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European Council

Volume 573: debated on Tuesday 7 January 2014

(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the European Council meeting of 19 and 20 December 2013.

I have been asked to reply. The European Council focused on three things: defence; economic and monetary union; and EU enlargement and association agreements. On defence, the Prime Minister made it clear that NATO would remain the bedrock of our national defence. As a result of United Kingdom lobbying, NATO’s Secretary-General Rasmussen was invited to attend and address the Council as a symbol of the importance of the European Union’s efforts, which complement rather than duplicate the role of NATO in our collective security. It is right for European countries to co-operate on defence issues such as tackling piracy, and this country has consistently supported other European allies, including the French efforts in Mali. However, it is important that defence co-operation is driven by nations themselves, on a voluntary basis, according to their own priorities and needs, and not by the Brussels institutions.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister ensured that the conclusions excluded any ambiguous language or proposals that could lead to new bureaucracy, new EU institutions or increased EU competence on defence and security matters, including any ambitions to own dual-use capabilities such as remotely piloted air systems. The conclusions of the Council were clear that nations, not the EU institutions, were in the driving seat of defence policy and would remain there.

On economic and monetary union, the United Kingdom is not in the eurozone and will not be joining the euro, but we want our trading partners in Europe to have a strong and stable currency and we support their efforts to achieve that, provided that Britain’s interest are properly protected. My right hon. Friend ensured that there would be no financial liability for this country from banking union or from any future euro area mechanism of loans or guarantees for eurozone countries The conclusions also reiterate the importance of making the EU more competitive, including cutting red tape for business.

On enlargement and association agreements, the European Council welcomed the initialling of association agreements with Moldova and Georgia, and made it clear that the EU’s offer to Ukraine remained open. The United Kingdom has long supported enlargement because the prospect of EU membership has proved a huge driver for peace, prosperity and reform across our continent. My right hon. Friend made it clear that he continued to support enlargement and saw it as one of the European Union’s greatest strengths. At the same time, however, he argued that when new countries join the EU in future, we should look again at the transitional arrangements for the free movement of workers. He argued, too, that the free movement of workers was different from the free movement of people seeking the best benefit deal. Other member states share our concerns about this matter, and we look forward to continuing those discussions over the coming year.

Delightful as it is to see the Europe Minister here today, it is the Prime Minister who is meant to make statements following European Council meetings. Why is the Prime Minister not here today? If he has a good excuse for not being here today, why could he not have made a statement yesterday? Is it now Government policy not to make statements following European Council meetings, even though the House has observed that practice for many years? It would be particularly regrettable if that were the case, given that we no longer have pre-Council debates.

Does the Minister think, on reflection, when he reads the written ministerial statement, that even if the Prime Minister had to make such a statement, the one published in Hansard is not brief, but tawdry? It really is quite an insult, particularly when compared with the official Council conclusions. The written statement makes it clear that there will be no EU ownership, no EU headquarters, no reference to Europe’s armed forces, no European pooled acquisition mechanisms, no EU assets and fleets, no EU drones and no EU air-to-air refuelling tankers. Of course, that leaves one to wonder what there will be, given that this meeting was the first since the Lisbon treaty came into force where the Council had a themed debate focusing on defence.

How does the Government’s statement square with the Council conclusions, which say:

“The European Council remains committed to delivering key capabilities and addressing critical shortfalls through concrete projects by Member States, supported by the European Defence Agency.”?

Given that whole list of noes, including on the institutions, what is the role and function of the European Defence Agency? Similarly, given that there are meant to be no EU drones, what are we to make of the Council conclusion that we remain committed to a 2020 to 2025 time frame for the

“preparations for a programme of a next-generation European Medium Altitude Long Endurance RPAS; the establishment of an RPAS user community”

group and European Commission regulations on that?

The Council conclusions also state:

“The European Council welcomes the Commission communication ‘Towards a more competitive and efficient defence and security sector’. It notes the intention of the Commission to develop, in close cooperation with the High Representative and the European Defence Agency, a roadmap for implementation”

of a more co-ordinated defence industry. Will the Minister comment on the clear contradiction between the written ministerial statement and the conclusions?

I have two final points to make. First, how does the statement square with the French Prime Minister’s demand for the setting up of a permanent fund to finance operations such as France’s operation in the Central African Republic? Secondly, did the Prime Minister have any discussions with the new German Defence Minister, Ursula von der Leyen, who until that point had been personally very deeply committed to a united states of Europe?

