My Lords, Ministers will meet their German counterparts for the third time in January as part of the process of building bilateral co-operation between the cross-departmental European Affairs sub-committee and its German equivalent. We maintain regular bilateral contacts and discuss a wide range of EU-related issues. Noble Lords may be aware of the Foreign Secretary’s speech on the future of the European Union, which he made in Berlin alongside the German Foreign Minister and in which he underlined that the UK has played a leading role in forging EU policy and will continue to do so.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for that very positive Answer. She will have noticed in recent days that Germany—a very successful country that does not have our old-fashioned hang-ups about pretend sovereignty—seems to want us to be full-hearted members of the European Union. Does she not agree that there is a marvellous opportunity now for us to reach a sensible accord with Germany and with other leading member states—indeed, with all the member states of the Union—on the future of the extensive budget negotiations, allowing for a blend of financial discipline and important investment in infrastructure, without the Government worrying too much about a small number of Conservative MPs who have old-fashioned views on these matters, and about some UKIP candidates as well?
My Lords, I know that there is a wide variety of opinions in this House, including on my Back Benches. All opinions in the House are valid in their own right. In relation to the budget negotiations, the Prime Minister will soon make a Statement about last week’s meeting. The Leader of the House of Lords will repeat the Statement later today, so it would be inappropriate for me to deal with that. On our relationship with Germany, I agree with my noble friend; we have a strong relationship. Germany is the UK’s second largest export market worldwide. The UK is Germany’s sixth largest trade partner. Great Britain is the first investment destination for German companies. Almost one in six of all foreign companies in Germany are British. There is a strong relationship that continues to grow.
When my noble friend next has the opportunity, will she take one of her German colleagues to Athens, or indeed to any large city in Greece, to one of its hospitals where patients are not getting medical treatment? Or will she take them to one of its schools, where young children are fainting because of lack of nourishment? Or, even better, will she take them to the ports and airports of Greece where a huge queue of young, ambitious, successful people are desperate to get out of that poor country? Does she accept they are not getting the peace and prosperity they were promised but are instead seeing the death of democracy? There are some people on this side of the House who still take democracy as being a very important asset.
I agree with the noble Lord, democratic legitimacy within the EU is absolutely crucial. A number of polls have shown a fall in contentment about being close to the decision-making within Europe. The noble Lord raises important points and this is why we must continue to play our role within Europe, continue to reform Europe and continue to make it relevant for today’s economies.
My Lords, we have time. Perhaps we should hear the noble Lord, Lord Liddle, and then the noble Lord, Lord Pearson?
My Lords, all sides of this House want to see a very strong relationship with Germany and regard it as one of our leading partners in a European Union in which we want to play a leading role. However, does the Minister seriously believe that our ability to be taken seriously by Germany is enhanced by all the talk of renegotiation, looser relationships and referenda—maybe now two referenda, one before and one after the general election? When will the Government put a stop to this nonsense on their own Back Benches?
My Lords, I do not believe the Government should ever step away from acting in what is Britain’s national interest. It is important that the UK sets out very clearly, with its German counterparts or any other member state within the EU, those areas on which we agree. With Germany we agree on the need for further competitiveness, the need to further the single market and the need for more free trade agreements. However, the coalition Government must also be bold and brave enough clearly and loudly to set out Britain’s national interest within the EU.
My Lords, has the noble Baroness read yet another respectable analysis, this time from Professor Tim Congdon, which finds that our EU membership is costing us about 10% of GDP or £150 billion per annum? Is it not now obvious, even to Her Majesty’s Government, that our prosperous future lies outside the EU and free of control from the bloated octopus in Brussels?
My Lords, does my noble friend the Minister accept that the EU is hugely complicated and that by and large the citizens of this country have only a very partial understanding both of its status quo and of the arguments that now go on in this place? Can the Government do anything about reducing that gap in understanding?
It is important that there is further and better understanding of Britain’s role in the European Union as well as the role of the European Union in the interests of Britain. However, there are certain matters that the public are entirely clear about. They were raised by all the political parties during the last general election, and they were that no further powers should pass to the European Union without the say-so of the British people. The coalition Government took that on board and it is why we introduced a referendum lock as part of the European Union Act passed last year.
Does the noble Baroness agree that far from making an important point, the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, made a point that would amount to the economic destruction of this country? Does she further agree that there is no future for Great Britain as a trading nation in the isolationism which she seems to support on her own Back Benches?
My Lords, the coalition Government are clear that we believe that the best interests of Britain’s economic future will be served by being a member and part of the European Union, but I would also say that even though I may not agree with some of the points made by noble Lords, it should be said that they are important points which further the debate. That is why I have said that I am more than happy to put the contrary view to the noble Lord, which I hope he will take up.
Is it not odd that we should have a Question in this House asking whether the Government will hold discussions with the Government of Germany regarding the role of the United Kingdom in the European Union? I would have thought it would be very much better if the Government had a discussion with the voters of this country and let them say what they would prefer the future of Britain to be, either in or out of the European Union.
Various discussions are taking place at different levels. It is important that we should have a discussion with the people of this country and they made that clear before the last election in relation to what they expected this Government to do. That is why we introduced a referendum lock and why we are doing an audit of which powers should stay within the European Union and which competences we should fight to bring back. It is also why they wanted us to enter into tough budget negotiations, which the Prime Minister continues to do. However, I think that it is also important for us to have honest, frank and open conversations with other members of the European Union to ensure that we get the best reform possible so that the European Union acts in the best interests of all the member states, including Britain.