic policies, an accelerated procedure for dealing with member states with an excessive deficit and a new procedure for monitoring the build-up and correction of macro-economic balances. Why does that apply to us at all, given that we are not going to join the euro?
The hon. Gentleman should also acknowledge what was discussed, particularly in the Council, and the emphasis that was placed on the single market and on cutting red tape for small businesses. The Prime Minister is setting out what will be discussed at the G8 at Lough Erne, when we will be talking about issues such as tax, transparency and getting businesses going. Those are the things that we want to concentrate on. I agree with my hon. Friend that those other things are not so relevant.
Did the Prime Minister have any discussions on the fringes of the European Council meeting about Zimbabwe, and about the fact that, after this weekend, the European Union will lift many more of its restrictive sanctions? Does the Minister realise that there is concern about that? There is still a problem in Zimbabwe. There are huge human rights issues, and it is important that the European Union should give the matter careful thought before lifting those sanctions in the lead-up to the elections in July.
The hon. Lady makes some extraordinarily good points on the sanctions against Zimbabwe. I was not aware that the matter was not on the European Council agenda. I was not privy to any private conversations that might have taken place, but she has made some extremely pertinent points.
At business questions last Thursday, the Leader of the House started by saying that, on Monday 18 March,
“I expect my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to make a statement following the European Council.”—[Official Report, 14 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 494.]
We know that the Prime Minister was here on Monday, and it is absolutely unacceptable that he has not come to the House to report on the European Council. Will the Minister at least confirm to the House that he himself was present at the Council?
I can confirm that the Prime Minister was there, that he took a lead, and that he has come back. I am now reporting back on what was decided at the European Council. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr Bone) makes the point again about whether the Prime Minister should have come to the House, but he might have noticed that we did have Leveson this week. No doubt his points will have been heard by those who organise the House’s business, however.
Was there any discussion about the continuing fragility of European banks, especially in the weaker eurozone member states? In the light of the raid on Cyprus’s bank accounts, can we now expect depositors to start withdrawing cash from their accounts in those weaker banks, resulting in the serious risk of bank runs?
No, I do not think we can. Cyprus was not on the agenda but, if you will allow me, Mr Speaker, I will make this point. This question was answered extensively by the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) —yesterday, I think—and everything is being done to protect British servicemen and those working for the diplomatic service who are exposed to what is going on in Cyprus. The fact that it is happening in Cyprus, however, does not necessarily mean that it is going to happen elsewhere. Indeed, we very much hope that it will not.
European Ministers have rightly considered broadening support for the Syrian National Coalition, given that it is opposed to the murderous Assad regime and to the equally undesirable alternative of a jihadi state, but is it not Russia to whom the Syrian National Coalition needs urgently to speak? Will the Minister update us on any progress that we have made on promoting dialogue between the Syrian National Coalition and Russia, which is, after all, arming the regime very freely?
My hon. Friend makes a good point. Like Russia, we want to see an end to the violence, to create space for discussions on a Syrian-led, inclusive political transition. We encourage Russia to persuade the Assad regime, which is still in place, to enter into discussions with the Syrian opposition to bring forward political transition. Russia has a key role to play.
The Minister said that there was a precedent for having a written statement following a European Council when there had not been time to make an oral statement. However, there was an opportunity to make an oral statement on Monday and today so, with the greatest respect to the Minister, will he personally take back to the Prime Minister the strength of feeling on both sides of this House that, in future, he should come and give a report on the outcome of European Council meetings?
I am sure that people are hearing this loud and clear, but I would say to my right hon. Friend that there is a precedent for a post-Council written ministerial statement if it is not possible for an oral statement to be made on the next sitting day. The Prime Minister gave a written ministerial statement on 11 October 2010, following the European Council on 16 September 2010.
It is becoming more and more likely that we, and especially the military, will be dragged into a war in Syria. My constituents do not want the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair, advising us or the Government on what to do following Mr Hollande’s views. Does the Minister agree that some silence from the former Prime Minister would be appropriate?
Does the Minister understand that it is the trajectory that worries Members? First, we lift the arms embargo, then we supply arms, then we supply military advisers, then personnel and then those very arms are used against the personnel. The best way to put a fire out is not to put more fuel on it.
The best way to put a fire out is not to light it in the first place, which is something President Assad would have done well to adhere to. As I said, there is understandable nervousness on both sides of the House about where this is leading, but we are living in a fool’s paradise if we think that the spillover—the knock-on effects from what is going on in Syria—will not affect us. It is unsettling countries in the region—I mentioned Jordan and others—and creating a humanitarian problem with appalling political consequences that we cannot stand by and ignore. I say again, publicly, to all those who continue to support the brutal regime of President Assad that they must stop. Like us, they must engage with the official opposition in Syria to bring about a transition to peace and a democratically elected Government. That will take time, but in the meantime we should leave everything on the table to make sure that we look after those who are exposed—the women, the children and the elderly—to the most horrible of situations.
Again, I regret that my hon. Friend was not with us at our debate this morning in Westminster Hall where we stressed the importance of trading—[Hon. Members: “He chaired it.”] If my hon. Friend had heard me correctly, he will know that I said that it was unfortunate that he was not able to take part in the debate in Westminster Hall that he so ably chaired. Having listened to all sides of the argument this morning, he will be aware that we see our future both within Europe as well as outside Europe. We want to ensure that the single market is there, and we want many more EU trade agreements with America and other parts of the world. This allows me to put on record again how ably my hon. Friend chaired this morning’s deliberations.
