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European Council: 8-9 March 2007

Volume 690: debated on Monday 12 March 2007

My Lords, I would like to repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a Statement about the European Council that took place in Brussels on 8-9 March.

“There were three main agenda items for this summit. First, the Council agreed to cut the administrative burden arising from EU legislation by 25 per cent by the year 2012. This has long been a key British objective. It was a major part of the UK presidency of the EU in 2005 and it mirrors our own government decision taken last year. This EU decision makes another clear break with traditional European policy on regulation. It is hugely to be welcomed. It follows up a recent Commission decision to withdraw 78 pieces of legislation, the first time the EU has done this. I congratulate the Commission, and especially President Barroso and Commissioner Verheugen, on their determination. It has full British support.

“Secondly, the Council agreed on an action plan to liberalise the energy market. The centrepiece is to free up the distribution of energy across the European Union, to create a genuinely competitive, interconnected and Europe-wide internal energy market. This will bring major benefits for EU consumers, improve security of supply and strengthen European competitiveness. The European Council decided in particular that supply and production activities should be separated from network distribution to allow competition on networks, as already happens in the UK.

“Again, ever since the Hampton Court Summit of October 2005, energy liberalisation and security of supply has been a key UK objective for the European market. It is true that we still need to do more, especially in respect of the vertically integrated energy companies. But none the less, for the first time, this will mean that, at the distribution level at least, British companies can compete on equal terms with French or German companies, in particular in France and Germany and not just here in the UK. This will bring reduced costs to business and to customers and again has our full support.

“Thirdly, and most importantly, the European Council committed itself for the first time to a binding Europe-wide environment target: a 20 per cent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 compared with 1990. Moreover, the European Union undertook to go further and achieve a 30 per cent reduction in emissions by 2020 if this was part of a wider international agreement. Until last week no group of countries had committed itself to such deep reductions. This is a landmark decision. It will mean changes in all member states' domestic policies.

“The Council also agreed on a binding commitment that renewable energy will comprise 20 per cent of overall EU energy consumption by 2020. The agreement allows, however, for differentiated national targets within this overall EU objective. In particular, it recognises that for some member states, nuclear energy will play a significant role in achieving overall climate change targets.

“The Council, in addition, agreed a 20 per cent increase in energy efficiency, again by 2020. It also recognised the importance of clean-coal technologies. We welcomed the Commission’s undertaking to support, by 2015, the construction and operation of up to a dozen commercial scale clean-coal demonstration plants, with a view to all new coal-fired power stations being fitted with carbon capture and storage technology by 2020. This technology has to be a crucial element in the overall response to the climate change challenge, and it is important that we signal that to investors now. Clean coal can be part of the future.

“All these targets impel us towards a far more ambitious European Emissions Trading Scheme. The Commission President is currently negotiating country-by-country caps on emissions for 2008-12. Britain, as he has acknowledged, has helped by setting ambitious caps for ourselves. The Commission has proposed that, after 2011, aviation should also be within the ETS. We want to make the ETS more transparent and we want it extended after 2012 to 2020 and beyond. All these proposals are set out in our recent paper to our European colleagues and we are actively building the alliances in Europe to get it done.

“Of course, these European commitments have to be part of wider international action. As the Stern review demonstrated, without concerted international action there will be disastrous consequences for global economic development. The European Council reaffirmed the importance of agreeing a long-term framework to address climate change. It set out a coherent and united vision for how such a wider international agreement would work. It paves the way for further action on climate change at the G8 Summit in Germany in June.

“This is, in the end, the crucial prize. It is important that we take action here in Britain, as tomorrow's Climate Change Bill will show. It is then critical that the European Union shows leadership. At this summit, it has done so in a remarkable and groundbreaking way. For those who doubt the relevance of the European Union to today’s world, last week’s Council and its historic agreement on climate change is the best riposte. It shows Europe following the concerns of its people and giving real leadership to the world.

“But ultimately only an agreement that is global and includes America, China and India will halt the damage of rising greenhouse gas emissions. Everything else is justified in its own right, but it is, most of all, a means to that end. The G8+5 dialogue, which was started at Gleneagles in the UK presidency in 2005 and which has all the main countries within it, is the forum in which new principles for an international framework can be agreed. The summit in Germany this June will be the time to agree those principles, including a stabilisation goal, a route to a truly global carbon market, support for new technology, adaptation measures, and action on deforestation. This is the next stage of the journey to effective, multilateral global action on what is the single biggest long-term threat to our world.