First, I am grateful for the hon. Lady’s words of welcome. Let me respond to her first question by reminding her that since May 2010 my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has made no fewer than 18 oral statements here following Councils that took place while Parliament was sitting—that is double the number of such oral statements given by his immediate predecessor. It has been the practice of successive Governments not to make an oral statement following Councils taking place during a recess, and my right hon. Friend therefore made a full written ministerial statement on Monday, which set out in detail the key outcomes from this Council.

On the hon. Lady’s important points about common security and defence policy, the key is to understand the distinction between ownership by the EU of defence capabilities, which we do not support and have resisted successfully, and co-operation by European countries in providing greater defence and security capabilities. What was good about the conclusions both of the December European Council and of the previous week’s Foreign Affairs Council on CSDP matters was that they made it very clear that the EU first had to work with, and not duplicate, the efforts of NATO and work alongside other partners in different parts of the world. Secondly, they made it clear that the EU would look for ways in which to encourage co-operation on capabilities, for example, on drones, which she mentioned. That is not some new EU-directed operation, but a facility that individual members of the EU can decide whether or not to take part in. There is no secret plan to direct some Euro drone out of the Berlaymont; it is very different. It is about co-operation between willing member states.

On the defence industry point, the conclusions made it clear that the European defence sector needed to become more competitive and efficient. The language that we successfully negotiated makes it clear that rather than there being any question of European national champions, the defence sector must comply with European law, which means that there must not be illegal state subsidies, except where subsidies are explicitly protected under the treaties. The language also makes it very clear that we, or indeed any other country, are not in any way constrained from continuing to work with the United States or other international partners on our defence industries. When the hon. Lady comes to look in more detail at the conclusions, I hope that she will agree that it was a good outcome for the United Kingdom and a successful negotiation.

This morning, the European Scrutiny Committee cross-examined the Minister for Europe on these issues. I have written to the Prime Minister accordingly in relation to the fact that he is not here today, as he should be and as our Committee recommended in our recent European scrutiny report. The substantive matter is that, on the one hand, the Prime Minister did say in his press statement that defence must be driven by the nations and not by Brussels diktat, but, on the other, Mr Van Rompuy states that we must have credible European scrutiny and

“a strong, credible, common security and defence policy”.

He also suggests that there is a greater role for European defence. Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is impossible to compare and to reconcile those different approaches given that there is an ever-increasing competence towards European defence irrespective of what the Minister has just said?

On my hon. Friend’s first point, I am aware that he has written to the Prime Minister about the matter of oral statements. There is of course that recommendation in his Committee’s report. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will reply to the letter. For the record, I repeat the Government’s commitment to give their full detailed response to the European Scrutiny Committee’s report in due course, and I pledge to do that as soon as we are able.

On his point about CSDP matters, I do not agree with him. I, too, want to see a European arm of the Atlantic alliance that is more credible and effective than it is at the moment. That is certainly a message that I hear consistently from the other side of the Atlantic as well. But there is a difference between that and the European Union and its institutions owning and directing those policies. What we support and advocate is a system in which European countries take more seriously their obligations to deliver effective security and defence contributions to that trans-Atlantic alliance, and that is where the conclusions of the European Council represented a clear victory for our vision. It advocated an emphasis on capabilities and political commitment, not on new EU institutions and not on the EU ownership. Rather, it insisted on the EU complementing NATO and working with the grain of member state responsibility and competence over defence policy.

I rather agree with much of what the Minister has said and congratulate him on being a rather fine Minister for Europe in that he does not subscribe to some of the looney-tunes ideas proposed by some of the people sitting behind him. May I ask him about the European Council and whether there was any discussion about who will be the new British commissioner? The European Parliament will get to have a view, so should not this House get to have a view on who the next British commissioner should be?

The straight answer to the hon. Gentleman’s question is that there was no discussion by this country or any of the other member states of who their nominee might be later this year. That is a matter, as always, on which the Government will come to a view and we will nominate a man or woman in due course. I must advise the hon. Gentleman to be patient for a bit longer.

I commend the Government on successfully resisting the idea of EU-owned military assets or capabilities and underline the support of the Liberal Democrats for European co-operation in defence to be based on nation states putting their forces into joint operations when appropriate, which works very well with the naval counter-piracy mission and various land operations in Africa. Given that the US is rebalancing its defence efforts to the Pacific and is taking 20% of its defence spend out of Europe, is it not more important than ever that the 28 member states of Europe should share their capabilities and expertise where possible to ensure the best possible return on limited investment?

