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European Union Reform (Negotiations)

Volume 600: debated on Tuesday 20 October 2015

5. What assessment he has made of the progress of negotiations to reform (a) the EU and (b) the UK’s relationship with the EU. (901651)

14. What assessment he has made of the progress of negotiations to reform (a) the EU and (b) the UK’s relationship with the EU. (901660)

We are making good progress in our discussions on reform of the EU at both a political and technical level. We will continue discussions with our EU colleagues as well as with the European Parliament and Commission ahead of the December European Council. As the Prime Minister said last week, he will also be writing to the president of the European Council in early November to set out the areas of change that we wish to achieve.

Does the Minister share my concern that economic and monetary union states could force new legislation on non-EMU states by commanding a majority in the EU? What measures can be put in place to ensure that a country not in the eurozone, as Britain is proud to be, can guarantee that their voice is heard in the EU as loudly as those inside the eurozone, particularly on policy relating to the single market?

My hon. Friend is right to point out that concern. It is the case that the eurozone states will have a qualified majority between them in due course. That is why part of this negotiation is about putting in place a framework to govern relationships and decision making between eurozone and non-eurozone states so that the interests of the non-eurozone states are protected as the eurozone proceeds with the closer integration that—in our judgment—will be necessary to ensure that the euro is a successful currency. That is something that is greatly in the interests of the United Kingdom.

For the past two years, the residents of Morley and Outwood have been telling me of their concerns about EU migration, free movement of people and access to our NHS benefits and other services. What assurances can my right hon. Friend give them that those concerns will be addressed in the renegotiations?

I can assure my hon. Friend that those issues are right up there at the front of our renegotiation strategy. Whether they like it or not, our partners across Europe understand that those are the primary concerns that the British people are expressing in opinion poll after opinion poll and during the recent general election campaign. If Britain is to be able to embrace a reformed European Union, those issues will have to be addressed in the settlement.

If progress is made in all of the four areas that the Prime Minister has put forward, is the Foreign Secretary minded to vote for our EU membership?

Clearly, what I seek is a package of reform that will allow me and the British people to embrace enthusiastically Britain’s future in the European Union. The British people will, however, approach this process with a sceptical frame of mind. They will be looking for real and substantial reform, which is binding and enforceable and irreversible in the future. That is what we are seeking.

What legal advice has the Foreign Secretary had that would give him reason to believe that he can get these substantial changes that would allow non-euro countries fair representation within the architecture without treaty changes being required?

We expect that some of the changes that we are seeking—by no means all, but some—will require treaty change. We are exploring in technical discussions with the Commission’s lawyers how we might enter into binding arrangements ahead of treaty change that will have the effect of binding our partners into the agreements they have made.

17. Can the Foreign Secretary confirm that apart from some technical changes relating to the right of EU citizens to claim welfare payments, the basic principle of free movement of people is not going to change in the renegotiations? (901663)

The basic principle of freedom of movement to work is not being challenged, but I disagree with my hon. Friend that changes to access to welfare are merely technical. The point was made very well that access to extraordinarily generous in-work benefits effectively distorts the labour market and creates a pull factor towards working in the UK that we need to reverse.

The Foreign Secretary has made it clear that any changes will require treaty change. Can he tell us one member state that backs treaty change?

To be clear, I did not say that any changes will require treaty change; I said that we expect that some of the changes we are seeking will require treaty change. It is perfectly true—I do not know why the hon. Gentleman finds it so amusing, and I have said it in this House many times before—that none of our partners welcomes the idea of treaty change, but all of them accept that this is something we have to do if we are going to carry the British people with us.

21. What progress is being made to ensure that this Parliament, by itself if necessary, can say no to any unwanted EU directives, tax or regulations? (901667)

Part of our reform strategy is to look for a greater role for national Parliaments working together to block unwanted legislation so that we, the people of Europe, cannot have imposed on us by the Commission something that the majority of us do not want. But my hon. Friend knows that it is completely unrealistic to seek an individual national veto in all areas. A European Union of 28 member states with individual national vetoes simply would not work.

Will the Foreign Secretary comment on the solid progress being made on one of the five principles for the Prime Minister’s vision for a new European Union—that is, the competitiveness agenda and specifically, for instance, delivery charges for items posted within the EU, or trade deals with the US?

I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman is privy to some information that I am not, but last time I checked with the Prime Minister he had four categories in which he was pursuing the negotiation. On competitiveness, it is true that the mood in the European Union has changed. Since the financial and economic crisis, more and more member states are focused on the need for Europe to be able to compete in the global economy, and the Juncker Commission is focused on an agenda. We think it could go further; we would like it to be more ambitious, but it is pointing in the right direction. Our challenge is to institutionalise that change and make sure that the European Union is firmly pointed in that direction as a matter of institutional structure, not of individual Commission choice.

23. The Foreign Secretary said that our renegotiation will require a treaty change. Does he see that occurring before or after the proposed EU referendum, and will that treaty change trigger a second referendum? (901669)

We are exploring with the Commission legal services and others the possibility of binding legal commitments like the protocols that were entered into by Denmark and Ireland that will be incorporated into the treaties at the next available treaty change. That will give us what the British people need, which is assurance that the agreements that have been entered into will be complied with by the other member states.