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UK’s Relationship with the EU

Volume 605: debated on Tuesday 2 February 2016

(Urgent Question): To ask the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the proposal for discussion of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union, to be published later today by the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk.

At about 11.35 this morning, the President of the European Council, Mr Donald Tusk, published a set of draft texts about the United Kingdom’s renegotiation. He has now sent those to all European Union Governments for them to consider ahead of the February European Council. This is a complex and detailed set of documents, which right hon. and hon. Members will, understandably, wish to read and study in detail. With that in mind, and subject to your agreement, Mr Speaker, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister will offer an oral statement tomorrow, following Prime Minister’s questions, to allow Members of the House to question him, having first had a chance to digest the detail of the papers that have been issued within the last hour.

The Government have been clear that the European Union needs to be reformed if it is to meet the challenges of the 21st century. The British people have very reasonable concerns about the UK’s membership of the European Union, and the Prime Minister is determined to address those. He believes that the reforms that Britain is seeking will benefit not just Britain, but the European Union as a whole. Therefore, our approach in Government has been one of reform, renegotiation and then a referendum. We are working together with other countries to discuss and agree reforms, many of which will benefit the entire European Union, before holding a referendum to ensure that the British people have the final and decisive say about our membership.

The House will recall that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a statement after the December meeting of the European Council. At that meeting, leaders agreed to work together to find mutually satisfactory solutions in all the four areas at the European Council meeting on 18 and 19 February. My right hon. Friend’s meetings in Brussels on 29 January, and his dinner with President Tusk on 31 January, were steps in that negotiation process.

We are in the middle of a live negotiation and are now entering a particularly crucial phase. The Government have been clear throughout that they cannot provide a running commentary on the renegotiations. However, I am able to say that much progress has been made in recent days, and it appears that a deal is within sight. The publication of the texts by President Tusk this morning is another step in that process, but I would stress to the House that there is still a lot of work to be done.

If the texts tabled today are agreed by all member states, they will deliver significant reforms in each of the four areas of greatest concern to the British people: economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty and immigration. On sovereignty, the texts show significant advances towards securing a United Kingdom carve-out from ever closer union.

On the relations between euro “ins” and “outs”, the documents offer steps towards significant safeguards for countries outside the eurozone as euro members integrate further. On competitiveness, we are seeing a greater commitment by the entire Union to completing the single market for trade and cutting job-destroying regulations on business.

On free movement, there are important ideas in President Tusk’s drafts on reducing the pull factor of our welfare system and on action to address the abuse of freedom of movement of persons.

We believe that real progress has been made, but I would stress that there is more work still to be done and more detail to be nailed down before we are able to say that a satisfactory deal has been secured.

First, Mr Speaker, may I thank you for allowing this urgent question to be placed before the House today?

It is rather strange that the Prime Minister is not here and that only two of his Cabinet colleagues appear to be in attendance. The Prime Minister—I should be pleased about this, I suppose—seems to think that he should be in Chippenham, paying homage to the town where I was born, making a speech about negotiations with the European Union, rather than first, as is his duty, reporting to this House, to which he is accountable as Prime Minister.

The Minister says that the Prime Minister does not wish to give a running commentary on the negotiations, but that is exactly what he is doing. He has gone to a selected audience in Chippenham this morning to give a commentary on the negotiations but cannot come here to report to this House. He is trumpeting the sovereignty of national Parliaments as part of the renegotiations, but does not seem to respect the sovereignty of this Parliament in coming here today to make the statement he should have done. Also conspicuous by his absence is the Chancellor of the Exchequer. Where is he this morning? He is across the road making a speech there, but cannot come here to this House—to this Parliament.

Additionally, it appears that journalists were given a very heavy briefing and copies of the document earlier this morning, if not yesterday. No Member of this House received it before them; they were given the briefing. Once again: no process of coming to Parliament, and every process about engagement with the media rather than this House.

If the Prime Minister has an unbreakable commitment in Chippenham—it is a wonderful town and I hope he enjoys his visit there—he could get back to London in about an hour by train and give a statement here later on today. Why cannot he do that?

The truth of the matter is that this whole process conducted by the Prime Minister is not about engaging with Parliament and not about engaging with the necessary questioning by MPs—it is about managing the problems within the Conservative party. I believe, Mr Speaker, that this indicates a lack of respect for the democratic process and this House. I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that the Prime Minister will come here tomorrow, will take questions, and will in future come to this House first rather than going to selected audiences to say what people want to hear.

What my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister is seeking through these negotiations is to secure a better deal for the United Kingdom in Europe and to secure agreement to measures that will make the whole of Europe better at creating jobs, growth and prosperity than it has been in recent years. The British people will then be given their say over our future in Europe, which they were denied for 13 years while the right hon. Gentleman’s party was in government, despite three different treaties being enacted in those years which transferred further powers from this House to the institutions of the European Union.

