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EU: Hungarian Presidency

Volume 723: debated on Tuesday 11 January 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what European Union policy priorities they will seek to promote during the Hungarian presidency from January to June 2011.

During the Hungarian presidency, the Government will urge the EU to prioritise its support of growth and jobs, including specific actions to increase trade and competitiveness and to assist the transition to a greener, low-carbon, high-growth European economy and a common European Union energy market. We are also seeking progress on certain international dossiers, including deepening the EU’s relations with strategic partners. Finally, we will focus on ensuring that the EU delivers better value for money.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does the Minister also agree that the beginning of the six-month presidency is a very important moment for Hungary? Is he satisfied that as a result of recent representations, both internally and externally, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán will recast the new press law in an appropriate way?

My noble friend is quite right to raise this issue, which has given rise to a certain worry. The appropriate bodies, which include the European Commission and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, are reviewing the proposed legislation to check whether it complies with EU law and international norms. We look forward to hearing their findings. We place great importance on the freedom and independence of the media, obviously, and we hope that the Hungarian Government will soon resolve this issue satisfactorily and that it will not adversely affect the successful operation of the Hungarian EU presidency.

I draw the Minister’s attention to a robust statement, reported in the press this morning, from the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, on behalf of the European Union, strongly criticising continuing Israeli illegal settlement activity in east Jerusalem and the continuing expulsion of Palestinians from east Jerusalem. Can the Minister give us an assurance that one of the Government’s priorities over the next six months will be to continue pressure on Israel not only to stop but to reverse its illegal settlement activity in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem?

Yes, it is certainly one of our priorities and one of the priorities of the European Union. We all share a concern about the illegal settlements and the blockage that they are placing on the prospective progress between Israel and the Palestinians. I totally agree with the sentiments behind the noble Lord’s questions. These are matters that will have a high priority with us.

My Lords, will the Minister, on behalf of the Government, inform the Hungarian presidency that they will now stop trying to push water uphill and will no longer bail out failing European economies with British taxpayers’ money?

As for bailout provisions, after 2013 we will be under no obligation to do that sort of thing unless we voluntarily wish to do so or it makes sense from our national interest to do so. Before 2013, it is, of course, a fact that we are bound by decisions of the previous Government and are bound to be involved to some extent.

My Lords, will the Minister assure the House that one of our priorities in the European Union will be to help to encourage and insist on fair treatment for minorities in all EU countries, particularly the Roma people, who suffer massive discrimination in many member countries of the EU?

The noble Baroness is quite right to raise this concern about the Roma. We want to encourage the presidency to focus on practical co-operation between member states. Indeed, we have been working on practical co-operation ourselves with Romania on this issue. The Hungarian presidency is drawing up a framework strategy on Roma inclusion. We have strong and effective legislation ourselves and policies to tackle racial discrimination and to promote race equality, so we would not be in favour of further legislation, but very detailed practical co-operation to meet this particular minority problem is certainly very much at the top of the agenda.

Does my noble friend agree that while Hungary’s internal problems and more authoritarian stance are indeed to be regretted, one of the principal problems facing the eurozone is the financial stability of countries such as Portugal and Belgium? Can he assure the House that we will take an active interest in ensuring that financial stability remains the defining issue that this presidency deals with rather than Mr Orbán’s own political posturing?

Of course, we are a major financial power and we have a major interest in financial stability not merely in our region but at a global level, so these matters are bound to be at the top of the agenda. However, as I stated earlier, our actions will be governed—certainly after 2013—by our voluntary wish to move or not move in the direction of financial support. Before 2013, we are somewhat caught up in the existing mechanisms, but they will be used with the greatest care and discretion.

My Lords, it is the turn of a Cross-Bencher—and independent thinker. As noble Lords are aware, our net contribution to the EU this year will be some £8.3 billion. However, I noted from the Minister’s Answer yesterday to a Written Question that we are also paying about £3 billion to accession countries. Bearing in mind what is happening in Hungary, I would have thought that we could ensure that all those countries that are allowed to join the EU will be democratic at least after they have joined if not before.

I am sure that that is right. One of the core principles of the European Union is a commitment to democratic values, good governance, human rights and the rule of law. That is obviously in the minds of all those considering accession countries, and in the minds of those who govern the accession fund to which I think the noble Lord refers. I have no disagreement with the desire to see democracy spread in the best possible ways throughout the eurozone, and indeed in the wider world.

My Lords, in the third of the priorities that the Minister enunciated a moment ago, he said that he wanted to see more concentration on the relationships with strategic partners. Which strategic partners will this country prioritise in that discussion within the European Union?

We have in mind Russia, China, the United States, India and Brazil. We are developing these strategic partnerships both bilaterally and, where it makes sense and where we can combine effectively, with our EU partners. Those are the strategic partnerships on our priority list.