My Lords, the Government welcome the fact that UK nationals and the nationals of other EU member countries actively exerted their rights under the Council directive of 6 December 1993 to vote and stand as candidates in other member states at the recent European Parliament elections and are actively participating in public life in their adopted country.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Was it not gratifying to see the growing diaspora of people not only in general, but as candidates and political activists mainly in Spain, France, Italy and Germany, but in other countries too, where the British diaspora resides not only presumably as patriotic British citizens but as enthusiastic citizens of the European Union? That was decided by the then Conservative Government under the Maastricht treaty, in sad contrast to the antics of the Conservative Party which is now joining up with extreme right wing neo-cons of a peculiar bent in some countries, who are unable to join any consensus in the European Parliament for future progress.
My Lords, the noble Lord’s last point is truly astonishing. His earlier point is also interesting. At least five people from other EU states, who are resident in Britain, stood in the British elections to the European Parliament. The wonderful, delightful irony is that the only one who was successful belonged to the United Kingdom Independence Party.
My Lords, in that case I take it that the Government welcome the election of the EU’s former chief accountant, Marta Andreasen, to the European Parliament. I shall repeat a question that I asked on Thursday 18 June, which was not answered at the time. Has the Minister read her new book, Brussels Laid Bare? If so, does he believe that that book will do anything to endear the project of European integration to the British people?
My Lords, the noble Lord has been asked what conclusions the Government have drawn from the growing involvement of British expatriates and others in the European elections. What conclusions have they drawn from their own dire performance in those elections, and will they bring on a general election?
My Lords, our performance was not good, but that of the noble Lord’s party, at 27 per cent, was not a result of which they can be very proud. It comforts me slightly that in 1999 the Conservatives got a full 7 per cent more than that—34 per cent. Two years later they were well beaten in a general election, and in 2004 they got 26.7 per cent. Less than a year after that, they were thrashed again.
My Lords, would the Minister comment on the decline in turnout right across Europe? Should we not be worried by the alienation of voters and the growth of fringe parties such as the British National Party, which gained the seat in my own North West region? In that context, will he look again at the closed party list system, which does not involve people at all in elections? When it was first introduced, we were promised that it would be reviewed as a matter of course. That has never happened.
My Lords, I know that there is strong feeling around the House about the system that we are bound to employ in the European elections. I share the noble Lord’s view that the turnout was depressing; not just in the United Kingdom but in Europe too. The decrease of only 2 percentage points across Europe since the last ones was the smallest ever, but that is hardly a very strong argument. As the European Parliament continues to establish itself in the EU institutional structures, and as it has an increasing say in European-level legislation, we hope we will see a reverse in this trend in the future and we will continue to work on it.
My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the lack of enthusiasm throughout Europe for the elections to the European Parliament is a good reason for our lobbying hard for the abolition of direct elections to the European Parliament? We would thereby save ourselves a mint of money, and reinforce the fact that the bureaucracy in Brussels is accountable to the elected representatives of the member countries throughout Europe.
My Lords, I do not agree. Of course, the turnout is much too low, but I would remind the noble Lord that the European electorate is the largest in the world, with a population of just under 500 million. An eligible electorate of 375 million, directly electing their MEPs, makes it the second largest democratic electorate in the world, after India. I am proud to be in the Government who support the elections that have just taken place and who support the European Union.
My Lords, do the Government have accurate figures for the number of British citizens now resident—living, working, studying or retired—in other EU countries? I understand that it is somewhere between 3 million and 5 million. Does that not increase the incentive for Her Majesty’s Government to co-operate with other European Union Governments, on, for example, police, health services and access to other services—unlike the Conservative Party in what it is really prepared to accept?
My Lords, I am not sure what the figures are. I thought they were not quite as high as the noble Lord mentions, but they are clearly in the millions—more than 2 million, as I understand it. One of the great things about today’s times is that British Citizens can go and live in EU countries, take part in democratic life there, if they want to, and, likewise, EU citizens can come to this country and take part in civic life too.