The precedent for the written statement was not really a precedent at all, was it? On that occasion, the European Council was followed by 25 days of recess, so it was hardly surprising; an oral statement would not have had the same immediacy when it was eventually made to the House. On the meeting itself, the Minister told us that it was a take-note meeting where nothing much happened. Given the discussions about Syria, it seems to have been quite a major meeting, but if it was a take-note meeting where nothing much happened should not the Prime Minister have been making things happen? Should he not have been trying to do something to get Europe to follow a much more effective growth strategy, which is what we all need?
I was purely quoting the Prime Minister, and I quote him again. He said that
“it was very much a take-note European Council rather than one packed with exciting things.”—[Official Report, 18 March 2013; Vol. 560, c. 680.]
There were things, which we have gone through during the last 30 minutes or so, to kick-start the European economy, make it more competitive and cut regulation so that we can make sure that European companies are in a good position to help trade out of the appalling deficit in which we all find ourselves.
I hope it is of some comfort to my right hon. Friend that I think that the Government’s response on the European Council through a ministerial statement was entirely correct, particularly having read the conclusions. It also gave us the opportunity to hear my right hon. Friend answering the urgent question, and that is a benefit of the process.
On the substantive point about Syria, I am delighted that my right hon. Friend was able to tell the House that there has been no change in the policy on Britain’s position since the Foreign Secretary’s last statement on Syria. Given that it was spun that the Prime Minister was supporting the President of France in trying to obtain more flexibility about changes to the arms embargo, there was a possibility that we might be in the same position as the French on the merits of lifting it. Plainly, we are not and I hope my right hon. Friend will take note of the concern about the issue that has been expressed on both sides of the House.
My hon. Friend knows the area as well as anyone in the House, so he will be aware of all the things I said about the regional instability created by the continuing problem in Syria. It is not something we can let alone. We are working extraordinarily closely with the French. That is the case. Today, I have nothing further to add about our position, because it has not changed, but I say again that we need to keep the ever-changing situation in Syria under constant review. Unfortunately, it is an ever-changing situation that deteriorates hour by hour, with appalling humanitarian effects. We take nothing off the table, but at the moment we continue as I outlined in the statement a couple of weeks ago.
Did the Prime Minister urge French and German Ministers to proscribe Hezbollah, considering its role in killing civilians in Syria and murdering Israeli tourists and a Bulgarian national in Bulgaria?
The whole point of bringing some assistance to the Syrian official opposition, and bolstering them and allowing them to present themselves as a credible alternative to the Assad regime, is so that all the other organisations, backed by Hezbollah or whoever, do not get traction in Syria. The hon. Lady would have to agree with the action the Government have taken to date in bolstering the Syrian opposition, which we see as the only credible long-term alternative to the current regime in Damascus.
The impact of the war in Syria on the Christian community there is causing great concern to many people in this country and elsewhere. At the EU summit, was there any discussion of the displaced Christian community who are caught between President Assad’s regime and the anti-Government forces?
I am not aware that there was specific discussion of the Christian community in Syria, but as a Government we take it extremely seriously not just in Syria but elsewhere in the world when Christians find themselves under unprecedented levels of attack. I pay tribute to the continuing work of my noble friend Baroness Warsi, who takes her duties as Minister for faith extremely seriously, including the protection of Christians.
British businesses want to see action not just words on reducing the burden of EU regulation, so may I urge the Minister to encourage the EU to adopt our one in, two out policy on new regulations, which will show whether it really is serious about cutting the burden of red tape?
I see nothing to disagree with in that statement. It seems to me that our companies still suffer from over-regulation. All of us in the House are guilty of talking about cutting red tape; at the next election, let us not be judged by the electorate as guilty of having not cut red tape. Of course, my hon. Friend is right; we need to free our businesses from red tape, particularly the smaller ones that we need to grow. There were concrete moves towards that in the recent Brussels Council.
We continue to discuss everything with the Syrian opposition Government. We continue to support them and we continue to believe that they are the only viable alternative to Assad for the reasons that I outlined to the hon. Member for Liverpool, Riverside (Mrs Ellman).
We have reached the 10th anniversary of the second Iraq war. It was perhaps with good reason that we involved ourselves in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya, but it cost us a lot and people now in power blame us quite a lot. Did the European Council consider what more the Arab world can do, rather than just asking us again to help out?
This is something not just to be discussed at a European Council; we believe, particularly on the humanitarian side, that there is plenty more that the Arab world can do. Also, we would urge all countries in that part of the world to look very closely at where they are putting their support. We believe that the official Syrian opposition is best placed to provide a transitional Government to replace the brutal dictatorship of Assad.
My hon. and gallant Friend is showing a certain nervousness about what is going on in Syria, understandably, but I hope he would agree that as of today we are in the right place on this. I believe the Government are not getting ahead of themselves. But we do have a very serious situation, which is deteriorating by the minute, and it is only right that we should be flexible in our approach to how we help bring it to a speedy and long-overdue end.
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is strange that Cyprus was not discussed, especially in the context of conclusion 13, where the directive for deposit guarantee schemes was discussed and there was awareness of trying to protect taxpayers in the context of banking crises? As this was within hours of a depositor haircut happening in Cyprus, would this not have been worth noting at that point?
At least the right hon. Gentleman was paying attention. I was not even there; we have got that straight, anyway.
My hon. Friend the Member for Daventry (Chris Heaton-Harris) is right. What we are concentrating on now, in this country, is ensuring that those of our servicemen or diplomatic service, and so on, who are in Cyprus are not adversely affected; as he would expect, discussions are going on to that end.