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EU: Member States’ Budgets

Volume 733: debated on Tuesday 29 November 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their assessment of the proposal by the European Commissioner for Economic and Financial Affairs that the European Commission should have the power to scrutinise member states’ budgets and impose such financial penalties as the Commission deems fit.

My Lords, the Government strongly support the recently agreed economic governance legislation to strengthen the stability and growth pact. This provides for stronger and more responsible economic governance across the European Union. Under the new legislation, a range of financial sanctions can be imposed by the Council within the euro area where member states are deemed not to have taken adequate action. Sanctions are set out under Article 136, which applies to the euro area only.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, the statement by Commissioner Olli Rehn applies not just to the eurozone but to the whole of the EU, including this country. Therefore, will the Minister confirm that today’s Autumn Statement by the Chancellor is nothing more than an aspiration—a wish list? Will he confirm to the House that this will have to be ticked off and agreed by the European Commission before it can take any effect?

My Lords, this country has always been party to the stability and growth pact, but as I am sure the noble Lord knows, under Protocol 15 the UK has an opt-out, which means that we have to endeavour to avoid excessive deficits but are not subject to any sanctions such as members of the euro area are. Furthermore, the UK secured particular treatment that ensures—has ensured and will ensure—that Parliament will always be allowed to scrutinise the UK’s budget ahead of the European Commission.

Is it not remarkable that the very same people in all parties who are always criticising the European Union for failing—lamentably, they would say—to ensure that people such as the Greeks, Portuguese, Irish and anybody you would like to mention are not meeting their commitments should now complain when we are tightening up the very scrutiny that they have been demanding? As the noble Lord, Lord Sassoon, has said, this is not just the 17 but the 27.

My Lords, I am not going to say who should be complaining about what. All I would say is that the eurozone has got itself into a position where it really needs to get on and strengthen its own governance arrangements. We will do everything to encourage it to do that but we, as the UK, have a particular position that we will also protect to make sure that Parliament is able to scrutinise our budget first.

My Lords, given the UK opt-out, is it the case that the final part of the noble Lord’s initial Question is not correct as far as UK is concerned?

I beg my noble friend’s pardon. I think that a number of false premises were used to back up that supplementary question.

My Lords, if the eurozone decides to strengthen its fiscal rules, which many press upon it as being vital if they are to work, but there is no question of a change in the treaty, what would the Government do, because we clearly would not be involved?

My Lords, this is a fast-evolving set of proposals. Indeed, the euro area’s Finance Ministers are meeting later this afternoon. One of the issues on the table is that the Commission and the euro group are exploring the possibility of limited treaty changes, and Mr Van Rompuy is due to present the outcome of that work to the December European Council. When we see any proposals—if there are any—we will consider what we should do about them.

My Lords, when looking at what is happening in Italy and Greece, is my noble friend not concerned that adding to a fiscal deficit problem a democratic deficit problem could result in considerable difficulties?

My Lords, a few years ago was there not a proposal that the Commission be given a duty of auditing the national accounts of member states? That proposal was turned down at the time by the Council. Is it not the case that if it had not been turned down and had been accepted, we would have had an earlier insight into the problems of Greece, the Greeks would have been unable to falsify their accounts, and the grave problems we all now face might have been significantly reduced?

My Lords, I very much doubt it. We are looking at the proposals for strengthening governance as they have been put on the table, and that is clearly what needs to be done. We should not rely on the auditors to sort out all our problems.

My Lords, if the eurozone’s Finance Ministers decide that they want limited treaty changes, will the Minister be prepared to go slightly beyond his earlier answer and confirm that the UK Government will not stand in the way of any treaty changes to bring greater discipline within the eurozone, because it is clearly in our national interest as much as theirs that new rules are put in place?

I am of course prepared to go a bit further in answer to my noble friend’s question. If such treaty changes are put forward, the Government will look to advance the UK’s national interest at that point, as appropriate. Above all, that means protecting and safeguarding our essential economic interests, and we will seek to do that.

My Lords, is it not grotesque that an organisation that has not had its accounts signed off by its own internal auditors for 17 years—there being no external auditor—should be handed these powers, given that if it had been a private company in this country the directors would have been in prison every year for the past 17 years?

My Lords, I certainly agree that it is very unsatisfactory that for the 17th year in a row the Court of Auditors has not been able to give an unqualified statement of assurance.