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EU: December Council Meeting

Volume 734: debated on Wednesday 11 January 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what, if any, changes they envisage in the United Kingdom’s relationship with the rest of the European Union following the summit meeting of 8–9 December 2011.

My Lords, Britain remains a full member of the European Union and will continue to work hard with our many allies in Europe to advance our national interests as well as those of all other EU member states. Nothing arising from the December Council meeting alters that.

I am grateful for that reply but, intentionally or unintentionally, at the December meeting the Prime Minister gave the very strong impression that Britain could never accept the concept of the ever closer union spelt out in a variety of treaties signed by the United Kingdom over many years. Will the Government give a clear answer, not least for that section of the Government led by the Prime Minister, as to whether we are on board for ever closer union, or do we reject that concept?

I think that most people looking at the 21st century have found the concept of ever closer union implying more and more centralisation as, frankly, yesterday’s stuff. This is not the way in which the European Union will strengthen its cohesion and flexibility in the face of the new international landscape. While certainly the events of the December Council struck a particular view in regard to the safeguarding of Britain’s interests in the light of the plans which are now going forward and in which we are participating for the new fiscal union and possible fiscal union treaty if one emerges, I do not think that there is anything very revolutionary or new about recognising in the debate on the reform and development of the European Union that ever closer union as a simple integrationist concept is out of date.

My Lords, I ask this question for future reference. Surely it is the case—perhaps the Minister could confirm it—that the central aim of Her Majesty’s Government in Europe is to make sure that we have no friends there whatsoever.

I am afraid that that is upside-down thinking, because the enlightened view in Europe is that we should move towards the reform of the European Union in all aspects. Everyone agrees that maybe the time has come to revise its great purposes in the 20th century. I was fascinated by a remark made the other day by the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, who I hope will speak in a moment on this issue. He rightly said that the old arguments for Europe will no longer do. We are in a new situation in which many intelligent people throughout the European Union realise that new approaches are needed. I am sorry that the noble Lord is not one of them.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the concept of ever closer union in the treaties was about an ever closer union of the peoples of Europe? Nothing that this coalition Government are doing would prevent a closer relationship between the peoples of Europe, but that does not imply the Governments of Europe for ever being bound in ever closer unions. On the financial transaction tax that France has agreed to pursue unilaterally, our understanding is that the German Government are reluctant to proceed unilaterally. Are we having conversations with the Germans on the effects of the tax should it be implemented more widely?

My noble friend is absolutely right about the first point. The peoples of Europe, the communities of Europe and the interests of Europe are binding more and more closely together in the internet age and in the age of the information revolution, but the question of how this resolves at governmental level is obviously much more complex. She is absolutely right about that. As far as the financial transactions tax is concerned—the so-called Tobin tax—Her Majesty’s Government’s view is that if this was a universal tax, the chances of which are frankly pretty remote, it would begin to make sense to apply it, but that if it was merely going to be for the European Union or even for selected countries in the European Union, it would not make much sense at all. That seems to be a view that increasingly the Germans are sharing.

My Lords, if what the noble Lord says is true, that everyone throughout the European Union agrees that there are better arguments for the future, why were we left isolated on 8 and 9 December? Why did nobody agree with us then?

The precise issue was that the safeguards against additional incursions into financial interests, of which this country holds a very large proportion in Europe, were not going to be agreed. This led my right honourable friend the Prime Minister reluctantly to say that he could not agree to the kind of treaty being proposed. The other 26 countries are looking at it—as are we, in participating in the current operations and examination—and are finding out whether it works for them. I am not sure that in the end either the 26 or even possibly all 17 countries will be really prepared to go along with every detail of the treaty so far. However, a new draft has been produced that already begins to adjust somewhat to the concerns that my right honourable friend voiced and that other countries have expressed as well.

Is the noble Lord aware that this question of ever closer union could not be agreed at the Messina conference and could not be interpreted in the Rome treaty? As a result, a compromise amendment was made that the Court of Justice could deal with the matter, which is where we are today. We are now in the twist of a federal demand that we should remove, with other people, our residual sovereignty for imposed financial restriction, to which I personally object.

Of course, the European Court of Justice is applicable and is an instrument of the European Union treaties. Ad hoc arrangements and other co-operation arrangements that are not within the treaties would not be covered by the European Court of Justice. I was interested to see in the draft of the fiscal union treaty that is now circulating that the proposition that the ECJ should have precedence over national laws has been removed. I appreciate that my noble friend’s long-term considerations go much deeper, but it may be that here and now some of the concerns that he has expressed are being recognised.

Will the Minister bear with us as we continue with an old argument? Will he confirm that it is the clear policy of the Foreign Secretary and the coalition that there will be no attempt to repatriate powers from the European Union during this Parliament? Will he confirm that that is the Government’s policy and, if it is, how does he justify the Foreign Secretary permitting civil servants in his department to work with the new All-Party Group for European Reform to explore what powers might be repatriated? How is this Conservative initiative consistent with the policy of the coalition?

I do not want to play with words but I understood that in all parties, including the noble Lord’s party, and in the think tank with which he is closely associated, clear and forward-looking minds were looking at ways of rebalancing powers between Brussels and the member states as a whole—not just between Brussels and this country but between the European Commission, the European Council, the European institutions and the nation states. Again, there seems to be a very enlightened argument—of which I thought he was part, although he seems not to be so at the moment—that certain powers, particularly social powers and other detailed regulatory powers, would be far better administered close to the recipients, those in need of social care and those on the workshop floor, than by central organisations in Brussels. This is a sensible way forward and I am very glad that our officials are studying it closely.