I agree with my hon. Friend’s points. One thing that the habit of working together on security and defence matters through the EU does is enable us to bring in those countries that are members of the EU but are not, for historical and constitutional reasons, allies of ours in NATO. The very fact that Secretary-General Rasmussen not only spoke at the summit but warmly welcomed its conclusions as pointing the way towards a more effective European arm of defence that complemented and supported what NATO was doing should give us all confidence.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) for securing the opportunity to discuss this issue in the Chamber today and I share her regret that the Prime Minister broke with precedent by not appearing in person to answer her question.

Let me first touch briefly on the banking union. We welcome the progress that has been made, but what discussions were had during the summit to ensure that the European Central Bank’s risk assessments, which are due to be conducted later this year, will be sufficiently rigorous?

On migration, I welcome the Prime Minister’s statement that there will be further discussions on the

“need to find a better approach to tackle free movement abuse”

at an EU level. As we in the Opposition have said before, we need to reform the way free movement works so it is not seen as a part of a race to the bottom in the world of work. This means looking again at the transitional controls, including extending them over longer periods so that when new countries move into the European Union we learn the lessons from the past. With the recent lifting of transitional controls on Romania and Bulgaria, will the Minister set out what steps the Government are taking to address practical problems around those who exploit migrant workers to undercut local businesses and staff? EU reform will be achieved through building alliances for change among other EU member states rather than escalating rhetoric and alienating allies, so can the Minister set out who will be leading the negotiations on any proposed EU reform agenda on behalf of the Government?

The summit should have been a vital opportunity to build coalitions to secure the changes that must be made in Europe for Britain yet, once again, it seems the Prime Minister viewed it as merely providing the opportunity for securing headlines rather than securing change.

The hon. Lady is being unusually churlish. If she looks again at the Council’s conclusions, she will see that we not only managed to secure important and positive British interests that take the development of the common security and defence policy in the direction that the UK has long advocated, but—and she omitted to mention this in her question—we secured key safeguards on the operation of the banking union to ensure that the taxpayers of this country are not liable for the consequences of any solvency decision made by our eurozone colleagues. The Opposition might have had the grace to pay tribute to what the Prime Minister achieved; otherwise people might come to think that the Opposition are somehow dismissive of the interests of British taxpayers and of safeguarding them against such liabilities.

The hon. Lady asked directly about the safeguards that the Government were putting in place for people who might be exploited if they came here from other parts of the EU or elsewhere in the world. I can reassure her that the Government are doubling the fine for people who employ illegal workers and quadrupling the fine for paying people below the statutory minimum wage. Under the previous Labour Government, the fine for paying somebody below the minimum wage was £5,000 per employer. Under this Government, the fine will be £20,000 per employee, not per employer. When it comes to the protection of exploited workers, the Opposition’s record does not give them anything of which to be proud.

I warmly welcome the Prime Minister’s repeated assertion that NATO remains the cornerstone of the defence of the United Kingdom and, of course, of western Europe. However, may I put it to my right hon. Friend the Minister that the observations made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) and my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) illustrate that there is no reduction in the enthusiasm of some of our continental partners about creating an EU defence identity in conflict with NATO? Should not those countries be working within NATO to strengthen NATO’s capabilities as the United States inevitably reduces its interest in Europe in favour of the Pacific? I remind my right hon. Friend that we have a veto on defence matters in the EU and I hope that he will ensure that that is maintained.

Yes, we not only have a veto but we have legislated in the European Union Act 2011 to require a referendum were anybody to propose that that veto be lost and that we should move to a system of qualified majority voting instead. Those safeguards, thanks to this Government, are written into law. If my hon. Friend looks again at the detail of the language in the European Council and Foreign Affairs Council conclusions, he will see a welcome emphasis on the need for the EU to complement NATO and the importance of capabilities. The issue of an EU operational headquarters, which was the cause of a rancorous debate 12 months ago, was not even pursued this year. That is evidence that we are winning the argument on the direction in which the European CSDP should go.

On the question of European enlargement and immigration, I pay tribute to the overwhelming majority of citizens from elsewhere in the European Union who, in my constituency in Scotland and in the rest of the UK, work hard, pay their taxes and are a benefit to society. Will the Minister take the opportunity to confirm that more than 2 million UK citizens live elsewhere in the European Union, and that the Department for Work and Pensions is right in confirming that the percentage of benefit claimants in the UK is significantly lower among EU nationals than among UK citizens?

Statistically, as far as I am aware, the hon. Gentleman is right on that point, although of course it in part reflects the fact that the majority of people from elsewhere in the EU who are here are of working age and not retired and in receipt of pensions, so it is not an exact comparison. I very much agree that we should acknowledge that the great majority of people from other EU countries who come here do so to work, to pay taxes and to contribute to society, but that does not mean that we should dismiss the cases in which there is evidence that people have either tried to exploit our benefits system or have engaged in organised or perhaps low-level but still very antisocial crime. It is right that action is taken to tighten up access to benefits and free public services in the way that the Government are proposing. That is important in order to maintain public support and confidence for the principle of free movement of workers—and workers alone.

