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Treaty of Rome: 60th Anniversary

Volume 623: debated on Tuesday 21 March 2017

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.

It is good to be here today under your chairmanship, Ms Dorries. I think this is the second time that I have had the opportunity to do this. This week, as you will be aware, leaders from around Europe will gather in Rome to mark the 60th anniversary of the signing of the treaty of Rome. I thought that regardless of whether people voted to remain in or leave the European Union, it would be opportune for us to reflect on the 60th anniversary, and I thank the Minister for taking the time to come along today. It is a momentous event this weekend, and I think it right that we mark it with this debate.

For more than 60 years, European nations have worked together to create our continent’s longest ever period of peace, freedom, stability and prosperity. In place of conflict, the European Union has allowed member states to find consensual solutions to problems through dialogue, diplomacy and democracy. It can be easy, in the day-to-day of politics, to lose sight of the achievement that there has been in the 60 years since the signing of the treaty and more generally in the past 70 years. As Winston Churchill once said:

“To jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war.”

We should always reflect on that in this place and elsewhere.

As a result of the treaties, all member states, no matter how big or small, are represented in the European Parliament, the Council, the Commission and the institutions, in which the emphasis is on seeking compromise and consensus among those nations. It is little wonder that the EU was awarded the Nobel peace prize in 2012 for its achievements to date. That is worth reflecting on as well.

This weekend, there will naturally be the elephant in the room of European cohesion, given that the anniversary comes just before the triggering of article 50 by the UK Government. I am sure that that will be in people’s minds. I think our European partners should be mindful of the events and circumstances that led up to the UK’s voting to leave the European Union. The EU has never been afraid of reform or debate, and I hope that it will take on board the lessons that need to be learned from the UK’s experiences of the past few years, regardless of what the future might hold for these islands.

Nevertheless, that should not preclude us from reflecting on the EU’s extraordinary achievements and successes. At a time of rising instability and economic uncertainty, it is worth bearing in mind that our closest neighbours politically and economically remain countries such as Ireland, Germany, the Netherlands, France and the other member states. Those are and will remain our closest partners economically, politically and, of course, geographically.

The Minister would be surprised if I did not raise the fact that Scotland voted overwhelmingly—it had the biggest gap between leave and remain—to remain part of the European Union. Every single local authority area in Scotland voted to remain. Even those that voted against membership of the European Economic Community, as it was, back in 1975 voted to remain part of the EU. We voted to retain the benefits of EU membership and remain an open, inclusive and tolerant society that seeks to build economic partnerships with all those closest to us, be they in these islands or elsewhere in Europe.

We voted to remain in the EU—this goes back to the success of the treaties—because it makes our country safer. The European project has cemented peace in a historically unstable continent, not just after the second world war but in later years, when the EU had a positive role to play in areas as diverse as Northern Ireland and the western Balkans. We owe a debt of gratitude to our European partners for the positive role that they played in Northern Ireland and the successes of the peace process to date, but of course that is ongoing. The Minister will perhaps reflect on the fact that the carrot of EU membership and the norms associated with the European Union have been crucial to securing peace in the western Balkans, but I recognise that that important process is ongoing, and I hope that he will reassure us today of the UK Government’s ongoing commitment to that part of Europe even in the aftermath of our leaving the EU. My ideal has always been that the EU would become—indeed, it is—a soft superpower, serving our domestic interests and of course complementing the work of NATO.

In those areas the treaties have made us safer, but we also voted to remain in the EU because it makes the UK wealthier. Access to the single market has brought considerable benefits to all of us, and not least to small and medium-sized businesses. It was interesting to see the work that the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland has done on this of late. It shows that our annual exports to EU countries outside the UK are worth more than £2,000 per person.

In Scotland, we also voted to remain part of the EU because it makes the UK fairer. Many fundamental rights have come from Europe. The right not to be discriminated against on the ground of age, race or gender and in many other ways comes from Europe, as does the right to parental leave, paid holidays and other benefits.

My hon. Friend is making an incredibly powerful speech about the benefits of the EU. It is clear that the EU has been instrumental in moving forward individual rights, including the rights of women. We should celebrate the fact that European women have the world’s highest average score in the personal freedom index. Does my hon. Friend agree that that is important?

