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EU: Repatriation of Powers

Volume 733: debated on Tuesday 6 December 2011


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they have agreed a list of powers to be repatriated from the European Union, and, if so, when they expect to launch negotiations with the United Kingdom’s European partners.

My Lords, the Government are committed under the coalition agreement to examining the balance of competences between Britain and the EU. We have made no commitment to a particular outcome of this review. Work on the review has begun and is in its early stages.

My Lords, I am relieved to read that the Prime Minister has recognised that Friday’s negotiations on a fiscal compact are not the occasion to try to repatriate any powers. That is good news, and it should at least save the Prime Minister from having another ASBO slapped on him by the President of France. The Prime Minister says that he wants to be constructive at these negotiations but that he will have some modest demands to make. Does the Minister agree that the chance to participate constructively in the negotiations being held among the 27 depends on them being among the 27, because that gives him a seat and a voice, whereas if negotiations were confined to the 17 eurozone members he would have neither? If the Prime Minister arrives in Brussels with a list of concessions which he wants granted as a price for his co-operation, there is a serious risk that the 17, tired of Britain’s repeated requests for special treatment, will simply close the door on the 10 outsiders and negotiate without them. What influence will he then have on the outcome?

My Lords, we are now facing a clear difference of timescale in the things under way. There is a real urgency about managing the eurozone crisis. That is a matter of weeks. Examining the balance of competences within the European Union is a much longer-term investigation, with which the British Government are engaged, and on which we expect to have plenty of allies among the other member states of the European Union.

My Lords, would my noble friend accept that, in a spirit of constructive engagement, the Prime Minister has made it very clear that he is not about to go to the European Council with a shopping list of powers to be repatriated, that the coalition agreement did not envisage that, that the coalition agreement envisaged only a review of the working time directive and that the repatriation of powers is not on the agenda here and now?

My Lords, we all recognise that Britain’s future economic prosperity depends on the eurozone not collapsing and that it is therefore very strongly in our interest to do everything we can to assist in the management of this current crisis. Britain’s priorities are: first, to maintain the integrity of the EU 27; secondly, to maintain and strengthen the single market; thirdly, to promote recovery and economic growth; fourthly, to defend specific British interests in financial services; fifthly, to ensure that social and employment legislation does not hold back growth; and also to rebalance competence away from detailed regulations on matters better left to national, regional or local government.

Many Members of the House will agree with the first five items on that list, but as far as the sixth item is concerned—the question of better balance—will the Minister recognise that at the moment his right honourable friend the Prime Minister, in trying to appease his Back Benches, is making it almost impossible to negotiate properly in Brussels?

My Lords, the problem of creeping competence has been there for some time. I remember a pamphlet published 10 years ago by a rather bright young man, whom my wife once taught, called Nick Clegg on doing less better. That is what many of us want to achieve in Brussels. We all know that the Commission sometimes wants to take powers over everything. I regretted that there was a report the other week from this House’s EU Committee on Commission proposals for closer co-operation on grass-roots sport. It seems to me that grass-roots sport ought to be left to the grass roots and that sport at the international level should be dealt with by the EU. That is a reasonable, long-term proposal. Liberal Democrats have held that view for a long time and continue to hold it, perhaps against the centralisers at the European level within the Labour Party. I see the noble Lord shaking his head.

My Lords, what would the Government’s response be if, in the intergovernmental conference about to meet, a member state other than Britain were to introduce a proposal for the repatriation of some portion of the single market?

My Lords, I am happy to say that that is extremely unlikely. We are some way off an intergovernmental conference. The German Government believe that we can have a very short IGC next March and hope that ratification of limited treaty change can then take place by the end of 2012. The position of Her Majesty's Government is that treaty change is not necessary, as we argued when ratifying the Lisbon treaty and again on the EU Bill. The Lisbon treaty has an enormous amount of headroom under which powers can be taken, and we think advantage should be taken of that, rather than getting into the messy, unavoidably uncertain and long process of treaty change.

Does the noble Lord agree with the article in the Financial Times this morning by the Conservative Member of Parliament, Jo Johnson, in which he says that the last thing the City of London needs to protect its interests is for the British Eurosceptics to plaster a union jack all over it? Does he agree that the best way to defend our vital national interests in Europe is to be in, engaging our partners, rather than out, shouting on the sidelines and demanding repatriation of powers?

My Lords, I entirely agree with the article, which I thought was excellent, and I am very happy that the chair of the relevant European Parliament committee on this is a British Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament, Sharon Bowles.

Would my noble friend agree that the only important repatriation of powers for the Government—because they need to be careful on this matter—would be to repatriate Bill Cash away from the chairmanship of the European Scrutiny Committee of the House of Commons? Would he further agree that with so many exclusions, derogations and exceptions already, not least on the single currency, we have gone far enough down that road and that we need to be a good European partner again?

My Lords, the Lisbon treaty envisaged that national parliaments should play a much more active part in scrutiny and indeed in insisting on the importance of subsidiarity and resisting overcentralisation. This House currently does it better than the other House. We very much hope that the House of Commons will also improve and extend its scrutiny of EU measures.

My Lords, given the requirement for unanimity among 27 nation states before a single comma can be retrieved from the treaties of Rome, is not all talk of repatriation a convenient red herring?

No. There is constant negotiation. The working time directive is currently under review, as the noble Lord will be aware. Sixteen member states, including Britain, currently have opt-outs. Twenty-three member states, not including Britain, are currently under contravention for not implementing the working time directive. There is therefore room for reconsideration.