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European Council: Presidency

Volume 716: debated on Monday 11 January 2010


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what proposals they will make to the European Council to ensure the efficient functioning of the relationship between the President of the European Council and the existing rotating presidency.

The Government are confident that the President of the European Council and the rotating President are working effectively together. Mr Van Rompuy and Spanish Prime Minister Zapatero held a bilateral before Christmas, at which they agreed a range of working arrangements, including that the external representation of the EU would be the responsibility of the President of the European Council. On 3 January they co-wrote an article published in newspapers across Europe, outlining a number of joint priorities.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there may be three priorities for the new standing President: that is, to make sure that the new treaty structure works effectively and quickly; to encourage our popular noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, in her work on the External Action Service; and to support the Commission and the ECB in the anti-recession policies? As Mr Zapatero is well known to be a keen and enthusiastic European, despite the British press hype to the contrary, there is no reason to assume that he will not be a keen supporter of those policies.

I take the noble Lord’s last point. I confess, to everyone’s surprise, that I have come to believe that not everything that is published in the British press is totally accurate. In this case, it certainly is not. I endorse that Prime Minister Zapatero is indeed a loyal and enthusiastic European. One can do no better than quote from the article that he and Mr Van Rompuy wrote, in which they talk about the application of the Lisbon treaty being diligent and rigorous; working together to set priorities for the presidency; and all the developments for a new Europe being the first steps on a long road that we shall travel together. The treaty itself establishes close co-operation and co-ordination between the President of the Council and the President of the Commission. The role of our former colleague, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, has been highlighted as a most important one and we can look forward to her carrying it out with great distinction.

My Lords, perhaps the Lisbon treaty has not been as simplifying as those of us who call ourselves Europeans had hoped. Would my noble friend agree that the relationship between the rotating presidency, the President and the High Representative will depend as much on the personal dynamics as the institutions; and that so far the Spanish presidency appears to have reached a good pragmatic solution?

Indeed, I agree with my noble friend. It is true that in the European context, as many more experienced noble Lords will know, the personal relationships between principals at that level are very important. We have every reason to be optimistic that all the principals involved will work together and have a clear and shared agenda to ensure that the Lisbon treaty is put into effect diligently and effectively.

Does the noble Lord have any figures for the cost of this additional presidential role and its required support services? There have been some absolutely staggering figures in the press about the cost of support services and the salary involved. I am sure the noble Lord will wish to put these in perspective and correct them if he can.

The first perspective is whether we are talking about the new foreign service, as it has been accused of being in some parts of the press. The whole idea is to have things that are cost neutral. The cost of the presidency and the salary of the President of the Council are being negotiated, but one would expect the level of salary to justify the calibre of candidate we selected from the candidates we had to choose from.

My Lords, given that the aim of the European Union has always been to get rid of our European democracies and replace them with a supranational Government run by technocrats—an aim finally achieved by the Lisbon treaty—surely the answer now is to hand over all power to Mr Van Rompuy, and call in the EU gendarmerie force when the people finally take to the streets?

My Lords, I have been aware for many years of both the noble Lord’s devotion to the European cause and his belief that all roads lead to Rome. This one does not. If Venus were to collide with Mars tonight, he would accuse the European Union of being responsible for it—perhaps the opposition would accuse Gordon Brown—but in neither case would that be true.

My Lords, since the European Parliament is the democratically elected link with the British and other member states’ peoples, what are Her Majesty’s Government doing to ensure that the President of the European Parliament is present at every important meeting of the European Council and of the rotating presidency, which is not at present the case?

We are seeing a most important part of the process starting today, which is the presentation and the “advice and consent”, to use the American term, of the new Commission. There will continue to be a dialogue about how to improve the democracy and transparency of the European Union and the Commission, and their role in our lives. Those who believe that the European Union is vital to this country and, indeed, to the future, will carry that hope optimistically; others might be more pessimistic.