It has always been my right hon. Friend’s intention to make a statement, subject to permission, after Prime Minister’s questions tomorrow. The timing of the release of the documents was in the hands of the President of the European Council. The draft text of those documents has been changing over the weekend, and as recently as yesterday. Clearly, until President Tusk published, we could not come to the House to answer questions on them.

I have been at debates and in evidence sessions before Select Committees when I have listened to complaints from Members from all parts the House that they were being given insufficient time to look at the detail before they had the opportunity to question Ministers about it, so the Prime Minister’s approach has been deliberately to give that opportunity to right hon. and hon. Members and then make himself available to answer questions. The fact that the right hon. Gentleman focused entirely on the choreography of this morning and asked not one question on the substance makes that point for me.

My constituency office has been able to obtain a copy of a letter sent by President Donald Tusk to Members of the European Parliament, which the Leader of the Opposition does not seem to have been able to obtain. It sets out the broad description that my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe has just given.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the encouraging progress on issues such as Britain’s possible opt-out in future from ever closer union, the relationship between eurozone members and non-eurozone members, and the ability of national Parliaments to veto proposals from the Commission to member states, are crucial questions that have a big bearing on Britain’s future changed relationship with the European Union? Does he accept that the big issue of how far the British tax and benefits system should be enabled to discriminate against foreigners working alongside British workers in this country—no doubt other member states would be entitled to discriminate against British workers working there—needs to be settled on a satisfactory basis, and then we can get back to the big issue of Britain’s full relationship with the Union and the role Britain wants to play in the modern world?

My right hon. and learned Friend is right to say that the issues addressed in the drafts and which are a response to the four issues raised by the Prime Minister in his letter to President Tusk last December do tackle the very important issues that challenge every country in Europe and which are of the greatest concern to the British people. The one area where I would differ from my right hon. and learned Friend is that in the eyes of the people whom we are sent here to represent, the question of the abuse of free movement and access to our welfare systems is a very important one, and it is right that that is part of the renegotiations.

We in the Scottish National party support remaining within the European Union and look forward to making the positive case for the EU. Yes, it is about the largest single market in the world. Yes, it is about being able to make and influence laws that affect us, but crucially, it is also about a social Europe with rights and freedoms for citizens and for workers. These questions are much, much bigger than the missed opportunities for genuine EU reform that the Prime Minister has been pursuing. He has palpably not delivered anything near Tory promises of treaty reform.

The big questions about remaining in the EU are far bigger than his negotiations and they need full consideration by the electorate. However, we know that there are important elections in May to the Scottish Parliament, the Welsh National Assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly, and for the London Mayor and the London Assembly. It cannot be right for these elections and a referendum campaign to clash with a June polling day on remaining in the EU or Brexit. Will the Government now take the opportunity to confirm that they will respect the electorates in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London by not announcing a June referendum date? Will the Government confirm that there are still no safeguards in place which would stop Scotland being taken out of the European Union against the will of the Scottish electorate?

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the referendum Bill was amended in this House to make it impossible for the referendum to be held on the same day as the elections in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and English local authorities. His right hon. Friend and foreign affairs spokesman, the Member for Gordon (Alex Salmond), has been pressing in this House recently for a six-week quarantine period between the Scottish election date and a referendum being held. Clearly, we take seriously the right hon. Gentleman’s views as the SNP’s official spokesman on foreign affairs, but no decision has been taken about a referendum date, not least because we do not yet have a deal and we will not know whether we do have one until, at the earliest, the February European Council. At the end of the day, it will be a decision for the House, because the referendum date will be set by statutory instrument subject to affirmative resolution.

Of course, for all his fulminations, the Leader of the Opposition voted against the Maastricht treaty. Having said that, how can the Minister justify this pint-sized package as a fundamental change in the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union, with real democracy for this Parliament, which represents the voters to whom he has himself just referred? Given that there is no treaty change on offer, what guarantee can my right hon. Friend give that, before the votes are cast in the referendum, this package will be not only legally binding but irreversible, which a decision by Heads of State, as proposed by Mr Tusk in the letter to which my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke) has referred, cannot possibly achieve?

As I am sure my hon. Friend will be the first to accept, the central document in the set issued by President Tusk today is a draft international law decision by the Heads of State and Government meeting at the European Council. That, if it is agreed, will be binding in international law and it could be revoked or amended only with the agreement of all signatories, including the Government of the United Kingdom, so it is, indeed, legally binding. When my hon. Friend has had the chance to explore the documents in more detail, I hope he will accept that, although people have for years said that we could not get a carve-out from ever-closer union, a mechanism for addressing the issue of access to in-work benefits or safeguards for non-euro countries as the eurozone integrates, significant steps towards achieving those objectives are all in the documents. Just as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister defeated expectations in securing a cut to the EU’s budget, I believe he will defeat some of the more pessimistic expectations of one or two of my hon. Friends.

