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European Union: Uk Presidency

Volume 591: debated on Tuesday 30 June 1998

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What they consider to be the most important achievement in the European Union during the term of their presidency.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
(Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, there were a number of very important achievements in the European Union during the term of the UK presidency. We achieved a real commitment to economic reform, made sure that jobs are at the top of the EU agenda, got enlargement off to a flying start, and oversaw the launch of EMU. We also made progress on the single market and reform of EC policies and on improving the environment, strengthened co-operation to fight organised crime, and ensured a more coherent and powerful European voice on foreign policy. We launched a debate about the future shape of the European Union and how to increase its democratic legitimacy, and a process to take it forward. Outstanding among these, as the Prime Minister told the European Parliament on 18th June, was the launch of two historic events, EMU and enlargement.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that comprehensive list. Does she not agree that it contains one item of quite historic importance; namely, the fact that 11 independent member states, made up not wholly or indeed at all of idiots or dangerous men, agreed unanimously that they would give up their own currency and start a single currency? That was a free decision taken by them all. Does the Minister not accept that it is rather sad that once again we, the United Kingdom, will not be in at the start? I am not asking her to say when we shall join because I know that she will give me the answer which the Prime Minister reiterated this morning. But will she not accept the plain fact that once again we shall be on the fringes of Europe instead of leading it?

My Lords, let us be clear. Her Majesty's Government want the single currency to succeed. In principle the Government believe that British membership of a successful single currency would be beneficial to Britain and to Europe. But it is not in Britain's interests to join a single currency in 1999. There is neither the flexibility nor the convergence with other European economies which would make joining the EMU during the course of the parliament in Britain's economic interests. To join now would be to accept a monetary policy which suited other European economies but not our own. We need a period of stability and settled convergence before we can join. In order to create a real option of joining early in the next parliament, it is essential that government and business prepare intensively during this Parliament. In that way, we could join if the single currency is successful and if the Government, Parliament and the people agree.

My Lords, will the Minister accept that while from these Benches we believe that the Government have done a lot in the six months to put the United Kingdom back in the mainstream, we are not forming the leadership of Europe because we have not joined the single currency? The Minister referred to the Government making preparations. We have all received a business pack about preparations. However, is it not time to make political preparations so that our citizens have a lead and can make preparations? I believe that our citizens are looking for a lead from this Government and they are not getting it.

My Lords, those preparations are under way. In the answer that I gave to my noble friend's supplementary question, I made clear that we must now use the next period to prepare for the possibility of joining the EMU should Parliament, government and the people agree so to do.

I agree with the noble Baroness. It is important that there is a leadership role for the United Kingdom in Europe. We believe that during the course of the presidency we re-established strong and positive relations with our European Union partners, and not before time.

My Lords, the House will recognise the very difficult question which my noble friend has posed the Minister. But in that long list of amazing achievements by the European Union in the past six months, where does she locate the robust and united stance of the European Union when faced with a crisis—Saddam Hussein in the Gulf?

My Lords, let us be clear. I did not say that they were amazing achievements. They were professional, sound and solid achievements. I am not over-egging any puddings. But the noble Lord raises the question of how the European Union has reacted. It reacted by showing co-operation over the Gulf crisis. Moreover, in another international difficulty, the European Union has shown a unanimity of interest as regards its reactions to Kosovo.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the effect of EMU on the European citizen will depend very much on where he lives? Can the Minister confirm that because of our particular system of loans for house ownership and such matters, personal borrowing in the United Kingdom amounts to 64 per cent. of GDP whereas in France it amounts to only 16 per cent., in Germany 3 per cent., and in Italy 2 per cent.? Clearly, interest rate levels and who sets them matter far more in this country than in those other countries. Did the Prime Minister take that into proper account when he so enthusiastically facilitated the setting up of EMU?

My Lords, of course the Prime Minister will take all those matters into account. Naturally he would do so, doing a professional job and receiving advice from the Treasury and other government departments during his presidency. I cannot confirm the figures which the noble Baroness has given simply because I do not have that information. If she wishes, I shall write to her confirming those figures. But I remind your Lordships that in going forward, the United Kingdom will see the papers for Euro-X, has had the opportunity to be present at the first of the meetings of Euro-X, and will be keeping a very firm eye on developments on that front.

My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister agree that, as well as preparing for the possibility that it may be desirable for us to join a common currency, it would also be desirable and wise to prepare for the possibility that it may not be desirable for us to do so?

My Lords, I believe that both my right honourable friends the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer have made it abundantly clear that we will join the EMU if it is in the interests of this country and if Parliament, this Government and the people agree. I believe that that covers all eventualities.

My Lords, we have now spent eight minutes on this Question. I think that it is perhaps for the Opposition Front Bench to wind up the debate.

My Lords, what assessment of the Government's performance as president of the European Union does the Minister think MEPs made when, the day after the Foreign Secretary addressed the European Parliament, they voted down the resolution to congratulate the UK Presidency on its stewardship of the EU Council of Ministers and its preparations for the Cardiff Summit, despite the fact that Labour MEPs constitute the biggest single group in the Parliament? To what does the Minister attribute that defeat in the European Parliament?

My Lords, the noble Lord tells only half the story. The result of the vote to which he refers was due to procedural wrangling between political groups. As I am sure the noble Lord will know, a vote is not normally taken before the European Council; indeed, that is a matter for the European Parliament.

However, the noble Lord did not tell the House that the European Parliament voted on a draft resolution tabled by the socialists on the Cardiff European Council. As a result of the postmortem vote, the European Parliament overwhelmingly adopted a resolution of congratulation on the Cardiff European Council by 428 to 45 votes. It is the full story that matters, not half of it.