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EU: French Presidency

Volume 703: debated on Thursday 10 July 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What recent meetings they have held with the Government of France to discuss priorities during the French presidency of the European Union.

My Lords, the UK-France summit in March covered the key issues on the French presidency’s agenda. Since then we have continued to work closely together at all levels, from the Prime Minister’s meetings with President Sarkozy in Japan this week and Paris last month to numerous phone calls and meetings in London and Paris between Ministers and officials. I visited Paris in June.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. The ambitious agenda of the French presidency, announced on 30 June, includes CAP reform, an immigration pact, the defence arms agreement and the solidarity agreement—or whatever it may be—on environmental and energy matters. That is a huge agenda. Will it not need to be strongly supported by other member states? What is HMG’s reaction to those four key objectives?

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct to say that this is an ambitious agenda. On climate change and energy, President Sarkozy was supported by the other European leaders at the G8 and has already made progress. We strongly support what is being done on the CAP health check, which is intended to get better value for money. The defence work is now proceeding in a good direction, as is migration. This is an ambitious but good agenda, which we hope we can support strongly.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that a very useful message to send to President Sarkozy during the French presidency is that it is in everybody’s interest that the European Union does less and does it somewhat better? If it really wants to focus on something, that could be the completion of the single market, to which President Sarkozy could make a singular contribution by opening up the French economy to free competition, particularly as regards public utilities.

My Lords, my noble friend is right. I cannot think of any Government for whom the instruction to do less and do it better is not valid. The internal European single market and the Doha round, which is now at the “one minute to midnight” stage, demonstrate that we need a trade breakthrough. The actions taken by France are critical in achieving that.

My Lords, should not one of the priorities of the French presidency be to remove the EU ban on the PMOI? Is it not highly improper that the EU should persist in this ban when the original proscription was based on the British proscription alone, which has now been removed, on the order of the Court of Appeal?

My Lords, that is an issue for the Council of Ministers to take up. It is correct that, in the light of the changed British position, it would be appropriate for Europe to revisit that.

My Lords, just supposing the treaty of Lisbon is not enacted, given the reticence of the Irish and other member states, can Her Majesty’s Government identify any of its new provisions that cannot be enacted under the existing treaties with the support of the court? Will they undertake to veto them if they are nevertheless proposed?

My Lords, the whole House will sympathise with any Minister who says that it is very dangerous to answer hypothetical questions from the noble Lord. We continue to believe that the treaty will proceed. We watch with interest to see what will happen in Ireland. We are now, in the light of the court decision, proceeding towards ratification, and we will have to see what happens.

My Lords, my question is not hypothetical, but I am afraid that it is a bit more technical. The French have talked a lot about climate and energy being their priorities, and it is obvious that they will be distracted by the Lisbon imbroglio to some extent. I notice that the excellent French ambassador, when he appeared before your Lordships’ European Union Committee, said that the French intended to press for including nuclear power generation in the category of renewables. That seems a very sensible idea which, if adopted here, would obviate the need to scatter the country with wind pylons, offshore wind plants and so on. Will the Minister confirm that that is our aim as well and that we will agree with the French on including nuclear power in the definition of renewable energy?

My Lords, I wish I could give the noble Lord a categorical answer at this time, but it would be imprudent of me to do so. The Government have made clear our commitment to nuclear energy as part of our energy solution, for just the reason that it is an energy source that does not heavily hit the environment or deplete natural resources. I would resist agreeing to that precise categorisation until I have taken advice.

My Lords, I am sure that the whole House will welcome President Sarkozy’s intention to co-operate much more closely with NATO in the future, which will be a very welcome change for France. Two of the objectives set out in the French presidency conclusion are for a civilian emergency group that could step into some of the terrible global emergencies that we have seen, partly as a result of climate change, and, secondly, for a move towards an EU anti-proliferation plan with regard to weapons of mass destruction. Will the United Kingdom be engaged closely in discussions with France on those two issues, given that it is the only nuclear power in Europe apart from France?

My Lords, I can confirm that we share both objectives. The Prime Minister has made clear in his initiative for international institutional reform his support for a civilian corps of the kind the noble Baroness mentioned. We have always felt that it would be best to do that on a Europe-wide basis. As she knows, on the non-proliferation point we are, with France and others, casting around for a way to renew the non-proliferation treaty and regime. Therefore, the French proposals in this area are intrinsically of interest and are worth supporting.

My Lords, could my noble friend add to the suggestions for President Sarkozy’s agenda measures to increase rail freight through the Channel Tunnel? I declare an interest as chairman of the Rail Freight Group. That project was set up by treaty. There are only about five trains going through at the moment, when there are 200 trains’ worth of trucks going up the parallel motorway. Action is needed.

My Lords, we will look at that. Described in the way that my noble friend has done, it seems to make obvious sense. I will get back to him in more detail on that.

My Lords, taking up the theme of doing old things better, does the Minister agree that a Palestinian Government of national unity or, failing that, at least an interparty negotiating team with Israel would be a very welcome result of the French presidency?

My Lords, I certainly would. This Question ranges quite widely. The quartet, in which Europe is a participant, is the vehicle for raising these ideas. As the noble Lord will know, there are quartet principles about discussions with Hamas, which we have frequently referred to in this House. Those principles remain in place in terms of progress on that issue.

My Lords, in considering the question by my noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford about whether nuclear power is to be regarded as a renewable energy source, will the Minister take the trouble to consult his former colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury of Turville, who, in a debate, said very clearly in response to a question from my noble friend Lady O’Cathain that he regarded nuclear power as a renewable source?

My Lords, I think that I will be able to answer the noble Lord, Lord Howell, in terms that will satisfy both the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, and him. However, I want to take advice on this before making British policy in an area for which I am not responsible.

My Lords, given France’s renewed interest in rejoining NATO, and that country’s recent White Paper on defence, is it not a propitious time to renew the idea of developing a common defence procurement policy with France and our partners in the European Union? It would strengthen this country’s defences, throughout the European Union and, indeed, within NATO.

My Lords, one reason that we are so pleased with the direction of the French proposals on European defence is precisely that they preserve under national command national armies and navies. Earlier fears that somehow there would be a loss of national control have been replaced. It remains a good idea that we combine as a European defence force when NATO was not the right formula. I do not want to go further in terms of the procurement implications, because, again, I am not the right Minister to do that.

My Lords, notwithstanding that, are not the Minister’s words encouraging of the idea of the joint aircraft carrier for France and Britain?

My Lords, yes; there is good co-operation and we fully understand the need to try to work together on joint projects of this kind.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned trade and the Doha round. Given President Sarkozy’s strongly protectionist reputation, would the noble Lord give a commitment that Her Majesty's Government will be robustly proactive in seeking to advance free trade and to succeed in the Doha round?

My Lords, the Prime Minister warned at the G8 summit that the Doha round was at a critical point and there must be progress. France is, after all, part of Europe’s common negotiating position on this round, which includes very significant liberalisation of agriculture. We very much hope that the European Commissioner Peter Mandelson will press on to make sure that Europe is part of closing a deal on Doha because of its extraordinary implications for global food prices in the coming years.

My Lords, could my noble friend enlist the support of President Sarkozy to explain to the SNP that, if Scotland became independent, it would not continue as a separate member of the European Union?

My Lords, I know that there have been long and deep connections between France and Scotland and that President Sarkozy would probably welcome such a mandate, but we should probably address this more as a domestic problem and deal with it closer to home.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister will support Commissioner Mandelson in his excellent stand against President Sarkozy during his recent discussions.

My Lords, I am sure that Commissioner Mandelson will be pleased at the expressions of support from, for him, unusual quarters. We all recognise that Peter Mandelson is doing his job, and we of course support him in carrying out the mandate that he has been given by Europe as a whole for a successful conclusion to the Doha round.