May I, through the Minister, wish the British negotiating team very well in what he has rightly pointed out is an ongoing negotiation? Does he agree that the great challenges that Britain faces, whether from international terrorism, the refugee crisis, climate change or tax avoidance, can be tackled only by us working with our close neighbours, not relegating ourselves to a position of impotent isolation?

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has consistently said, continued full membership of a reformed European Union is a win-win for the people of the United Kingdom, because when Europe works together effectively, it can, indeed, do more for the citizens of all countries than any one country acting on its own.

In what areas of policy are the Government seeking exemption for the UK from the jurisdiction of the European Court, because without such exemption we cannot be free from the concept of ever-closer union?

The documents do point to areas where very clear exemptions would be made. Clearly, the Court is there to ensure that the treaties are observed by all member states and by the institutions, but if the drafts we have received today are agreed by everybody, and if they take the form of international law decisions and European Council declarations, they will have not just political but legal significance, which the Court will take into account when it frames its response to any particular case brought to it.

When we first negotiated the concept of a red card back in 2003—it is hardly a new concept—one of the stumbling blocks was the mechanism by which national Parliaments would come together to form a collective opinion in order for it to be effective. Is the Minister now saying that he will advocate the creation of a new European institution to allow that to happen? If not, how does he think national Parliaments will co-ordinate without the presence of Members of the European Parliament?

I do not think that needs the creation of a new European institution. I think that national Parliaments—perhaps this would also involve the strengthening of the COSAC secretariat—need to get more adept at the habit of working closely together so that, as a matter of routine, they co-ordinate in a similar way to how Foreign Ministers across Europe co-ordinate, week by week, on foreign policy issues.

While noting Mr Tusk’s language about the United Kingdom, in the light of its

“special situation under the Treaties,”

not being committed to “further political integration” in the European Union, does not the Minister agree that, if we are going to stay in the EU, we need to commit to making its institutions work better, which means addressing the democratic deficit?

Yes, I agree. That is why we tabled proposals to strengthen the role of national Parliaments as part of the system of checks and balances within the European Union. The drafts include a red card measure, which has never existed before and which many people told us was impossible.

The Prime Minister’s commitment to the sovereignty of this Parliament does not seem to stretch to actually being in Parliament on the day this question is being raised. I welcome the publication of the draft proposals, but, given that Britain’s membership of the European Union is about our continued economic prosperity, about whether we are going to protect our security in these troubled times and about whether we are an outward-looking or insular country, is it not bizarre that the Prime Minister claims that this massive decision is down to such narrow and arbitrary demands? However, if he is successful in getting those demands met, will he politely ignore the calls from UKIP and the SNP to delay the referendum beyond the summer, given that that would further destabilise our economy?

The Prime Minister has rightly focused on those proposed reforms that will make the greatest difference to increased prosperity and job creation in Europe, and that also address the chief concerns of the British people about the current terms of membership. As I said a little while ago, the date of the referendum is ultimately in the hands of Parliament, because it is Parliament that must approve the regulations to set that date.

This in-at-all-costs deal looks and smells funny. It might be superficially shiny on the outside, but poke it and it is soft in the middle. Will my right hon. Friend admit to the House that he has been reduced to polishing poo?

No, and I rather suspect that, whatever kind of statement or response to a question that I or any of my colleagues delivered from the Dispatch Box, my hon. Friend was polishing that particular question many days ago.

It is important to remember that the question on the ballot paper in the referendum will be the basic question of whether to leave or remain—with all that entails for jobs, trade and Britain’s place in the world—not the specific contents of this renegotiation, the terms of which could never satisfy the desperate-to-be-disappointed Members on the Conservative Benches.

On the specifics and the substance, the document released by the President of the European Council states that

“conditions may be imposed in relation to certain benefits to ensure that there is a real and effective degree of connection between the person concerned and the labour market of the host Member State.”

What exactly does that mean, and does the Minister agree that the vast majority of people who come here from elsewhere come to work hard, pay their taxes and make a positive contribution to our country?

I completely agree with the right hon. Gentleman’s last comment. It is very important that, when we talk about the public’s understandable concerns about levels of migration into this country, we do not get drawn into stigmatising those individuals, wherever they come from in the world, who are working hard, abiding by the law and doing their very best as residents in the United Kingdom.

As I said earlier, the texts received today are drafts. We do not yet know the response of the other 27 Governments, so we will have to see at the end of the negotiation what the final deal—if there is a deal—may be. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that, when the referendum comes, people will be voting not only on the package that the Prime Minister has negotiated, but on the broad issues of the pros and cons of membership, over which hon. Members on both sides of the House have argued and disagreed in good faith over many years.

