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EU: UK’s National and Trade Interests

Volume 742: debated on Wednesday 16 January 2013

Question

Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the impact on the United Kingdom’s national and trade interests of disengagement from the European Union.

My Lords, membership of the European Union is in the UK national interest. We continue to engage actively and constructively with our European partners and play a leading role in a wide range of EU business. The UK benefits from membership of the EU, including from the unrestricted access for UK businesses to a single market of around 500 million customers, which was worth £11 trillion in 2011, and from securing greater market access for the UK at a global level when, for example, it plays a leading role in EU free trade agreement negotiations with third party nations.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend very much for those very interesting statistics but could I take matters just a little bit further? Does she agree that it is absolutely essential for us as a trading nation to keep our alliances, partnerships and businesses throughout the European Union? Against that background, does it not follow that we should not be seen as a reluctant player in Europe, constantly looking for the way out and not the way forward? Could she make that point sometimes to some of our colleagues?

I could not have thought of a better week for such a Question from my noble friend because it gives me an opportunity to say that this coalition Government are committed to playing an active and leading role in the EU, while advancing the UK’s national interests and protecting its sovereignty. