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EU Reform

Volume 602: debated on Tuesday 24 November 2015

8. What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the proposals for EU reform in the Prime Minister’s letter of 10 November 2015 to the President of the European Council. (902310)

9. What discussions he has had with his EU counterparts on the proposals for EU reform in the Prime Minister’s letter of 10 November 2015 to the President of the European Council. (902311)

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has had productive rounds of talks with every European leader and with the Presidents of the European Council, the European Parliament and the European Commission. The Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor and I also maintain regular contact with our counterparts right across Europe.

Will the Minister go further and confirm that the Government will not seek to tear up hard-won employment rights as part of this renegotiation with the European Union?

We believe that our flexibility opt-out from the 48-hour week under the working time directive is important for keeping employment levels in this country high, compared with the tragic levels of unemployment in many other European nations, and we shall certainly be fighting very hard to ensure that we keep that opt-out.

I set out the position on that in my statement and my subsequent answers a week ago. It is important that we secure a package of changes that will be seen by all as irreversible and as legally binding.

The Government used to complain about Tony Blair giving the UK’s rebate back to the European Union, so why did the Prime Minister not ask for a reduction in our EU membership fee in his letter? Are the Government now happy that we gave up our rebate, or has the Prime Minister asked only for the things that he has already had agreed by the European Union, so that he can tell us that his negotiations have been a success—on the basis that if you ask for nothing and get nothing, it looks like a success?

My hon. Friend would do well to do as he has done before, and to applaud the Prime Minister’s success in getting the first-ever reduction in the EU’s multi-annual budget. I can assure my hon. Friend that the negotiations will be tough and, at times, difficult, but I am confident that they will end with a better set of relationships between this country and the EU.

But surely it is the case that the very modest proposals set out in that letter are the only ones that the Government believe the rest of the European Union are prepared to agree to. That is why an end to free movement, which so many British people want to see, is not even going to be discussed.

We have made it clear that we want the freedom of movement for workers to be just that, and not a freedom to select the best welfare system anywhere in Europe. In our approach to this subject, we must also take into account the fact that hundreds of thousands of British citizens are able to work, study and live elsewhere in Europe.

Further to the previous question, will the issue of freedom of movement—the principle, not the detail—be discussed or not?

I have to ask the hon. Gentleman to re-read the letter that the Prime Minister sent to Donald Tusk last week. It makes it clear that, while we accept the principle of freedom of movement for workers, we want to secure changes to ensure that we can reduce the pull factors exerted by elements of our welfare system, which add to the migration into this country.

Following on from what my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) said, if the bar is so high and so tough, what are the difficulties? What is the Prime Minister really going to fight for? What is the thing that is holding him back? Where is it? Come on! The bar is so low that this negotiation is just a joke.

I perhaps look forward to the day when my hon. Friend is able to join me at ministerial meetings in Europe, where he will see that the task of negotiating is not quite as easy as he made out in his question. I cannot give a running commentary on ongoing negotiations, but I remind him that President Tusk said that the British requests are tough and that it would be

“really difficult to find an agreement”.

That indicates that we have a real negotiation in front of us.