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European Council: December Meeting

Volume 741: debated on Monday 3 December 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their priorities for the December meeting of the European Council.

My Lords, the December European Council will cover economic policy, including economic and monetary union and banking union, as well as defence enlargement and foreign policy. The UK will seek to ensure the integrity of the single market in relation to banking union and economic and monetary union. We will press for further progress on growth and work to ensure that the defence strategy reflects UK priorities. Enlargement is dependent on the December General Affairs Council.

I thank the noble Baroness for her Answer. Why have the British Government adopted a completely different approach to a banking union from that of a fellow euro-out, Sweden, which is run, we are told, by David Cameron’s favourite conservative European Prime Minister? Sweden has engaged with the negotiations on a banking union, whereas Britain appears to be trying to reintroduce, for the first time since the introduction of the single market, some kind of veto on financial services legislation. Does the noble Baroness think that that strategy is likely to meet with more success than it did in the negotiations on the fiscal treaty last December, or are the Government once again shouting from the sidelines to try to appease the unappeasable?

The Government’s strategy on this matter is one that reflects the best interests of Britain. I am sure that noble Lords on the other side of the House agree that it is important that when the Prime Minister goes to Europe, he acts in the best interests of this country and negotiates on the basis of that strategy. The UK does not use the euro, and we have been clear that the UK will not be part of any banking union or fall under the jurisdiction of the ECB. However, that does not mean that we do not continue to push for further liberalisation of the single market.

Does my noble friend the Minister agree that one of the priorities of our right honourable friend the Prime Minister should be to ensure that any discussions or negotiations about institutional changes should take place at the level of the 27, even if they concern the eurozone, in order to maintain the integrity of the single market?

My noble friend makes an extremely important point, and the Government are with him on this matter. We are not part of the euro, but it is important that structures are not put in place that allow the euro countries to effectively exercise a block vote and therefore make decisions that could impact on us within the single market.

Although the economic issues just discussed are probably the most important, can the Government also look at the way in which these international companies use the different tax regimes within the European Union to avoid their responsibilities in individual countries, and also perhaps at the semi-monopolistic practices of such companies? It is fairly easy—indeed, one might say pleasant—to boycott Starbucks, but Google and Amazon are a lot more difficult and are semi-monopolistic. It is something the EU should take a look at.

The question goes beyond the immediate Question but I am sure the noble Lord will agree that the Government have been deeply committed to making sure that those who should pay tax do pay tax. We have invested more in HMRC to make sure that those who should pay tax in this country do pay tax in this country.

Should the Government not tell the European Union that they are in favour of a much looser arrangement between the countries of the European Union, and less centralisation? While the Prime Minister is over there, perhaps he could also have a word with the Prime Minister of Poland, who seems to imagine that the average cost of the EU budget paid by British people is only £35 a year, whereas it is actually £156.

I will certainly feed that fact back in. I agree with the noble Lord about less centralisation. Of course we believe in power being nearest to those who are affected by those decisions. However, I think the noble Lord would agree with me that in relation to the European Union, we want a trade area but it is also important to be part of the group that makes the rules in relation to that trade area.

My Lords, will the Minister take the opportunity to ask the Prime Minister to raise at the European Council the way in which three private companies—the credit rating agencies based in the United States—have such an undue and malign influence over the economy not just of the United Kingdom but the whole of Europe? I hope she will take some advice from her Treasury colleague on this. It is about time that we took collective action so that we in Europe are not dominated by these American private companies.

The EU is engaged in ongoing discussions on work in relation to better regulation of those very institutions.