Speaking as a member of the European Scrutiny Committee, I welcome the proposal for a red card system that would give groups of national Parliaments the capacity to turn down Commission proposals. Does my right hon. Friend agree that those, on both sides of the European debate, who have called for many years for Parliaments to have more power to address the democratic deficit should particularly welcome that aspect of the proposals?

Labour Members are united in our desire to remain in a reformed European Union. Does the Minister agree that, were we to leave, we would put British jobs, investment, prosperity and security at risk? Does he also agree that, were we to leave and remain in the single market, we would still have to pay into the EU budget and accept the free of movement of people, but we would lose our ability to negotiate over the sorts of things that are on the table from the European Council President today?

I have to tell the hon. Lady that, in my experience of debates in the House and the European Scrutiny Committee, I have found members of her party who differ from her on the question of EU membership, as well as those who share her views. She makes an important point. Norway and Switzerland show us that it is not possible to have all the things we like about EU membership—free trade and open markets—but none of the things that we might rather do without. Those are among the issues that the British people will have to weigh up when they make their choice.

May I helpfully read a comment from the paper that the Government have distributed to Conservative Back Benchers, which states that

“this package could mark the high water-mark of EU integration for the UK”?

I remind my right hon. Friend that that is exactly what the then Conservative Government said about the Maastricht treaty. We did not believe them then, and we do not believe him now.

My hon. Friend has been consistent, at least, in his opposition to British membership of the European Union for many years, regardless of the terms that Ministers suggested for such membership. I believe that he is wrong, because the kinds of institutional and legal changes proposed in these texts indicate a very different approach to the European Union—an approach that is much more grown up and accepting of the diversity of the Union today than ever before.

On several occasions so far, the Minister has referred to the process being ongoing. He has talked about taking another step and said that we have not reached the end yet, that the negotiations continue and that there is hard work to be done. Can he outline the areas in which Her Majesty’s Government are pressing for more? Are they asking for any more, or is this it as far as the British Government are concerned, and we are just waiting for others to respond?

The scope for the renegotiation was set out in the Prime Minister’s letter to President Tusk last December, and the document that we have today is a working set of negotiating texts. When the right hon. Gentleman examines them in detail, he will see that various passages are square bracketed, where there is an indication that no agreement has yet been reached. There is work still to be done on those areas.

May I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and our negotiators for the tireless work that they have done in trying to go forward and create a reformed EU? Does the Minister agree that the issues that we are talking about—sovereignty, whether we have to have ever-closer union, competitiveness for our trade and protection for vast sectors such as the City of London—are major ones? The detail is vital, and I commend him for working so hard on it. We want effective agreements and effective mechanisms, and I think the work is going well.

I am grateful to my hon. and learned Friend for his comments. I agree with him about the importance of securing these improvements for the British people, and about the benefits to the British people that can be obtained through a successful renegotiation.

Those of us who believe that Britain’s future is better in Europe still want an ongoing process of reform beyond the referendum to tackle the democratic deficit. If democracy is a genuine priority for the Government, will the Minister join me in calling for more powers for the European Parliament, the Members of which are elected directly and proportionally, to ensure that the most democratic institution in the EU gets greater powers over the Commission, the Council and the European Central Bank?

The European Parliament plays an important role in European legislation, and I have met MEPs from pretty well all political families who take their responsibilities as legislators seriously. If the European Parliament were the answer to the democratic deficit, however, we would not see the depth of public discontent with, and mistrust of, European institutions that we see in many different member states. One of the problems, which can be measured in the low turnouts in European Parliament elections in pretty well every member state, is that people do not see the European Parliament as accountable or close to their concerns.

May I ask my right hon. Friend whether the draft texts incorporate the precise and clear manifesto promises on which Conservative MPs were elected last May to restrict the payment of in-work benefits and child benefit to foreigners? Yes or no?

We will have to see what deal emerges, if we get a deal at the February European Council. I think my hon. Friend would acknowledge that manifestos tend to be written in rather less technical language than do legal texts from the European Union. If he wants the language of any deal to effect changes in how the law is applied and how institutions work, we have to use technical language to describe those changes. I believe that the content and outcome of those reforms will, if we are successful, be significant, in line with what my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has sought.

What plans does the Minister have to meet the Scottish Government to discuss the proposals in advance of any discussion of a final deal at the EU summit at the end of the month?

I have already sent copies of the Tusk drafts to all three of the devolved Governments. I did so immediately after they were released in Brussels this morning. I am making myself available for an early conversation with the relevant Ministers in the Scottish Government, and in the Welsh and Northern Ireland Governments, and I am perfectly willing to discuss with them the possibility of a face-to-face meeting as well.

The Prime Minister and others who are campaigning for Britain to remain in the European Union have been trumpeting the myth that Britain’s security is dependent on our continued membership of the European Union. However, the handout circulated by the Government Whips Office to Conservative Members just before this urgent question states that the Tusk texts apparently clarify

“that national security is the responsibility of member states, and that the EU has no business in getting involved in this most basic of national issues.”