My hon. Friend always makes excellent points, and she makes a particularly good point on this issue, on which membership of the EU has complemented those rights. I would be encouraged if the Minister reflected on our continued commitment to the rights that we enjoy as European citizens.

We also benefit from the EU because it makes the UK greener. EU legislation is having a direct impact on us right now. The clean air directives of the 1980s were a result of acid rain, as we will all remember, and we are benefiting from them right now—those who survive the debate will continue to benefit from them. We have also seen ambitious climate change targets, which are working because we are working in partnership with our European neighbours. In recent times, Scotland has had world-leading climate change targets, which it has met ahead of schedule. We have often found more common ground with our partners in Brussels than here at Westminster. It is important that we reflect on that in considering our environment.

Scotland also voted to remain in the EU because it makes the UK smarter. The EU provides our students with life-changing opportunities to study abroad through Erasmus, which I personally benefited from. Will the Minister tell us today about the future of those opportunities? Today, I have the great pleasure of welcoming people from the University of St Andrews to Westminster. That university gets one quarter of the funding for its world-leading research from European sources. It is the largest employer in my constituency, and a large number of jobs are associated with that relationship with Europe. Some of the work that the university is doing will benefit us for generations to come. There is of course concern about Horizon 2020 and other sources of funding, but there is also concern about the freedom of movement. A large number of academics and students in St Andrews and elsewhere make their institutions better places in which to work and study and make those areas better places to live, given the greater pool of talent that can be drawn on. That comes from freedom of movement. I benefited from the opportunities of freedom of movement, and I would be encouraged to see others benefit from that. We should not take opportunities away from young people, which is why so many young people voted to remain part of the European Union.

We respect the decision of people in England and Wales to leave the EU. We think it is a pity, because the treaty of Rome has delivered so many benefits to us over the past 60 years, but we accept it. However, after taking office, the Prime Minister assured the country that she would not invoke article 50 until she had secured a “UK-wide approach”, and the Scottish Government produced a compromise proposal that would have respected the decision across the UK but maintained our place in the single market. It is a shame that the UK Government do not appear to be taking forward that compromise. Will the Minister reflect today on that compromise proposal put forward by the Scottish Government? It is regrettable that the UK Government have not entered into the spirit of compromise.

The treaty of Rome set up a partnership of equals; it is increasingly clear that the treaty of Union has not. The EU, which started 60 years ago, is not at all comparable with the treaty of Union—that is like comparing apples with oranges, or les pommes avec les oranges. The EU would never have blocked a referendum on the UK making a choice on its membership, could not foist a Government on the less than 15% of the electorate in Scotland and just over a third who voted for them in the UK, and could not place nuclear weapons on our soil against our will.

We have a choice of two futures. One is with a UK that, I am afraid to say, looks increasingly isolationist, and where there are concerns in our key industries such as education, food and drink and the energy sector about struggling outside crucial EU markets. The other is as an independent member state, working with our European partners in the same normal way that other similar states do. Scotland would be a medium-sized member of the EU and a net contributor that has met the acquis communautaire and enjoyed more than 40 years of membership already.

At this time of uncertainty in our relationship with our European partners, it is easy to lose sight of the major contribution that EU membership has made for all of us. The bloc is by no means perfect; building co-operation between 28 independent and sovereign member states is always going to be difficult. Necessary compromises will need to be made, and sometimes they will be a bit messy, but overall we are better within the EU and in a better place because of the signing of the treaty of Rome 60 years ago.

The EU has been a success for all the reasons that I have set out, and also by respecting the independence of its members and having political flexibility. It now has a thorny issue on its western flank. How it reacts to the UK leaving the EU while Ireland remains and Scotland possibly sets its own path will be tricky, but at the heart of the treaty of Rome, and at the heart of Europe’s strength, lies its flexibility. Frankly, it has solved more difficult problems than that one. As we are set for years of navel-gazing in the UK while we undertake the momentous bureaucratic task of trying to leave the EU, it is worth reflecting just for a moment—for this half-hour today—on the unprecedented success, 60 years on from its signing, of the treaty of Rome, which has touched and benefited each and every one of us. Thank you, Ms Dorries, for this opportunity.

I congratulate the hon. Member for North East Fife (Stephen Gethins) on securing this important debate and his thoughtful comments.

