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EU: German Presidency

Volume 688: debated on Thursday 11 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

When they will next meet members of the Government of Germany to discuss the German European Union presidency and their principal matters of interest.

My Lords, our embassy in Berlin is in daily contact with the German Government on a range of issues. Ministers and officials have been in contact with their German counterparts since September about the German European Union presidency. These discussions have covered topics such as the future of Europe, enlargement, climate change and energy. Further meetings will take place during the EU ministerial councils. A White Paper on the prospects for the EU in 2007 will be presented to Parliament shortly.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer and wish the Government well in copying the Germans’ traditional enthusiasm for Europe. Sadly, the Berlin Government have always been far more forcefully opposed than Her Majesty’s Government to Guantanamo Bay, condemning even its existence. Like extraordinary rendition, it is a gross breach of international law and the conventions. Will the Minister meet urgently with his federal German counterpart, and possibly with Solana, to discuss joint initiatives in this presidency period with France, Spain, Italy and other interested member countries to persuade the United States to close down this abominable facility once and for all?

My Lords, the Government’s position on Guantanamo Bay is clear. Our position, if it needs restating to the House, is that it should be closed. I do not think there is a difference between any of the principal European allies on that matter. I cannot believe that the European Union as a whole will not seek to use its influence to ensure that it is closed as soon as possible.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that whatever priorities the presidency sets in foreign affairs are likely to be diverted by events? Does he also agree that the German Chancellor has set off at a great pace—first with her robust response to the Russians over Belarus, and secondly in seeking rapprochement with Washington and an initiative on the Middle East—that bodes well for the German presidency?

My Lords, my noble friend is completely right: there has been a great deal of energy since 1 January. I think that relations with the United States are on an improving curve and that the influence brought to bear on Russia on supplies, which were restored in the past 24 hours, are all very positive steps. There are very positive signs that this German presidency will bring rapid and effective engagement on all the international matters that have been of great concern to us as well.

My Lords, given that the projected June summit will have an agenda that includes many items of importance for the future of the European Union, is it the noble Lord’s view that the United Kingdom’s interests would be best served by being represented at that meeting by a new Prime Minister?

My Lords, the Prime Minister’s decisions on the timing of his departure, which he has announced, are a matter for the Prime Minister.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it was in this country’s interest to give our full support to the German presidency’s efforts to revive a Middle East peace process and that, in so doing, we surely need to put together a really meaningful and creditable approach of a European kind to this which could perhaps sound out the ground ahead of the United States organising itself to resume the search for peace?

My Lords, I think that I have said in the House before that the European Union has an extremely important role to play in the search for peace in the Middle East. I am encouraged by the thought that the Germans will prioritise the matter, not least because they have forces in Lebanon and can see at close quarters the nature of the problems that have to be addressed. That will be an encouragement to them. But the greatest encouragement is that the Germans are plainly willing to bring all European partners into the discussion and to do so rapidly. Speed is of the essence in the Middle East peace process now.

My Lords, bearing in mind the important agenda that the German presidency has put before the citizens of Europe, will my noble friend join me in regretting that the newest parliamentary group to be formed, UKIP, has not taken the opportunity today to give us some expressions of its view? It has fallen at the first fence.

My Lords, I think that many Members of the House were slightly surprised to note that, when the Minister read out the list of matters that the German presidency wishes to bring forward, he did not mention the revival of the so-called European constitution, which the Germans have made clear is likely to be a major objective of their presidency. Does the Minister agree that, should the constitution be brought forward and eventuate in anything that could be presented to the member countries, the wise decision made on the first constitution—that it must be put to a referendum of the British people—must apply also to whatever comes forward a second time?

My Lords, if a constitution that requires consent is produced, the Government have made a commitment to put it to a referendum. I do not want to speculate on the variety of documents that might emerge over this six-month period, but I want to report to the House that my right honourable friend Geoffrey Hoon set out in a Written Ministerial Statement on 5 December what he regards as the six principles that will be the guide to our consultations. They are: pursuing British interests as the first and foremost principle; modernisation and effectiveness; consensus; subsidiarity; and use of existing treaties and openness. Were we to take any other course, we would have misunderstood what the French and Dutch did in their referenda.

My Lords, can I ask my noble friend to ignore some of the comments made about a revision of the constitution, which would require the agreement of 27 member states and is therefore rather unlikely to happen? Would it not be better for the Government to support changes to the treaty, and not to talk about constitutions, in order to make the management of the Union rather more effective than it is at the moment?

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. There are now 27 members, and I think there is common agreement on the fact that the systems are not the easiest to manage. We need to be able to take decisions effectively in such a considerable pool of diverse nations, and we will need to find the means of doing so. For my own part, I would say that whatever happens in the coming six months, it is extremely unlikely to resolve all the questions about the constitutional draft that was the torment of parliaments right across Europe for the past two years.

My Lords, given the dual role of the German Government as president of both the European Union and the G8, surely one of the things that ought to be added to that list is a successful conclusion to the Doha round, which has been going on for several years now. Is this not one of the last windows of opportunity to prevent the world moving towards protectionism rather than open trading, as I am sure the Government and European Union would wish to see happen?

My Lords, I strongly associate myself with the lines that lie behind that question. As I think we are all aware, there has been discussion of the prospect of a European/United States agreement, which I fear would reopen the old view that there is a north/south aspect to this. The Doha round’s full title was always the Doha development round. It was about development. It was about lifting the poorest people on the planet to a point where they had a decent and prosperous future. That must remain our objective. The German presidency, whatever views it flirted with at some stages, has come firmly to that view as well.

My Lords, further to the valid point made by the noble Lord, Lord Barnett, the situation is perhaps not quite as easy as the Minister indicated. The Prime Minister—the present Prime Minister—has rightly said that the constitution idea is dead. He has used very precise words. Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, has said that the constitution must be revived, and it is one of her priorities. Just how is this circle going to be squared?

My Lords, the idea that anyone at a Dispatch Box could guarantee that this circle could be squared would be regarded as preposterous throughout the whole House, so I shall make no such attempt. As my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary said in a debate on 18 December, the constitutional treaty is “in limbo”. It is a matter for all the states, not just for us, to declare on its future. Given what has happened over the past two years, the prospects seem minimal that it will be the set of arrangements around which there is a fruitful discussion.