Who is correct, the Prime Minister or the Government Whips Office?

My hon. Friend is reading in contradictions where no such contradiction exists. The treaties are clear that, as a matter of policy and legal competence, national security remains the responsibility of national Governments in the member states. The Prime Minister, the Home Secretary and the Foreign Secretary have frequently spoken about how, through effective co-operation within Europe on selected justice and home affairs measures, and through effective co-operation in counter-terrorist work and foreign policy work to deal with organised crime, terrorism and people trafficking elsewhere in the world, we can amplify the efforts that we make on our own and do better at securing objectives that matter to the British people than we could if we acted on our own.

The deal laid out by Mr Tusk is a good deal better than many Conservative Members may have expected. It will not make a difference to me—I will support Britain staying within the EU—and I suppose it will not make any difference to many Members sitting behind the Minister, as they would not countenance Britain staying in the EU under any circumstances. Ultimately, however, I hope that the deal, however it is arrived at, will be enough to persuade people who were undecided to come on board and back the campaign to remain within the EU, and to put Britain’s jobs and best interests first.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for what he has said. I do not want to jump fences ahead of the European Council later in February. We are not yet at the stage when we can say that a deal has been achieved. If a deal is achieved, then I think we can deliver the win-win outcome for the British people that the Prime Minister has been seeking.

We are going to hear an awful lot about the proposed red card scheme in the coming weeks, but given that the so-called yellow card system, which required only one third of national Parliaments to agree, has only ever been used twice and only once successfully, how likely does my right hon. Friend think it is that the proposed red card system, which requires a much higher threshold of 55% of national Parliaments to agree, will ever be used? Is it not the case that the only way for this country to regain control of its own affairs is to vote to leave?

The red card, if one is finally agreed, would, for one thing, be quite an effective deterrent against measures being brought forward that the institutions thought did not command democratic support in the Parliaments of member states. One of the lessons national Parliaments should draw from the experience of the yellow card system so far is that they could be more energetic than they have been in bringing forward reasoned opinions under that procedure. I would be delighted if the House of Commons matched the record of the Swedish Parliament or the Polish Parliament in bringing forward reasoned opinions and deploying the yellow card.

Does the Minister agree that the central issue is that if, whether we are in or out, we want lasting influence over the social, environmental and economic future of Europe, we need to stay in? This candyfloss negotiation—it is not possible to ratify it legally in a treaty, but it is welcome—may be sweet to taste, but appears much bigger than it in fact is and will not have a lasting impact unless we stay in the Union to see it through.

I really do not think that the hon. Gentleman should be so dismissive of issues that the Prime Minister has put on the table and which matter a great deal to the people whom both he and I represent in this House. There are very significant advantages to our national interest in remaining part of a reformed European Union, but opinions in the House have differed on the subject, quite honourably and openly, for many years and it is right that the people have the final say.

I am not convinced by my right hon. Friend’s explanation of the Prime Minister’s delay, which is that we need to study the document, because although it is characteristically long on words, it is short on substance. May I draw his attention to page 15, where it notes that the emergency brake in relation to immigration will operate on a proposal from the Commission, and to the draft legislation relating to the euro outs, which says that, if there is opposition to the Council adopting something by qualified majority, the Council shall discuss the issue? Well, that is an enormous difference from what we currently have. I just wonder whether the next 24 hours will allow Downing Street the opportunity to try to make bricks without straw.

As I have said, this is an ongoing negotiation and we have not reached agreement on all aspects of what is in the Tusk drafts. I would just point out to my hon. Friend that the document also includes a very clear statement by the European Commission that it believes the conditions already exist in the United Kingdom for the emergency brake on welfare access to be triggered.

Whatever welcome progress the Prime Minister makes on important parts of this negotiation, will the Minister make it absolutely clear to the House and the country that this is about fundamental issues that go beyond the negotiation, not least our co-operation on such matters as tackling cross-border crime and terrorism? Fundamentally, the referendum will be a choice about whether we are stronger, safer and better off inside or outside the European Union.

That puts it very well. That is the choice that the British people will have to make. I am confident that the campaigns on both sides of the argument will strive to express their views along the lines that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

The big question that is going to be asked in relation to the referendum is about our right to self-determination. People tell me that they like the rules to be made by this Parliament, based on policies decided by this Government. Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the brake will be operational only at the will of the Commission, not at the will of this Parliament, and that the red card system will operate only with the permission of 19 other countries, not at the behest of this Parliament?

There would be a danger in having a unilateral red card for every single national Parliament. I can remember when the EU institutions forced France to lift its ban on the import of British beef. A unilateral power of veto would have enabled the Assemblée Nationale to continue the ban, irrespective of the scientific evidence.