I, too, welcome much of the language used by the Prime Minister at the time of the Council and by my right hon. Friend in the early part of his statement indicating our opposition to a move towards European stand-alone defence capabilities of any kind. However, I also very much share the scepticism voiced particularly by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) as to whether this is for real. Surely my right hon. Friend agrees that if defence and foreign affairs are the primary and exclusive role of nation states, now is the time to start moving towards abolishing the CSDP, not praising it as he has done.

No, I do not agree. I think we should look to the CSDP within the European Union as we look to our co-operative defence and security arrangements, bilaterally with other European countries and with countries elsewhere in the world, as mechanisms by which we can enhance and strengthen the United Kingdom’s security and defence and take forward our global security objectives. Provided that that is done in the right way without the accretion of new powers to EU institutions or the establishment of new EU institutions, then we can succeed in benefiting from sensible, pragmatic co-operation between willing European countries in a way that strengthens the transatlantic alliance as a whole and our national security.

The Minister made reference to economic and monetary union. It is clear that a number of countries have suffered terrible economic experiences as a result of membership of the eurozone. Eurozone membership is now having a deflationary impact in France, and its economy is definitely going in the wrong direction. Has there been any discussion about the likely longer-term implications of France suffering the same kind of experiences as other countries in southern Europe?

It is for French Ministers to defend French economic policy, including membership of the euro. I am very glad that the United Kingdom remains outside the euro and has no intention of joining it, and that this Government have introduced a statutory referendum lock against any future prospect of our doing so. However, in all my conversations with ministerial colleagues from those countries that have elected to join the single currency, their political commitment remains very strong, and we have to respect the sovereign decisions that they have taken.

Will my right hon. Friend confirm once and for all that, notwithstanding what Labour Members say about the value of immigrants to this country and the fact that they claim fewer benefits than the indigenous population, it is perfectly right and legitimate for British taxpayers to be concerned about the speed and rate of immigration, particularly under the previous Government, and that we are therefore right to be doing something not only about reducing immigration overall but specifically about the unintended consequences of free movement of labour? What is his assessment of Angela Merkel’s decision to hold an inquiry into the unintended consequences of free movement, and does he think that that will give us the opportunity to sort out a sensible solution that works for the British taxpayer?

We need to do two things. First, we need to make sure that our law and European rules distinguish clearly people who want to travel in order to work or who are genuinely able to support themselves, from those who are not able to do so—a principle of free movement to work that benefits a large number of United Kingdom citizens as well as people from other European Union countries. Secondly, when we come to look towards future enlargement of the European Union—we are some years away from any other country being ready to join the EU—we need to revisit the issue of transitional controls and ask ourselves whether simply having a specified, perhaps somewhat arbitrary, number of years after which all controls come off is the right way to address the issue. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister alluded to that and started a debate on it in his article in the Financial Times just before Christmas. On that matter and on the relationship between freedom of movement and the benefits system, we are indeed looking forward to taking discussions forward over the next year, not only with our German colleagues but with other member states.

I have known the Minister for Europe since he was 20 years of age, and he has always been very cheerful and talented, but I am afraid he is not a substitute for the Prime Minister. I agree with the hon. Member for Stone (Mr Cash) and my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart): this is a European Council statement that ends the Lithuanian presidency and begins the Greek presidency, and it ought to have been given by the Prime Minister as soon as the House sat yesterday.

Is it now the policy of this Government to veto enlargement unless we have agreement on transitional arrangements? What exactly are we providing under presidency conclusion 41? Are we giving additional support to countries such as Greece?

I will have to advise my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister to divert his flight to Luton airport when he next comes back from a Council meeting so that he can be sure of seeing the right hon. Gentleman in person.

I refer the right hon. Gentleman to what I said earlier, which is that when Parliament has been in recess during a European Council, successive Governments have followed the practice of giving a full written ministerial statement rather than an oral statement. His strictures should therefore be as much directed against the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) as against my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. In his time as Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend has given twice as many oral statements on EU summits as his immediate predecessor, so I do not think he has anything to apologise for.

My right hon. Friend is very precise in his language—he is a model for a learned lexicographer. I wonder therefore how he might construe this phrase in the conclusions of the Council of Ministers on the CSDP that was endorsed by the European Council, which says that the EU is

“to engage in all domains—land, air, maritime, space and cyber.”

