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Europe Day

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 8 May 2007

My Lords, as is usual on Europe Day, the flags of all 27 EU member states and the European Union flag will be flown in Parliament Square. The Minister for Europe will be visiting a comprehensive school in west London tomorrow to mark Europe Day, with pupils involved in the German presidency’s “Ambassadors in Schools” initiative. This will also enable him to promote the year-long “Learning Together” initiative which was launched in March as part of the 50th anniversary of the EU. This school partnership project is one of a range of activities that helps to raise awareness and debate on EU issues.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. At least the flags are flying in Parliament Square today and tomorrow, but are not the Government being characteristically shy and modest about the European Union? After 34 years of membership, could we not have celebrations up and down the country instead of just one school visit in London?

My Lords, we believe that Europe Day is an extremely important opportunity to raise awareness about the European Union and the importance of our membership of it, but every day is an important occasion on which to raise awareness of the European Union and we celebrate that.

My Lords, would not a good way of celebrating Europe Day be to announce a referendum on the slimmed-down European constitution, so that, amid all the scheming, the British public will have a say in the matter?

My Lords, there is absolutely no scheming. As the noble Lord well knows, these issues will be discussed and debated at the European Council in June.

My Lords, in addition to celebrating Europe Day, will the Government give a little more thought to how we celebrate Commonwealth Day alongside it? The two need not be rivals. Although we have the Commonwealth Day service in Westminster Abbey, there seems to be a lack of enthusiasm about distributing information about the Commonwealth to schools. This country’s place in the Commonwealth network is vital for our future position and prosperity, so will the Minister urge her colleagues and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to give far more emphasis to the future importance of the Commonwealth, which contains some of the richest and most advanced countries in the world and whose development is crucial to the stability of the whole planet?

My Lords, I fully agree with many of the noble Lord’s comments. It is entirely proper that we raise awareness about the Commonwealth. I draw the House’s attention to the “Global Gateway”, a government initiative for schools. I believe that that website refers to aspects of the Commonwealth, although I will check that. That is a good way of making the Commonwealth much more visible to the children of this nation.

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Baroness is aware that the European Union does not constitute the whole of Europe and that therefore “Europe Day” is a misnomer. As the Government’s policy is now to promote Britishness, does she agree that perhaps we should have a British Day, even though it might be called St George’s Day?

My Lords, in factual terms the noble Lord is correct. The continent of Europe is wider than the European Union, although, thankfully, the European Union keeps growing, but we all know the shorthand behind Europe Day. As regards 23 April, it is indeed St George’s Day, and people celebrate it as they wish, just as they celebrate Europe Day as they wish.

My Lords, the greatest leaps forward in Europe—the accession to the Rome treaty, the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty—were all achieved by Conservative Administrations, although without referendums being called. What do the present Administration see as their greatest achievement in their 10 years in power?

My Lords, our greatest achievement is perhaps in ensuring that the European Union focuses its attention on practical issues that are important to the daily lives of the people of this country. I am talking about issues such as climate change and the environment, which we have to address in this 21st century but which we cannot address alone; we have to work on them in partnership with our European colleagues.

My Lords, if Her Majesty’s Government really wish to raise awareness and increase debate about our membership of the European Union, would it not be more appropriate for them, rather than having a visit to some comprehensive school in west London or whatever the Minister said the celebrations were to be, to commission and release for debate a genuinely independent cost-benefit analysis of all aspects of our membership of the European Union? Might the Government not then discover whether the 68 per cent, at the latest count, of the British people who wish to reduce our relationship with the European Union to one of free trade with the single market are right?

My Lords, I referred not to just some comprehensive school but to a particular school in London which we are very pleased is a part of the Comenius project. I very much hope that schools such as Eton are also a part of these projects but I do not have those facts at my fingertips. As for a cost-benefit analysis, although I know what the noble Lord is referring to, many such studies are already available in this country. The Government firmly believe that the costs of the European Union are far outweighed by the benefits to the people of this country.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the less than 1 per cent of total UK expenditure which is the cost of our membership of the European Union represents some of the best value for money that this country has ever had? That was recognised by the last Government; it will continue to be the case under this Government and even further under future Governments of this country. To do anything other would be an act of isolationism which would damage every interest that we hold important.

My Lords, I fully agree with my noble friend. It is another of the Government’s achievements. In 1997, when we became a Government, we were totally isolated in the European Union; now, we are not isolated. We are part of the mainstream, and I am glad about that.

My Lords, on this auspicious day when the shared devolved Government of Northern Ireland take their position at Stormont, does the Minister agree that one of the substantial contributions to that great achievement was the Irish Republic’s remarkable economic growth under the European Union? It is one of the outstanding achievements of that Union.

My Lords, the noble Baroness is right, and I know that the view she expresses is shared by many politicians in Northern Ireland.