My hon. Friend makes a fair point about people wanting to feel that we make our own rules, but the experience of countries that are not in the European Union, such as Norway and Switzerland, is that they have to implement the EU’s rules in order to access its markets, but do not have any say or vote in making those rules. That is part of the assessment that the public will have to make.

Will the Minister explain why it is acceptable for the media to have sight of the draft EU plan before this House? Does that not yet again show this Government’s contempt for our democracy, and where their priorities lie?

I have no idea what individual journalists saw or think they saw. What I know is that the documents were only published by President Tusk at about 11.35 this morning. As soon as that happened, I gave instructions to send copies to the Library of the House, the Vote Office, the Chairs of the Commons and Lords scrutiny Committees and the Chair of the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee.

I fully understand my right hon. Friend’s desire not to engage in a running commentary on the progress of the negotiations, but will he say whether he has yet received any indication of how well the proposals on freedom of movement have been received in Warsaw, Sofia and Bucharest?

At Head of Government level, as well as at both official and ministerial level, we have had conversations for several months with Governments in central Europe about our entire agenda, and particularly about this issue, which, as we have always acknowledged, is a very sensitive one for them. Those conversations have been constructive. We now have to wait to see their response to the documents that the President of the European Council has published today.

Ten weeks before the date of the referendum, the Government will be required to publish information including their opinion on the outcome of the negotiations. If they go for 23 June, that information will hit the doorsteps three weeks before elections that are vital to almost 20 million people on these islands and will quite possibly arrive at the same time as people’s postal ballot papers. Will the Minister give an absolute undertaking that that would be unacceptable and that it will not happen?

We are certainly aware of our statutory obligations. As I have said, no decision has been taken by the Government about the date of the referendum and no decision can be brought to Parliament for approval until a deal has been secured.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is the details that have been negotiated, and not the emotions, that should determine the analysis of what the Prime Minister has done? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that under paragraph 5 of the economic governance section, the institutions of the EU will be sovereign over the eurozone, which will be a powerful tool for the economic future of this country?

It is in the interests of the United Kingdom that our partners and friends who have committed themselves to the single currency should be able to ensure that the currency union is stable and that it creates the conditions for economic growth and higher employment. That will benefit us, so we will not stand in the way of their integration if that is what they wish for. However, we want to ensure that any such eurozone integration does not take place at a financial or political cost to countries like ours that have decided to stay out of the currency union. The principles that are set out in the Tusk drafts today take us a long way towards securing that objective.

It is not good co-ordination when Members of the European Parliament, the devolved Administrations and others have had sight of this deal before Members of this House have done so and been able to discuss it thoroughly. On the specifics, the Minister implied in his main response to the urgent question that the deal would include removing unnecessary burdens on business. For me, that is code for reducing workers’ rights. Will he say whether part of the discussion has been about watering down the social chapter or workers’ rights?

The hon. Gentleman might not have heard what I said a few moments ago, but as soon as the documents were released in Brussels, I instructed that copies be sent straight away to the Vote Office, the Library of the House and the Chairs of the Committees of this House that are most directly involved in the scrutiny of European matters.

On the hon. Gentleman’s second point, there is no contradiction here in supporting good and effective rights for employees at work. Few have been more committed to parental leave arrangements than my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. The Government have a very good track record on those matters. I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman is very out of touch if he thinks that significant reductions could not be made to the complexity and the burden that are placed on businesses, particularly small and medium-sized enterprises, by regulation at both the national and European levels. I am disappointed that he does not recognise that and support our objective.

I think that if my hon. Friend looks at the detail of the Iceland-China agreement, he will see that it provides more political opportunities for China to develop the relationship with Iceland, rather than any opportunities for Iceland to sell goods or services on the Chinese market. When negotiating trade access with a country of 1.3 billion or 1.4 billion people, we get more leverage as part of a market of 500 million people than as a single country of 65 million. That is the message we get from global trading partners such as China and the United States.

Will the Minister confirm whether there are any proposals in the current negotiations to change the relationship between the United Kingdom courts and the European Court of Human Rights?

The straight answer is no, because the European Court of Human Rights is not part of the European Union. My right hon. Friend the Lord Chancellor is working on proposals to deliver the Conservative manifesto commitment to a British Bill of Rights. I am sure that he will make an announcement in due course.

Is it not significant that the proposals to give us a legally binding exemption from ever closer union and to protect the UK from deeper integration within the eurozone that might discriminate against us would, if implemented, give us the best of both worlds? We would be outside the eurozone but able to access the single market, and we would retain the advantages of being outside Schengen, such as maintaining our borders, but still have access to the world’s largest market of 500 million people. Would it not be unwise of us to throw away those unique advantages for an alternative that is unknown and risky?

Does the Minister recognise that if and when a referendum happens on the basis of a deal that is still to be concluded, many of us will see the debate as being about the bigger issues, challenges and reasons, which point to staying in the EU, rather than about the issues in this package, which many of his hon. Friends are determined to belittle as something between a figment and a fig leaf?