The six founding members of the European Economic Community—Belgium, France, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and West Germany—signed the treaty of Rome on 25 March 1957. The treaty built on the pre-existing European Coal and Steel Community, which was founded in the aftermath of the second world war as a project for peace. Its primary aim was to ensure that the European continent would never again suffer the blight of war that it had seen, generation after generation, in the run-up to that period. In that regard, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the legacy of the treaty of Rome is one of great historical achievement, and its anniversary marks the longest period of peace in Europe’s written history.

The treaty was a major step in the journey of European integration. It was followed by the treaty of Maastricht, which established the European single market, and then the treaty of Lisbon, which established the European Union as we know it today—an organisation that is dramatically different from the European Economic Community, which the UK joined under a Conservative Government in 1973, against the opposition of the Scottish National party. This weekend, not only the six founding member states but 27 European nations will meet to celebrate those achievements and to reflect on the next steps in their journey. To that end, the European Commission recently published a White Paper on five future scenarios for the EU. Those range from reducing the EU to nothing but the single market, to a major push towards greater integration. It is a matter for the remaining members of the EU to decide which course they choose to follow, but whatever they decide, we know that it will be a future where the United Kingdom is not a member, but a partner. It would therefore not be appropriate for us to attend the treaty of Rome celebrations or to speculate about the future direction of the European Union, but as the EU approaches its 60th anniversary we wish them well.

It remains overwhelmingly and compellingly in Britain’s national interest that the EU should succeed both politically and economically. Let me be clear: as the Prime Minister has said, while we are leaving the European Union, we are not leaving Europe. We are seeking a new, strong and constructive relationship with the European Union—a partnership of friends and allies, interests and values.

While the institutions and remaining 27 member states of the EU consider their future, we are of course focused on the future of the United Kingdom. As a Minister at the Department for Exiting the European Union, I know well the strength of feeling that surrounds our withdrawal from the European Union, and many of the complicated issues—some of which the hon. Gentleman touched on—that it throws up. I made the case to remain in the European Union during the referendum, but I always committed to respect the result and I understand that we required the consent of the British people to remain a member of the EU. Now that we are focused on implementing the result of a UK-wide referendum, we should all focus on delivering the best possible deal for the whole of the UK.

Leaving the EU offers us an opportunity to forge a new role for ourselves in the world—not isolationism, as the hon. Gentleman suggested, but negotiating new trade agreements and being a positive and powerful force for free trade. Britain’s economy is one of the strongest in the world.

I am grateful to the Minister for his helpful and thoughtful comments. Will he take this opportunity to reflect on the education sector in particular? As I mentioned, the principal of St Andrews is visiting, along with a number of colleagues, and the university sector is important across the United Kingdom. It is an area of particular concern, and I would be grateful if the Minister addressed it.

Absolutely. I was going to come to that issue later in my comments, but I am happy to address it now. From having a large and growing university in my constituency, meeting people at universities around the country and attending the higher education councils of the Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation, my hon. Friend the Member for Orpington (Joseph Johnson), I recognise the importance of some of these issues for the university sector. I was glad to see the commitment in the Government’s White Paper to continue research collaboration with the EU, to be forward-leaning in our approach to making sure that Britain remains a scientific superpower and to building on our excellent record. I recognise that Scottish universities play an important part in research collaboration, and hope that through negotiations we will be able to agree to an approach that secures the benefits of it.

This is one of many areas where we in the UK Government agree with elements of the Scottish Government’s White Paper that set out the benefits of areas where we can continue to work with European friends and allies. While we accept that we are leaving the EU, there are still areas where we will want to be able to work closely together. I recently visited the University of Glasgow and spoke to academics there about the importance of EU funding and structures for them. I recognise those issues, and we are certainly taking them on board as part of our negotiating strategy.

As I was saying, Britain has a strong economy and we are well placed to face the future. We will remain the bold, outward-looking nation that we have always been, and being a scientific superpower and a research leader in the world is an important part of that. Global Britain will be more than just a trading nation; we will continue to play a significant role in defence and security, promoting and protecting the interests of our people around the world. That will not change. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the peace process both in Northern Ireland, which we are absolutely committed to continuing and made a prominent part of our White Paper, and in the western Balkans. I recognise the important role that the European Union and NATO have played in that, and that the UK can continue to play in supporting peace in Europe. We should certainly continue to lean in and play that role, and we are able to do that partly as a result of our investment in defence as well as in soft power. The European Union will continue to be an important partner as we do that, as will many of its member states. The negotiation is not just about what is good for the UK; it is about what is good for the remaining European Union as well.