How does that equal his assurance that what will be done will be mainly intergovernmental?

I take my hon. Friend’s description of me as a compliment, though I recall that Dr Johnson described a lexicographer as “a harmless drudge”—if I remember the quote from his dictionary accurately.

The answer to my hon. Friend’s question is that we must again go back to the distinction between a policy that is directed by and owned by the EU collectively and its institutions, which we do not have, and a broad policy on security and defence that rests on free co-operation between willing national Governments working together so that their capabilities complement one another, and working in partnership particularly with NATO but with other partners around the world as well. There is nothing to fear from the latter version of the common security and defence policy, and that is the version embodied in the European Council conclusions.

In advance of the summit, the Prime Minister made great play of new rules regarding access to benefits for EU migrant workers. What proportion of claimants for working-age benefits are made up of EU migrant workers?

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions has said in this House before, one of the difficulties we have had is that the previous Government chose not to collect statistics for social security benefits categorised by nationality of claimants. He and his team at the DWP are now changing that, and I am sure that they will produce those figures in due course, but they do not exist for the period of years that the right hon. Gentleman wants, because his Government did not bother to collect them.

I suggest that the vast majority of immigrants come here for work and not for benefits. Nevertheless, as the Prime Minister suggested at his press conference after the Council meeting, if not during it, the issue of migration needs to be addressed. Will the Minister enlighten the House on how the Prime Minister proposes to move this issue forward in negotiations with his EU partners, given that this is a fundamental right and freedom which might require treaty change by all members?

We are at an early stage of those discussions. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear when he wrote for the Financial Times just before Christmas, he wants to start a debate about how we should manage these matters better in the future. As my hon. Friend the Member for Basildon and Billericay (Mr Baron) knows, this subject causes concerns, particularly among Interior Ministers and Social Security Ministers in a number of different European countries. The conversations are being taken forward by my right hon. Friends the Home Secretary, the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and, of course, the Prime Minister. We are at an early stage, but we will be taking the discussions forward over the next 12 months.

Conclusion 36 indicates that the Council is calling for further discussions on tax evasion, aggressive tax planning, base erosion and so on. Does that include changes in EU regulations which currently permit workers posted to the UK for less than two years to avoid paying tax here and to opt to pay tax in their own country while still being eligible for benefits in the United Kingdom?

I think the appropriate Minister will have to write to the hon. Gentleman about the particular issue he mentions about posted workers. The key point about the conclusion on tax is that it is part of taking forward the G8 agenda on tax transparency that the Prime Minister led at the Enniskillen summit last year.

If EU defence is really just harmless intergovernmentalism, why do we have directives that have the force of law in the field of defence? Why do these conclusions include invitation after invitation for the Commission, which is not an intergovernmental institution, to lead on initiatives? Why are we still in the European Defence Agency, which contains expensive provision for qualified majority voting on defence? Is not my right hon. Friend becoming somewhat blind to the fact that we are moving towards a federal defence policy and a European army? He is in denial.

My hon. Friend is mistaken in his analysis of the EDA. The Under-Secretary of State for Defence, my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr Dunne), who has responsibility for defence procurement, took a very hard line and successfully won a flat-cash settlement for the EDA this year. We held out and it required unanimity for that budget to be agreed. It is simply not the case that we can be overridden by a QMV vote.[Official Report, 15 January 2014, Vol. 573, c. 11MC.]

The Commission has a role under the treaties with regard to industrial policy and, of course, the operation of the single market. However, the single market as regards defence is qualified in the treaties by articles that make it clear that certain matters are reserved from normal single market arrangements because they are critical to national security. Embodied in the European Council conclusions is a very clear direction from all 28 Heads of State and Government that the Commission should stick to what is given under the treaties, that there should be no attempt at competence creep and that there should be no move towards national European champions or a circumvention of the freedom of member states to strike sensible defence partnerships with countries outside Europe, and instead that the Commission should work on ways to make Europe’s defence industries more competitive and its defence markets more open in a way that, incidentally, would provide great opportunities for the United Kingdom’s first-class defence suppliers. That move towards greater openness in areas of defence procurement is something that United Kingdom companies have been pressing Ministers to achieve.

The conclusions of the European Council state:

“The European Council welcomes the signature this week of the biggest ever single EU humanitarian financial allocation”

to Syria. Why did the Prime Minister not make any reference to that in his written statement? Indeed, why has the Minister not mentioned it in his response this afternoon?

There is a lot in the European Council conclusions. I do not think it would serve a huge purpose if a written statement simply rehearsed every single item when there is a link in the statement on the Council conclusions to the full text itself. I am also somewhat constrained—quite properly—by the time permitted to respond to the urgent question asked by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart).

The hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David), however, is right: this was a very important breakthrough. There was a commitment by all 28 Heads of State and Government for European countries to do more to help people in Syria who have been displaced and are in need and those who have taken refuge in neighbouring countries who face huge problems. What is also needed—we have supported the efforts of other EU countries on this—is some declaration, if we cannot get a resolution, at the United Nations Security Council to provide safe passage for humanitarian organisations to reach people in Syria who are in desperate need and find it impossible to get access to the aid available.

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has undoubtedly won some crucial victories in our national interest, in the face of the unremitting efforts of the Brussels institutions to fulfil ambitions that are set out in the treaties for all to see, including that of having a European army. Sadly, there are some new commitments in the conclusions, including one in paragraph 9 for

“an EU Maritime Security Strategy by June 2014, on the basis of a joint Communication from the Commission and the High Representative, taking into account the opinions of Member States”.

Is that not precisely a case of the Brussels institutions being in the driving seat and an open invitation for them to indulge in more competence creep?

The maritime security strategy is about trying to make the different efforts of the 28 European Governments over matters such as piracy and port security more cohesive and co-ordinated than they are at present. It does not involve any kind of direction. It is trying to establish a framework for effective partnership and working together so that we have fewer weak links in security—whether it be maritime or terrestrial—anywhere across the continent of Europe. Any weakness in security arrangements elsewhere in Europe can end up providing a point of entry for people who want to threaten our interests directly, so this sort of effective working together is very much in the interests of this country.

What the Minister has told us about the European Council discussions is obviously welcome, but six days before the European Council an Amnesty International report said:

“European leaders should hang their heads in shame over the pitifully low numbers of refugees from Syria they are prepared to resettle”.

Is it not the fact that Europe as a whole, with the exception of Germany, has been failing in its humanitarian duty to support refugees from Syria? Should not this have been pursued more actively by our own Prime Minister at the European Council, and should not it be taken forward in other European forums as well?

It is a pity that the hon. Gentleman did not acknowledge the very significant sums of humanitarian relief that this country has provided through the Department for International Development. What we surely want to see in Syria is a ceasefire leading to a political settlement that enables Syrian people to return home, rather than to be dispersed into a diaspora community around the rest of the world.

Once again in its conclusions the Council has restated the need to cut EU-imposed red tape on businesses, but British companies want action now, not just words. Is my right hon. Friend able to indicate when any of the existing EU-imposed rules and regulations, such as those on the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals, will actually be repealed?

In fairness, I think that what the industry has been calling for is modification of the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals directive—REACH—and flexibility in its interpretation, rather than its outright repeal. I can point my hon. Friend to the agreement by all Governments to exempt micro-businesses from future EU regulations as the default position. I can also point him to the Commission’s refit package published earlier this year. Among other things, the Commission has announced that it will withdraw some proposals to impose extra regulations on professions such as hairdressing, and it will also take action about the over-prescriptive aspects of the soils directive. A lot more can and should be done. That is why we have pressed very hard for the recommendations of the Prime Minister’s business taskforce to be taken forward, and why we strongly welcome the fact that the taskforce report has had strong support from Government leaders representing all the main political families right across the European Union.

I thank the Minister for his response to the urgent question. I note that there was no discussion at the Council about a Spanish naval ship’s unlawful incursion into Gibraltar’s territorial waters. The EU is adamant that member states must respect each other’s sovereignty, but Spain is obviously ignoring that agreement. What steps will he take to address that issue?

We make it clear every time there is a Spanish incursion into British Gibraltar territorial waters that that is unacceptable through a formal protest of some kind to the Spanish Government, which, depending on the circumstances, has ranged from a note verbale to a public summoning of the Spanish ambassador. We continue to make representations to Spain at the highest level about the fact that this sort of behaviour is not tolerable, as well as the fact that Spain would be better off recognising that a large number of Spanish citizens benefit from the prosperity of Gibraltar—from being able to take work there and from the spending power it provides to the Andalusian economy—and that it would be in Spain’s interest to start trying to make friends with Gibraltar, instead of issuing threats.

A common defence policy for Europe would clearly undermine the crucial link between Europe and America that forms the basis of NATO. What assessment have our Government made of the number of our fellow EU member states that favour a common defence policy, and of their motivation for favouring such a dangerous step?

It all depends on what is meant by a common defence policy. There is widespread support, including in the United States and from the NATO Secretary-General, for European members of the transatlantic alliance to be more effective and cohesive in their contributions to our joint security arrangements. My hon. Friend is right that some people in Europe want to go a great deal further, particularly in some of the European institutions, such as the Parliament and the Commission.

