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EU: National Vetoes

Volume 691: debated on Tuesday 8 May 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

Whether in negotiations within the European Union they propose to agree to a reduction in the number of policy areas covered by national vetoes.

My Lords, the draft constitutional treaty provided for an extension of qualified majority voting in some areas. However, there is at present no consensus among EU partners on the way forward regarding the constitutional treaty, or any new treaty. These issues will be discussed at the European Council in June. Her Majesty’s Government have always taken the view that QMV can deliver practical benefit in some areas, but as in all things we will consider what is in the national interest.

My Lords, as ever I am grateful to the Minister for her reply, but did the Prime Minister not talk much about red lines that he would not cross prior to negotiations on the European constitution? Admittedly, he did not pay much attention to them in the event, but are we not entitled to know what his red lines are this time? In how many areas where we now have the veto is he prepared to sign away the rights of this Parliament without consulting the people?

My Lords, the Government are considering all those issues and how best they may negotiate on them at the Council in June to ensure that any agreement made is, indeed, in the best interests of this country. The Government are not prepared to conduct those negotiations in public.

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the British Government are rarely in the minority on qualified majority votes in the European Union, and that our national interests are much more often damaged in votes by unanimity where one or two Governments block a decision that would clearly be in Britain’s interest? Therefore, like Mrs Thatcher’s Government on the Single European Act, the current Government would be in line with the extension of Britain’s national interest by accepting some further extension of qualified majority voting.

My Lords, the noble Lord is right: without the use of QMV, a single country could block the EU decision-making process. We have made recent progress in the services directive, for example, precisely because of QMV. That is extremely important, so this Government will undoubtedly seriously consider extending QMV, just as previous Conservative Governments did—including that of which the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, was a member.

My Lords, has the Minister noticed the recent 14 April edition of the Economist, hardly a Euro-sceptic magazine, which stated that it was the biggest of all Euro myths that enlargement required more decision-making to be made by QMV? The Economist asked why, if that is the case, is there no logjam of legislation and why, as a recent study by Sciences Po University in Paris demonstrated, decision-making in the European Union is 25 per cent faster than it was before enlargement. If decision-making is so difficult, how has the European Union been able to agree a very important open-skies agreement with America, and a climate change agreement which Chancellor Merkel described as historic? Surely there is no real argument for what the Government are considering.

My Lords, the Government are considering QMV because it was on the table under the German presidency. But many other issues are on the table, such as the size of the European Commission. QMV is just one of a series of issues on the table. The noble Lord is absolutely right to say that enlargement is progressing under the current system—or has progressed, we have Romania and Bulgaria now—and that the European Union is functioning well. However, it could function better. If there is to be further enlargement, steps must be taken, for example, to ensure that members of the European Commission are revised as per the Nice treaty.

My Lords, further to the penultimate question, what is the Government's strategy to reduce the 26 national vetoes held by other member states which, for instance, frustrate the establishment of the single European market and frustrate opportunities for British business to succeed therein?

My Lords, as with the other issues raised about QMV, the matter is being considered by the Government and discussed between the Government and their partners. We wait to see what developments will issue after the June European Council.

My Lords, we are glad that the Government are considering all those matters; so they should be. Does not the Minister agree that Parliament would like to consider them as well? Could she therefore press her colleagues very hard to ensure that before proposals begin to take shape in concrete, which will be very soon—in fact, at the forthcoming summit on 21 June—the Parliament of this country and this House in particular has an opportunity to offer its views on how these matters should be resolved, because they will shape the future for all of us in a very important way?

My Lords, the usual channels will indeed be discussing that but, as my noble friend Lord Triesman stated in the House the other day, after the European Council, there will be a Statement for debate in this House and the issue will be referred to the excellent European Committee chaired by a noble Lord in this House.

My Lords, can the noble Baroness confirm that the Government will retain the veto on taxation, defence, foreign affairs and justice and home affairs?

My Lords, the Government are absolutely clear that we will retain the national veto in the areas of national interest—the areas that we believe to be in the national interest—such as tax, social security, defence and key areas of criminal procedural law.

My Lords, is it not essential that QMV is introduced in the areas of agriculture and fisheries in particular? Otherwise, there is no chance of achieving a fundamental change in the common agricultural policy and abolishing the common fisheries policy and replacing it with something far more sensible?

My Lords, as I stated, the Government are considering all those issues very seriously to ensure that the European Union functions better in the national interest, but also in the interests of all the people of the European Union.