As the European Union considers its future and the UK builds its new role in the world, we will also redefine our relationship with the EU. We will approach the negotiations as friends. A constructive and optimistic approach to the negotiations is in the best interests of both the EU and the UK. The Prime Minister has now set out the Government’s plan to achieve a new positive and constructive partnership between the UK and the European Union. We have set out our objectives to give as much certainty as possible throughout the process. Now, the overwhelming majority of people, however they voted, want us to get on with it, so that is what we will do.

We will negotiate and leave as one United Kingdom, seeking the best possible deal for the whole of the UK as we do so. We are not trying to cherry-pick aspects of EU membership. The Prime Minister has been clear that she respects the position taken by European leaders that membership of the single market would mean accepting all four freedoms. As the Prime Minister has also stated, being out of the EU but a member of the single market would mean complying with the EU’s rules and regulations to implement those freedoms, but without having a vote on what the rules and regulations should be. It would mean accepting a role for the European Court of Justice that would see it have direct legal authority over our country. To all intents and purposes, it would mean not leaving the EU at all. We are leaving the EU and seeking a bold and ambitious partnership with the EU from the outside. Such an agreement will be in the interests of both the UK and the EU.

The Minister will be aware from visiting the University of Glasgow, where I suspect he met Professor Anton Muscatelli, that there has been a debate among academia and the business community, and on a cross-party basis in Scotland, about having differential immigration systems in the UK. That could help to bridge the gap between England and Scotland on this issue. What consideration has his Department given to the differential immigration systems in other countries around the world?

We are carefully considering all the elements of the White Paper that the Scottish Government presented to us. On immigration, we are aware that we have to meet the needs of the whole of the UK, including all its industries and all parts of the United Kingdom. I did indeed meet Professor Muscatelli and had a very useful conversation with him. That is part of the stakeholder engagement process that our Department has been undertaking throughout all the parts of the United Kingdom to make sure that we are looking at the opportunities of EU exit, as well as the risks.

We are looking for a mutually beneficial deal. In our future relationship with the EU, we want clarity and certainty. We want to take control of our laws.

In one moment. We want to control immigration but recognise that that means meeting the needs of our economy, as well as the desire of the British people to see greater control. We also want to secure the rights of EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU, to ensure free trade and to co-operate in the fight against organised crime and terrorism. As we have discussed, we see significant opportunities for continued co-operation on education, science and research. Would the hon. Gentleman like to intervene?

Order. Absolutely not. Mr MacNeil, if you wish to intervene in a debate, you should arrive at the beginning, not halfway through in order to do nothing other than make an intervention on behalf of the gallery. I am not allowing it.

We seek a mutually beneficial relationship of friendship and co-operation. Our future as the United Kingdom is one where this Government will continue to protect and strengthen our precious Union of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. That will continue to be true as our whole Union and its constituent parts withdraw from the EU.

There has been significant intergovernmental engagement between the four Governments since the referendum result. The Prime Minister’s first visit following the referendum result was to Edinburgh, followed quickly by Cardiff and Belfast. She recently spoke in Glasgow and was in Swansea with my Secretary of State only on Monday. We are committed to continuing to engage fully with the Scottish Government, the Welsh Government and the Northern Ireland Executive as we move forward into the negotiations and prepare for a smooth and orderly exit from the EU for all of us.

We will absolutely continue with our commitment to workers’ rights, which the hon. Member for North East Fife referred to. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has often pointed out that many aspects of UK law go well beyond EU law in terms of those commitments. We also want to continue working with our friends and neighbours to meet our environmental commitments well into the future.

At this momentous time, it is more important than ever that we face the future together, taking forward our shared interest in the UK being an open, successful, global nation in future. As member states of the European Union meet this week to discuss the history and future of the European project, we wish our EU partners well. At the end of the negotiations, the UK will no longer be an EU member state, but it will be a close ally and friend. A strong partnership between the UK and the EU is in the interests of both, and we congratulate all the EU’s members on this important anniversary.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.