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EU: Integration

Volume 732: debated on Tuesday 22 November 2011


Asked By

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has described the present situation as,

“an opportunity to begin to refashion the EU so it better serves this nation’s interests”.

We want to see a European Union, in his words,

“with the flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc”.

The future shape of the EU might well involve more integration in some areas and between some countries, and less in others. Of course, the Government have also made it clear that they wish to see no treaty changes that transfer power or competencies from the UK to the EU in this Parliament.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. However, the British people have seen through the fiction that the European Union guarantees peace and safeguards jobs. So I have to press the Government: what is it really for? Put slightly differently, I suppose we can all agree that other international bodies such as the United Nations or NATO have an identifiable purpose, but can the Government tell us why we need the European Union at all, not to mention its very own disastrous euro?

I think the British people have a sensible and balanced appreciation of the virtues of living in the European continental area: that it is a mighty single market; that our influence in it is useful; and that when it comes to trade bargaining with the rising powers of Asia, Latin America and Africa, it is very useful to have a bit of muscle. That is a perfectly sensible and common-sense view that, I suspect, prevails in the minds of most of the British people. They may not like some of the aspects of the EU—many of us find these things irritating—but on the whole it seems a reasonable grouping in which to be deeply and actively involved, and that is where we stand.

My Lords, would the noble Lord agree with me that the only alternative to the word “integration” used in the Question is disintegration or stagnation, and that our future lies in an integrated Europe—within the confines of some of the qualifications that he made—and that any question of encouraging disintegration would be wrong?

To avoid the debate getting too polarised, of course, there are degrees of integration. In this decentralised age, compared with the 20th century, where centralisation and central state dominance were the fashion, people are looking for more flexibility and decentralisation in all sensibly run organisations, including the EU. There may be some areas, as I indicated in my opening Answer, where a degree of integration is more sensible as an alternative to chaos. However, there may be many other areas where the time has come for decentralisation and a returning of powers closer to the people.

My noble friend is asking for an answer that would take longer than the patience of the House of Lords could tolerate. The simple answer is that a bloc tends to be a congealed and sometimes compelled form of integration under tight central control, while a network is a much more modern, less fragile and less rigid structure in which exchanges of views and dialogues in addressing new issues can constantly be adjusted in the light of changing circumstances.

My Lords, do not the ambitions set out by the Minister depend essentially on the concurrence of our partners? What expectation does he have that that will be forthcoming? Is it not a fact that as a result of the economic and financial crisis, there will be strong pressures for more integration in certain sectors? We as a Government and as a country have a choice, either arrogantly to rail against them from outside, or to be part of them and seek to bow them in a way that we want, including on principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.

Some of those aspects are correct, but the noble Lord overemphasises the polarity and the rigidity of the choice. There is no doubt that one of the propositions that is current throughout the eurozone is that the only way forward is towards fiscal union. Indeed, if that is a way of avoiding total chaos in the European markets, it is in our interest, too, that the process should be non-chaotic. That is perfectly clear. However, in other areas, as I said earlier, some degree of decentralisation and flexibility might play a much more useful part in making the European Union fit for purpose in the 21st century.

Would it help my noble friend, in answer to the question of the noble Marquess, Lord Lothian, if the networked Europe that he talked about was a flexible EU of variable geometry, in which those that want to join the eurozone can do so, and those that want to deepen the single market for a more competitive open trading system to the benefit of all our citizens can also participate in the decision-making? Should that not be the way forward, not fretting about variable speeds and referendums?

I do not know about my noble friend’s remarks on referenda. There is a case for them on certain occasions, as the Government have made clear. However, the broader issue she described is not very different from what we had in the past. This nation and several others are not members of the eurozone; others are. There is absolutely no reason why we should not co-operate very closely with those who are in or out of the zone in what is in effect a multi-speed Europe, as long as we recognise that we work together in a co-operative pattern within the Union to address constructively the very dangerous challenges from the outside world.

My Lords, would the Minister agree that there are dangers with a two-speed Europe, and that if a inner eurozone were to be created, it would be in the interests of the United Kingdom to be present at all discussions that took place within that eurozone, even if we were not at the table?

Again, I do not necessarily believe that it would be a sort of inner and outer pattern or that the inner zone would necessarily move at a faster speed than the outer. After all, as someone pointed out to me, if you want to get around Paris you go on the Périphérique and not through the middle. So it may not be quite like that, but obviously we want to be closely involved in the evolution of the European Union and its refashioning, to quote my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, and we certainly will be. One of the things we should discuss together, not just bilaterally between London and Brussels but in the interests of the whole Union, is a more balanced approach as to the powers and competences between the nation states and essential EU authorities. That, I gather, is also the policy of the Labour Party.