Skip to main content

EU: Civil Protection Mechanism

Volume 688: debated on Wednesday 17 January 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether they have supported, in the Council of Ministers, the European Union’s use of Article 308 of the Treaty Establishing the European Community as the legal basis for the European Union’s civil protection mechanism.

My Lords, I welcome the noble Lord to his seat in his usual place. In 2001 the United Kingdom supported the adoption of a council decision establishing the EU civil protection mechanism. The mechanism has Article 308 of the Treaty Establishing the European Community as its legal base. The mechanism provides a means for member states to prepare for and to offer mutual assistance and assistance to third countries in the event of natural or man-made disasters.

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord’s words. As Article 308 allows the European Union to act only in the course of the operation of the Common Market, how can it be used to pass this new power to Brussels? It is a new power to Brussels because it now includes acts of terrorism and man-made disasters. Secondly, is it true that the Government were isolated in their objection to this proposal but mistakenly thought that under the treaties an abstention counts as a veto, which of course they were too frightened to cast, and so they voted for the wretched thing? Finally, can the Government give your Lordships’ House a list of all other powers which have been passed to Brussels under Article 308?

My Lords, first, I do not recognise it as an entirely new power. It has been there for years. I also take issue with the disparaging comment the noble Lord appeared to make about the value of Article 308, which enables the European Union to make aid and assistance available to those who undoubtedly need it when there is a man-made or natural disaster. Those are surely extreme circumstances, and it seems entirely right that we act within the remit of Article 308 to provide such assistance.

My Lords, I thank the Government for wisely not going to the wire on this matter despite the slight geographical inconsistency in Article 308. All the other countries in effect wanted the new mark 2 text of the civil protection mechanism to be agreed, and the Government went along with that, putting in a file note. Does the Minister, like me, think it bizarre for the apparent leader of UKIP in the House of Lords to be so obsessed with this one matter when we know that UKIP officially wants us to withdraw from the European Union, despite the fact that so many countries still want to join as of this very moment?

My Lords, would I want to describe UKIP as “bizarre”? It is very tempting. We have acted entirely properly in this situation, as I have explained. Article 308 has the virtue of enabling us with a legal base to provide the sort of care and assistance that we should extend in situations where there is a humanitarian need. If we look at it in that light, it explains our position vis-à-vis the European Union.

No, I am not UKIP; I am independent Labour; and not independent new Labour, either. If Article 308 is designed to deal with matters Common Market, how can it be used for matters that are clearly nothing to do with the Common Market? What other measures are taken under this article, and are they in fact legal?

My Lords, clearly it is in the interests of the EU to ensure that, from time to time, aid is provided to countries outside the European Union that have need of humanitarian aid and recovery for a period, perhaps when their economy and infrastructure have been fundamentally blighted. That is why the EU uses Article 308 as the legal base for such humanitarian aid and assistance.

My Lords, after hearing from independent Labour, perhaps we can have a say. We, with our European neighbours, strongly favour humanitarian work; it seems thoroughly desirable. Nevertheless, the European Scrutiny Committee in another place went into the matter in great detail and had to point out to Ministers that abstaining on this measure would not veto it. Ministers thought that it would veto it and they put documents to the committee, which I have in my hand, showing exactly what Ministers thought. Subsequently, they had to be corrected. My simple plea is for Ministers to be a little more careful in following and understanding the procedures in the Community so that we do not get dragged into things that we do not want to do and that we take a proper lead in things that we want to do.

My Lords, I take from the noble Lord’s question the fact that he supports Article 308 and that he is delighted that the UK Government have done this. However, I take issue with the noble Lord on the actions of certain Ministers. I am sure that Ministers at all times attempt to act entirely properly and within the procedures and processes of another place.

My Lords, does the Minister acknowledge that Article 308 allows the EU to act only,

“in the course of the operation of the common market”?

Does he agree that the civil protection mechanism, however worthy and desirable, has nothing whatever to do with the Common Market?

No, my Lords, I do not entirely agree with that for the very reasons that I gave to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, the independent Labour Member of your Lordships' House. Clearly, it is in the EU's interest to ensure that we assist those with whom we have trading relations in the operation of their markets and their ability to trade. For that reason, we provide such humanitarian aid and assistance as we can to ensure that those countries get back on their feet and operate in the wider world.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that Article 308 is a perfectly sensible mechanism for the Community to agree on the things on which it wants to agree? If I were to criticise the Government, I would criticise them for their reluctance in relation to this application of Article 308. However, they came to the right conclusion in the end. In this Question, are we not just seeing the same old Lord Pearson of Rannoch: new party but same old arguments?