For rather obvious reasons of parliamentary accountability and a consciousness of the importance of national sovereignty over defence and foreign policy, there is greater reluctance among national Governments. As a rule of thumb, smaller member states often see security advantages in closer European integration at defence level, and the significant defence players are generally the most conscious of the need to preserve national autonomy and to defend what the treaties lay down, which is that defence and security remain national competences and rights.

What further reassurances can the European Council provide to the people and the Government of Ukraine that signing the draft association agreement with the European Union remains in their long-term economic interests? When the Minister next speaks to his counterparts in Russia, will he remind them that the decision about whether to sign that agreement is one for Ukraine alone, not one that should be subject to pressure by Ukraine’s neighbours?

It is important that we do not just make statements at European Councils or the like about this issue, but that we try to reach out to ordinary Ukrainians. Our embassy in Kiev has been leading on that and encouraging embassies from other European countries to do so as well, particularly to get the message through to those in the Russian-speaking areas in the east and south of Ukraine that greater integration with the world’s biggest single trading market will, in the medium and long term, hugely benefit the prosperity of people of every ethnic background within Ukraine.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman in relation to Russia. I have certainly made such a point directly to my Russian opposite number. It is in Russia’s interests to have a Ukraine that is more prosperous and stable than it is today, so I hope that Russia will in time see that Ukraine’s association with the EU should not be perceived as a threat.

On enlargement, there is a huge disparity between income per head in new member states and that in existing states, which results in many people abandoning their country for a richer one. Is it time for the EU to legislate against new entrants gaining access to other labour markets until their own economic fortunes are growing?

As the Prime Minister has said, we need to look at how transitional arrangements should operate in future. In his Financial Times article, my right hon. Friend suggested the idea of looking at a new entrant’s GDP in relation to average EU GDP. However, he made it clear that we are not necessarily wedded to that proposal, and are keen to hear ideas from others.

It is clear that simply relying on a somewhat arbitrary number of years and saying that all restrictions will fall away automatically at the end of that period will not restore public confidence in the enlargement process. I profoundly believe that enlargement has worked to the benefit of Europe as a whole, including the United Kingdom, so I want to see public confidence restored, and looking again at transitional controls is one important way to do that.

I am sure that if the Prime Minister were here—I wish he was—he would join me, as I hope the Minister will, in wishing the Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, a speedy recovery from her serious skiing accident.

Will the Minister take it from me that I am a very strong pro-European—always have been—but even I am very concerned that this miserable little Council meeting seems, according to his statement, to have spent so little time on the real problems that the European economy still faces. I am talking not about the eurozone, but about the heath of our economy. Only two weeks ago, Angela Merkel made a very important speech about the rift between the rich or super-rich and average, ordinary people being a danger to democratic institutions.

My last point is that we seem to be sleepwalking towards enlargement with three other poor countries, which concerns my constituents and me.

On the hon. Gentleman’s last point, there is no question of sleepwalking. There is a very rigorous process of accession negotiations, each stage of which succeeds only if every EU member unanimously agrees that the relevant standards have been reached by the candidate country. Even on the most generous estimate, it will be a fair number of years before any of the current candidate countries are in a position to be ready to join the European Union.

I happily concur with what the hon. Gentleman said about Chancellor Merkel. She is a formidable leader of Germany, and a good friend of this country as well. I am sure that the whole House will wish her a very speedy recovery from her skiing injury.

On the hon. Gentleman’s point about debates on the economy, this Council had been designated for a long time as the occasion for the first discussion at Heads of Government level on defence and security policy for several years. There is a limit to the number of significant issues that can be pushed into a single summit meeting without doing injustice to their importance. There was a very good discussion of some broader economic issues at the October European Council, and I am absolutely confident that the Heads of Government will return to the economy in 2014.

The whole House will be disappointed that there was not an oral statement by the Prime Minister yesterday, and the Minister has not explained why the Prime Minister has not popped over from Downing street to spend an hour answering the urgent question that has been granted today.

On a specific matter, did the Prime Minister bring up the issue of Romanian and Bulgarian migration at the Council, and did he suggest that this country wanted to extend the limits? Talking about future transitional arrangements, which are years away, is rather like shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

The Prime Minister and the Government have always made it clear that we will abide by the law in respect of Romania, Bulgaria and other accession countries. The treaty of accession, which was negotiated by the last Government and agreed by the House in the last Parliament, laid down that the transitional controls on migration from Romania and Bulgaria should continue for a maximum of seven years. We were right to put transitional controls in place for the full seven-year period. Unlike in the case of the 2004 accession states, we are lifting the transitional controls at the same time as every other country in the EU that has maintained such controls. The situation is therefore somewhat different.

