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Europe Day

Volume 728: debated on Tuesday 28 June 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government why No. 10 Downing Street and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office did not fly the European flag on Europe Day.

No. 10 Downing Street and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office take a straightforward approach; they fly the union flag at all times, with limited exceptions mainly for the patron saints’ days for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

My Lords, this is a change of policy. In what way do such silly gestures serve our national interest?

The noble Lord speaks of silly gestures, but the idea that flying flags is any indication of the policy of commitment, in our case to the European Union, is frankly absurd. If we flew the flag for every relationship with every multilateral organisation, we would be for ever hoisting flags and taking them down again. There is frankly no relationship between our activist and forward position on the European Union—we are playing a major part, as demonstrated by the Prime Minister over the weekend—and the actual flying of flags, which is not the intention of 10 Downing Street.

I thank my noble friend the Minister for his renewed commitment to Europe, which he has just expressed. Is it not a pity that we do not fly the European flag a little bit more? The only European flags within the vicinity of this place and Whitehall are on the Slovenian embassy and the former headquarters of the Conservative Party, which is now the European Commission and the European Parliament. That historical irony could now be built on if the Government were bold enough to fly the European flag alongside the union flag, which is the routine of all other member states.

Some departments and some public institutions do fly the flag if they wish to do so. I repeat to my noble friend that the flying of flags is not connected with the very strong policy we have in relation to the European Union, in which we are paying a very active part and dare I say a slightly more successful part in some areas than was the case under the previous Government.

My Lords, would the Minister accept that the flag that is being talked about should not be referred to as a European Union flag? It is also the flag of the Council of Europe, and it was its flag long before it was adopted by the European Union. In view of the fact that later this year we assume the presidency of the Council of Ministers of the Council of Europe, will he make sure that we do not cause unnecessary offence during our presidency?

Of course one will make sure of that. I do not think I said “European Union flag”; if I did, it was certainly a slip of the tongue because rather than talking about the European flag, I was referring to the union flag of this union in which we live.

My Lords, given the growing anger of the British people with our EU membership, do the Government agree that they were, for once, rather wise not to fly the Union flag on Europe Day? Do the Government also agree that the British people are not fools, so they can clearly see that the riots in Greece—and soon elsewhere—are caused entirely by the euro and by the failing project of European integration? Would it not be better to get rid of the wretched flag altogether, especially as it has no legal status whatever?

The noble Lord is making the same mistake as others in associating the hoisting and waving of flags with policy, which is a quite different issue. He also raises broader questions about the position of Greece and the eurozone. Undoubtedly there are major problems, and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister and other right honourable friends have been taking a very active part in working to see that the eurozone system is at least able to stay together for the time being to buy time in order that longer-term solutions can be put in place. It is in our interests that the eurozone should prosper and not undermine the European economic system.

My Lords, in so far as our own national flag can be flown upside down as a sign of disaster, is it not possible that we could apply the same rule to the Union flag and perhaps resolve everyone’s difficulties?

I am not too expert on the art of flags. Indeed, there is a complicated word that I have forgotten to describe the whole philosophy of flag flying. I am sure one of your Lordships will know it. As to flying flags upside down, I think I would recognise when the union jack is upside down but I am not sure I would recognise whether the round stars of the European Union were upside down or the right way up.

My Lords, the Minister assures us today, as he has throughout the passage of the European Union Bill in this House, that this is a pro-EU Government. Will he now persuade his Prime Minister to make for the first time a major speech explaining our interdependence with the European Union and the eurozone, and how the stability of our banks and our prospects for economic growth depend on it, instead of saying that we simply will not pay a penny? Is it not time that the Government started to fly the flag for our membership of the European Union in a real sense when they talk to the media in this country?

I do not know where the noble Lord has been these past few days. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister needs no persuading and has made his position absolutely clear. As he pointed out in the other place the other day, the conclusion statement from the last European Council meeting included, at his behest, the crucial words:

“All necessary measures fully consistent with international standards must be rapidly taken to address any possible banking vulnerabilities brought to light by these stress tests”,

and by the developments over the situation in Greece. My right honourable friend is perfectly well aware of the vital importance of maintaining economic stability in Europe and the recovery of the economies in difficulties. No persuasion is required.

My Lords, does the Minister not recognise that what he has just recounted is quite different from the kind of major speech that the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, has called for? Is it not true that the Minister has given the impression that we are wonderfully clear of any problems because the eurozone crisis is a matter for the Europeans and that all we are concerned about is not paying any money?

I seem to be finding difficulty in communicating today because I have just given the opposite impression in great detail. I quoted my right honourable friend; I quote many other Ministers and I could quote myself ad nauseam. We are all extremely concerned with the stability of the eurozone. Going back 10 years, I admit it is perfectly true that some of us might not have thought that the idea of the eurozone was going to be perfect sweetness and roses all the way and there has been some proof of that. However, now it is here we have to make this work and see that the southern countries of Europe can overcome their terrible economic difficulties. It is utterly in our interests to do so, as my right honourable friends have said again and again. There is no such alternative impression.

Thank you for that. Many people will regard the action of the Government as rather small-minded and counterproductive. How do the Government see their way to advancing the interests of this country, rather than diminishing it? Is the Government’s attitude not to be deplored?

The noble Lord was a very distinguished commissioner, as we all know, but on this matter he is again associating No. 10’s wish to fly the flags that I described with a symbolism far beyond the reality. The reality is that decisions about flags are one matter and our policy, commitment, strategy and the centrality of the European Union in our foreign policy are another, to which we give the greatest possible importance and adherence.