What is in the renegotiated package, assuming that we achieve it, will be an important element in the referendum debate, but it will not be the sole element. There are broader issues too. I agree with the hon. Gentleman that those are matters that both the major campaign groups will want to focus on.

While the House digests the full details of the letter from the President of the European Council, 6.8 million 18 to 25-year-olds in the UK will be asking what impact this letter will have on them. What assessment has the Minister made of the impact of the renegotiation on young people? After all, it is their future that will be affected the most.

One of the biggest challenges facing young people these days is the uncertainty about how to get a rewarding job and career in European countries, many of which have appallingly high levels of youth unemployment, although thankfully not the United Kingdom. Career patterns will inevitably be disrupted by global competition and the impact of digital technology. The commitments to deepening the single market, particularly in digital and services; to forging new trade links with other countries in the world; and to cutting regulatory costs, which will benefit small businesses and self-employed people in particular, seem to me to send a powerful message to young people that we are all committing ourselves to securing greater prosperity and greater opportunity for them.

It is abundantly clear that I am not the only Member who is, to put it mildly, miffed that the Prime Minister can afford the time to give a running commentary to the media, but not to Members of this House. On the specifics, I do not believe that the Minister answered the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Denton and Reddish (Andrew Gwynne), so perhaps he can be a bit clearer now. At any point, have the Government tried to negotiate away or water down British workers’ rights?

We have always said that we support decent rights for workers. Indeed, we have upheld them in policy both under the coalition Government and since the 2015 election. Nobody is talking about sending little children to sweep chimneys these days. The commitment in the drafts to cut the regulatory costs on business to spur job creation and economic growth is perfectly compatible with decent rights at work for men and women.

I confirm that my constituents in Lancashire are in no way “miffed” by the fantastic progress that has been made in these negotiations. If Britain votes to remain in the European Union, what role will the referendum lock that was passed in the last Parliament continue to play in protecting our national interest?

My hon. Friend makes a good point. The referendum lock embodied in the European Union Act 2011 remains in force, and it will mean that on a range of important issues, new powers cannot be transferred to the European Union from this country without a referendum in the United Kingdom. There will be a referendum lock on any future treaty change under any Government who try to transfer additional powers from Westminster to the European Union.

Does the Minister agree with me and Members from every party in the House—including the Conservative party—that a June referendum would be disrespectful, and that a quick referendum would create a missed opportunity for a full, comprehensive debate on the UK’s membership of the EU, and the best way to keep us in the European Union?

I always take seriously the need for fairness for people in all parts of the United Kingdom when it comes to setting the referendum date. As I said earlier, we listened closely and took on board the comments made by the Scottish National party’s official foreign affairs spokesman, who said that there should be a six-week interval between the Scottish elections and any referendum. No decision has yet been, or can be, taken, at least pending the February European Council. Only then can we decide what date to nominate, and what statutory instrument to bring forward to the House.

When I introduced the European Union Free Movement Directive 2004 (Disapplication) ten-minute rule Bill in October 2012, I hoped that it would culminate in a debate that would lead to fundamental reform and renegotiation, based on parliamentary sovereignty and control of our own borders. On that basis—I believed that the Prime Minister thought that, too—I have kept my counsel, but what the Minister has offered today on free movement is “important ideas” from Mr Tusk. Surely the Minister can understand the sense of a missed opportunity, regret and disappointment at this suboptimal draft agreement.

I hope that when my hon. Friend has the chance to look at the text in greater detail, he will see that—if agreed—it will mark a significant change in the direction in which he wished to go. Clearly, it will need the agreement of 27 other Heads of Government at the European Council, and I cannot stand here and take that for granted. He should also bear in mind the fact that the precedents of Norway and Switzerland suggest that part of the price of access to the European market and free trade has been an acceptance of the principle of free movement of workers.

Does the Minister agree that some of our most foundational environmental legislation lies in the EU habitats and birds directives, the clean air directive and the water framework directive? Those things can only, and must, be agreed at supranational level. What would happen if we were to leave the EU and try to renegotiate such foundational environmental legislation ab initio?

The hon. Gentleman makes a reasonable point, but when dealing with environmental legislation, it is important that the principles of proportionality and subsidiarity are rigorously applied. Sometimes it is right to agree on an environmental objective at European level, but to leave a considerable amount of flexibility for individual member states with different circumstances as to how precisely those objectives should be reached.

Will my right hon. Friend join me in welcoming the clear commitment by the EU to tackle issues of competitiveness, including a clear set of targets to reduce the burden of regulation on businesses?

I completely agree with my hon. Friend, and if we can get agreement from the other 27 states on that explicit target for burden reduction, that will be a first for the European Union.