The measures that we have announced and are implementing to make it more difficult for people who are not workers to access social security and public services ought to provide considerable public reassurance, as should the knowledge that under this Government about two thirds of new employment is being taken up by United Kingdom citizens, whereas under the last Government the figure was only 10%. That is the first sign that this Government’s reforms to welfare, education and training are having the beneficial effect of making more of our young people employable and willing to take the work that is available.

I have asked this question of the Minister for Europe before. Now that another European Council meeting has concluded, is he able to tell the House whether he is any closer to determining what is the top policy priority for repatriation that would encourage the Government to campaign to stay in the European Union?

I have to confess to the hon. Gentleman that he is not the first person with whom I will share the secret. The Government have a clear policy on reform of the European Union to make it more competitive, democratic and flexible. In his party capacity, the Prime Minister has set out that at the next election he will advocate a programme of further European reform, including treaty change. The hon. Gentleman will have to contain himself and see what is in the Conservative manifestos this year and next. They will give him a bit more detail.

I suggest to my right hon. Friend that these defence discussions are a classic example of EU competence creep, or should I say incompetence creep? I put it to him that the United Kingdom should have nothing to do with establishing an EU-led so-called European arm of NATO, because if the EU gets anywhere near the NATO-led defence capabilities of European nations, including our own, it will wreck them, just as it has wrecked economic and monetary union.

I assure my hon. Friend that we are not doing that. Nothing in the European Council conclusions should give credence to the idea that there is such a threat. I say to him that it is a mistake always to see Europe as threatening and to think that we are unable to influence the way in which Europe works together. The record of this European summit again shows that when we put our minds and energies to it, we can influence, and to a considerable extent direct, the future shape of European policy in a way that serves our national interests, the interests of all our people and the interests of Europe as a whole.

Does my right hon. Friend know whether the Prime Minister had any conversations or open debates on protecting parliamentary sovereignty, given the growing crisis in subsidiarity in the European Union following the yellow card that was issued by 19 reasoned opinions across member states on the European public prosecutor’s office being blatantly ignored by the European Commission, which is ploughing forward on this matter?

That issue was not on the agenda for the European Council, but I made a point of raising it in strong terms at the General Affairs Council a few days before the summit. I was pleased to be supported strongly by my Dutch colleague and a number of other Ministers who were present.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that we should be stressing the fact that this coalition Government have given unprecedented aid support to the Syrian refugees and to individual aid agencies such as UNICEF and the neighbouring countries that are doing what they can to address this local humanitarian crisis?

I very much welcome the statement that has been made by the Minister. On the issue of security, was there any discussion at the Council of Iran’s nuclear programme and the deal that has been reached, because there is concern among neighbouring Arab states, such as Saudi Arabia and other members of the Gulf Co-operation Council, not only about the deal but about the fact that it was reached without any representations from Arab countries at the table where the discussions took place? Does the Minister agree that a country from the GCC should be at the table when there are further discussions about Iran’s nuclear deal?

Iran was discussed at the Foreign Affairs Council. Of course, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary talks regularly to his counterparts in Germany and to the other permanent members of the Security Council about this matter. We also talk to our friends in the Gulf Co-operation Council about our relationship with Iran and the progress towards an acceptable solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. It is in the interests of countries in the region, as well as countries in Europe and north America, that such a solution is found as quickly as possible.

I joined fellow members of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly for a very informative briefing at NATO maritime command in Northwood about Operation Ocean Shield, which is the NATO operation against piracy off the horn of Africa. After an hour, we were asked to sit through pretty much the same briefing, but delivered by an EU admiral, about Operation Atalanta, which is the EU operation against Somali piracy. Is not that the kind of duplication and confusion in command and control that we must reject, and should we not instead commit ourselves fully to NATO?

The two operations off Somalia involve two sets of countries, the membership of which is not identical. Having EU and NATO elements means that we are able to involve more nations than would otherwise be the case. In practice, the two operations work pretty seamlessly together. As I understand it, they apply common rules of engagement. The importance of the EU common defence and security policy complementing and not duplicating or being a substitute for NATO was reinforced by the presence of Secretary-General Rasmussen at the European summit in December. The fact that the Secretary-General, on behalf of NATO, felt able to welcome warmly the conclusions that had been reached ought to reassure all of us in the House who are champions of NATO that there is no threat to NATO’s role or primacy here.