“Let me conclude by paying tribute to the leadership of Chancellor Merkel at the EU summit. It was a bold agenda and she carried it superbly. Unsurprisingly, since these were all fundamental British objectives, we were able to give that leadership full and active support. Once again, it shows the significance of strong, constructive and positive engagement in Europe”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement. As she says, it was an important Council and I for once welcome the progress that was made. In particular, I welcome agreement to cut EU greenhouse gases by 20 per cent by 2020. But will she assure us that there will be parallel positive measures to increase, not damage, Europe’s competitiveness? Can she say whether the target is cumulative across all such gases, or applies to each individual pollutant? Are there separate targets for C02, methane and nitrous oxide? How does this target affect the CFCs that are covered by the Montreal protocol?

In this context, will the Government agree to reconsider the concept of annual emissions targets floated by the Opposition? Can she explain the Government’s resistance to this? Do the Government now intend to push for the third stage of emissions trading from 2012 to 2020? What plans are there to ensure that the renewables obligation favours development of all renewable energy, not just onshore wind, which has environmental critics as well as supporters?

While welcoming the apparent unity among Council leaders, may I ask whether the noble Baroness can confirm that paragraph 33 of the conclusions allows each country to make a varying contribution? France, for example, has invested heavily in nuclear power, but nations such as Poland are hugely dependent on carbon fuels. When the communiqué speaks of “agreed internal burden-sharing”, can the noble Baroness explain how this will work? Could it mean the UK being made to undertake efforts beyond the EU average to enable others to fall short? Can she also confirm that the higher 30 per cent target for greenhouse gas reduction by 2020 is conditional on other major polluters agreeing similar targets? How does she assess the prospects of the US, China and India agreeing to such a target?

Paragraph 34 of the conclusions calls on developing countries to reduce the emission intensity of their development. Given the noble Baroness’s immense experience of international development, does she recognise the transforming effect of the arrival of electricity and clean water on the health and well-being of rural communities in Africa, Latin America and Asia? Surely we who are developed should put no obstacle in the way of that.

Do the Government accept that national energy security is a central duty, in which our record has been less than remarkable in recent years? There was much acclaim for the idea of a common energy policy for Europe. Can she explain how Commission capture of energy policy will advance Britain’s national energy security?

On common approaches, the conclusions also call for more action on social objectives and their harmonisation. Did the Prime Minister make it clear that we will resist any attempt to promote the harmonisation of social security provision? While I welcome the aspiration to reduce overall administrative burdens, does the noble Baroness share my disappointment at paragraph 22 of the conclusions, which, while paying lip service to deregulation, says that deregulation must respect the acquis communautaire? How can we have meaningful deregulation if we cannot question the acquis? Will the noble Baroness confirm that the Prime Minister told the Council that the UK would have no truck with any attempt to revive the EU constitutional treaty and that a referendum remains government policy before any significant EU constitutional change?

On foreign affairs, the Council was notably thin. There was useful discussion of the Middle East, but yet again it appears that no effort was made by the United Kingdom to discuss the behaviour of the Zimbabwean Government, who are now reducing the people of that tragic country to levels of suffering and degradation never before seen. It is my understanding that the Prime Minister has just one more Council in him and therefore the noble Baroness has perhaps one more chance to influence EU policy. I hope that she will ensure that an action plan to deal with the Mugabe regime will be placed at the heart of the EU agenda in June. I hope that she can give me a favourable answer.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Lord President for repeating the Statement. It is a pleasure to hear a Statement that shows the EU working as we want and hope it to. It emphasises the importance of the fact that being part of an effective European Union gives us the chance to develop our national policies on the global stage. As the Statement rightly said, we will have to win co-operation from the United States, India, China and others. It is infinitely more likely that we will be able both to defend our own interests and to promote the solutions that we favour if we can do so from the basis of a common European policy.

We welcome the emphasis in the Statement on energy and the environment, and we strongly endorse what the noble Baroness the Lord President said. On that issue, I hope that she will recognise that Europe has finally caught up with my noble friend Lord Ezra on the importance of clean-coal technologies. Indeed, I hope that if at least a dozen clean-coal plants are to be constructed by 2015, the Government will make it a priority that they be called “Ezra plants” in recognition of my noble friend’s long campaign.

On the EU lifting the burden on business, I can almost march shoulder to shoulder with the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch. It is a major objective. Can the noble Baroness the Lord President assure us that, along with the efforts of President Barroso, who is showing his liberal credentials in these matters, there is an equally firm directive in Whitehall to stop the old habit of gold-plating? That has often meant that Brussels gets the blame for Whitehall departments finding the opportunity to tack a few wishes of their own on to European legislation.

On energy, the media were attracted by the light bulb proposal, but one thing worries me about that. I notice that Mrs Merkel was quoted in the press as saying:

“Most of the light bulbs in my flat are energy-saving bulbs. They’re not yet quite bright enough. When I’m looking for something I’ve dropped on the carpet, I have a bit of a problem”.