We have still had no assurance that Scotland will not be forced to leave the European Union against its will. If a majority in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who wish to stay in the EU outvote a narrow majority in England to leave it, will the Minister and his musketeers on the Back Benches accept that result?

I am in no doubt about my position and that of the Prime Minister: we will accept the verdict of the people of the United Kingdom as a whole, and we will regard that as binding.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there is something completely absurd about the Leader of the Opposition using his entire remarks to criticise the absence of a Prime Minister to deliver a statement on a renegotiation that will lead to a referendum, none of which would have taken place had there been a Labour Government?

I think it was a pity that the questions from the Opposition Dispatch Box were about today’s process rather than about the substance of European matters, but the Opposition will have another chance tomorrow.

I thoroughly welcome the news that under the Conservative Government no children will be sent up chimneys.

Why, after delivering a speech to a group including journalists, was the Prime Minister answering questions from the British Broadcasting Corporation on this very subject at 13.20 Greenwich mean time? Was that not a running commentary?

The Prime Minister wanted to ensure that Members of Parliament got the opportunity to consider the detail of the document before they questioned him about it. Had he simply come to the Chamber within an hour of the technical documents being published, there would have been all sorts of protests that he had not given people sufficient time. I fear that the hon. Gentleman is trying to have it both ways.

Will the Minister join me in welcoming the parts of the letter that talk about safeguarding our rights and those of other non-euro nations in terms of further integration in the euro area? Does he agree that it has been interesting to hear comments about not listening from people who did not want to listen to the British people about this issue, and from those who seem keen on holding a referendum on one Union but not on any others?

I agree with my hon. Friend, and agreement on a sensible design for European co-operation that respects the right of those in the currency union to integrate further, but which equally safeguards the single market—including in financial services—and the interests of euro-outs, is an important step forward. I hope that we can nail that down at the February European Council.

Will the Minister say whether the Prime Minister’s negotiations have progressed to the point where it is clear what the impact of Brexit would be on the 2 million UK citizens who live in the EU, and the 2 million EU citizens who live in the UK?

The fate of British citizens currently living and working in other EU countries under freedom of movement should certainly be taken into account during the forthcoming referendum campaign. The straight answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s question is that it all depends on what “out” actually means. In my experience, there are a number of different ideas about what kind of relationship outside the EU it might be possible for the United Kingdom to negotiate.

I know there are a couple of weeks left to tidy up the details of the letter sent by the President of the European Council, but I find one passage, which the Minister has touched on, a tiny bit concerning. It states that we will refrain from measures that could jeopardise the attainment of the objectives of economic and monetary union for our European partners. In the past that debate has been about levels of corporation tax and other taxes set in the European Union, as well as a whole host of other economic factors. Will the Minister ensure that that part of the agreement is tidied up and defined tightly before we move forward?

There is certainly still work to be done on the element of the text dealing with the relationship between euro-ins and euro-outs, as well as on other aspects of the text. On my hon. Friend’s initial comment, while we hope it is possible to get a deal in February, the Prime Minister’s position remains that the substance of any agreement will determine the timing of the referendum. If it were to take longer than February to get the right deal, then so be it.

How can the Minister continue to argue that the proposals meet the Prime Minister’s promise that he wishes to restore sovereignty to this Parliament, when, to exercise a veto over laws we do not like or to put a brake on benefits to immigrants, we will still have to go cap in hand to other European Parliaments or the European Commission? Does he not see that this is the kind of deal that even Del Boy would have been embarrassed to be associated with?

The hon. Gentleman has always been, quite openly, an opponent of British membership of the European Union. If the United Kingdom were to have a unilateral veto on everything, that would have to be the case for every other member state as well. We would certainly find some of the trading and single market measures that bring huge benefit to the people of Northern Ireland at risk from a veto by a more protectionist-minded Government elsewhere in Europe.

I will, exceptionally, take a point of order now, as I understand it to relate to the matters of which we have just treated. Ordinarily, of course, it would come after the second urgent question.

I am most grateful, Mr Speaker, and I seek your guidance. As far as I can understand it from the proposals that have been set out this morning, the red card system would give a vote to both the House of Commons and the House of Lords, as parliamentary Chambers. That would open up the possibility of the unelected upper house voting with other European Parliaments to impose European legislation on the elected House of Commons. When you have had a chance to examine this, Mr Speaker, along with your officials, would it be possible to get some guidance on the constitutional implications for this House of such a proposal?

I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman both for his point of order and for advance notice of it. My initial reaction is as follows: it is not a matter for the Chair to seek to interpret the proposals, especially prior to their agreement being put forward by President Tusk, whatever temptation I might feel to seek to do so. However, I would hint to the right hon. Gentleman that if he wants to have a sense of how the process might work, he should probably consult article 7(1) of protocol 2. I feel sure he will find that reading and study experience instructive and possibly stimulating. We may return to these matters. I rather suspect that we shall.