I share her problem. It would be a disaster for the campaign for the environment and for energy saving if we forced on to people alternatives that were not as good as what was taken away. It is important that the energy-saving light bulb is fit for purpose if it is to replace existing bulbs.

The only other thing that I have to say to the Lord President slightly jars with the closing words of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. I saw President Chirac’s valedictory address to the French people on television last night. In case colleagues think that I have suddenly acquired a fluency in French that did not exist before, I should say that I found a good channel on Sky that gave me a simultaneous translation. In that address, President Chirac made it clear that France would return to and support the challenge of getting a proper working rulebook for Europe, which is absolutely necessary; if it helps the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, and others not to call it a constitution, so be it. I hope that the Government will not run away from that challenge and that if, at the next Council, the Germans, French and others come forward with practical solutions, the Government will embrace them.

My Lords, perhaps we should have Statements on European Councils on other days when we talk about Lords reform, so that I can bask in collective agreement from the noble Lords, Lord Strathclyde and Lord McNally, given that they welcomed the Statement. I know that it will not last long.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, asked me a number of technical questions on the agreement. I shall try to answer them, but if I have missed anything I shall be happy to write to him. The 20 per cent target will be cumulative across greenhouse gases. The Commission has been asked to bring forward proposals to show how the burden of the target will be shared across member states. The target is an average for the European Union, which means that each member state will not necessarily make the same contribution. Of course, the United Kingdom has already made a strong contribution, and the Climate Change Bill, which will be published tomorrow, will propose a statutory aim of reducing United Kingdom CO2 emissions by 60 per cent by 2050.

Are we referring to all renewable sources of energy? My understanding is that the answer is yes. The European Union has set its own 20 per cent target in terms of giving leadership, but has said that we will move to the 30 per cent target as part of an international framework agreement post-Kyoto—post-2012. The discussion on that will begin in December under the auspices of the United Nations. We are prepared to move to 30 per cent if other countries, including the United States, agree to that.

On harmonisation of social security and such areas, the United Kingdom position has always been clear—that it is important for us to maintain our system.

There will be a discussion of the constitutional treaty at the June Council. There is a special Council in between, at the end of March, to look at what is being called the Berlin declaration. It is intended to be a high-level, visionary text that relates to the fact that the treaty of Rome was signed 50 years ago, but it is completely independent of any further discussions on the constitution. I totally agree with the noble Lord, Lord McNally, that of course the European Union, particularly given its expansion, needs a proper rulebook. I can also confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, that we remain committed to putting to a referendum any proposals with respect to a constitutional treaty.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, talked about Europe finally catching up with the noble Lord, Lord Ezra. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, has done a tremendous amount of work to raise the consciousness of this House and others on this issue. I do not think that the Government will necessarily call the plants “Ezra plants”, but it is a very good idea.

The noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, does not appear to be in his place, so our discussion this afternoon will not be remotely the same.

My Lords, it will be shorter. On the issue of the regulatory burden, the EU agreement follows the domestic target that we ourselves set with respect to reducing the regulatory burden by 2010.

On energy-saving light bulbs, we all want to ensure that we have them, but we all recognise that we must be able to see and read—and I am particularly conscious of that as I become older.

The Foreign Ministers who attended the Council had a separate dinner-time discussion on foreign affairs. The key areas discussed were Lebanon, Iraq and the Middle East peace process. The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, knows that the European Union has a clear position on Zimbabwe, which we will continue to press.

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the significance of the energy decisions taken at the European Council is enormous in that they show that the European Union, for all its cumbersomeness, is able to take major decisions that affect intimately every citizen in the European Union? Will she further agree that that shows that the European Union is able to take decisions that are in the interests of this country as well as those of the European Union as a whole? Will she agree also that it is only by the European Union acting in this way that we stand the remotest chance of having the influence on the rest of the world that is essential if our own decisions are to have a proper impact on the global problem that we need to address?

My Lords, I agree with all of those three propositions and that is precisely why the Government have focused on the importance of engaging with and influencing our partners in the European Union. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Brittan, who has had a tremendous history in dealing with these European matters, that I hope he can persuade members of his own party that this would be an important way forward in terms of engaging with the Union and the Commission on these issues.

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise that real progress on climate change was made at the Council, but would she also outline, rather more than she has done, what the Council and the Government will do about the recalcitrance of America, China and India at this moment?

My Lords, we hope that two things will happen. One is that we hope the fact that the European Union has shown leadership in this area will encourage other countries to do the same. Secondly, we hope that when the discussions on setting in place an international framework to replace Kyoto begin in December this year, the fact that the European Commission has shown leadership, and has indicated that it is prepared to commit to a more ambitious target if other countries will do the same, will help countries such as the United States and China to move forward.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness the Leader of the House accept my congratulations to the Government on giving wholehearted support to Chancellor Merkel and the German presidency in an agenda which was very much in this country’s interest, as it was in Germany’s? Perhaps I might be so bold as to express the hope that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition in this House will surprise himself by repeating his support for the Government’s performance at the European Council on the next and further occasions.

Having said that, can the Minister confirm that the references to nuclear power in the conclusions refer not only to France, which spent a great deal of time insisting on them, but to all member states with civil nuclear industries, so that any decision taken by the UK to build new nuclear plants will also be taken into account when considering member states’ contributions to achieving the EU’s target for renewable energy resources?

Secondly, can the Minister expand a little on the difficult problem of getting the main developing countries to sign up to the objectives, which the European Union rightly is now giving a lead on? Does she not think that inviting some of these countries along as a kind of add-on to the G8 summit is hardly likely to appeal to them, and should they not be full, equal members of that grouping or of any grouping of a restricted kind which is trying to deal with, and give a direction on, climate change? Can she also say what the basis is for the Government’s optimism that the President of the United States will arrive at Heiligendamm in June prepared to make such a commitment?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, for his initial comments. I confirm that the references to nuclear power in the conclusions refer to all member states with a civil nuclear capacity. With regard to the major developing countries, the noble Lord will know that Gleneagles, where climate change was at the top of our agenda, was a meeting of the G8+5, and that will continue at this year’s G8 meeting. Of course those major developing countries need to be included in the discussion and debate, but it is also important that groupings such as the European Union take forward their own agenda as an incentive for developing countries as well as our developed-country partners.

The noble Lord may recall that at the last EU/ China summit the European Union was committed to building a near-zero emissions plant in China to demonstrate not only that the technology could work but that it could have an influence on carbon emissions. My understanding is that the five developing countries will be invited to participate at the June summit.

My Lords, I am very grateful both to my noble friend Lord McNally and to the Minister for their kind references to my continued espousal of the cause of clean coal. I am of course delighted at the decision reached in Brussels. I feel that it is of great importance not only to the energy future of the EU but also much more widely—particularly in China and India, which will inevitably be using much more coal, and it is vital that they do so without harming the environment.

The Lord President referred to 15 plants which the EU has decided should be installed by 2015. Can she indicate the number that the Government would like to see in the UK? I believe that at least three or four projects have been put forward. Will the Government be giving them a fair wind?

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, for his general comments. I think that I mentioned 12 plants. I am desperately trying to find the right reference in my notes, but I think that it is 12 plants, not 15. We are at far too early a stage to be able to indicate how many plants we would want to see in the United Kingdom, and of course there is the issue of cost. The European Union, is also committed to having an additional plant in China as a way of demonstrating that clean-coal technology can work, bearing in mind the number of coal-fired power stations being opened in China on a regular basis.

My Lords, during the discussions on climate change and the contribution that CO2 is apparently making to that climate change, was any cognisance taken of the other points of view, of which there are many, particularly the body of opinion which believes that solar activity, rather than CO2, is likely to cause, and is causing, climate change? Secondly, on what I think was a decision to phase out normal tungsten bulbs, was any cognisance taken of the additional costs of replacing those bulbs and whether people will be assisted financially to do that? Finally, on the 78 pieces of legislation that are to be repealed, the Minister will appreciate that that is a drop in the ocean compared with the total amount of legislation that has been passed. Is there a plan to speed up that process, which we would all welcome?

My Lords, I think the science is pretty clear and has been agreed across the world. On the phasing out of tungsten light bulbs, yes, there was discussion of the additional costs. How that will be dealt with has not yet been decided. The 78 pieces of legislation referred to in the Statement are a part of the start of the process of forming an action plan on deregulation.

My Lords, the statement of the presidency is immensely welcome. It is vital in pressing the EU to put in place an integrated policy on energy, combining factions at national and European levels, and the differentiated approach between the member states mentioned is important. Do the Government agree that that is not an invitation to opt out of responsibility at national level in reaching the targets? Does the Minister recognise that institutional reform is important, particularly as energy is not even a prescriptive competence of the European Union, in achieving the goals and targets that the summit has enunciated?

My Lords, I agree that an integrated approach to climate and energy policy is absolutely vital, as the noble Lord has indicated. The differentiated approach is also important as different countries in the European Union are at different stages of development. However, it is not about some countries being able to opt out without making an effort. It is about recognising the different stages of development; it is about ensuring that countries learn from each other; and it is about the overall commitment that each country has given to reaching the targets.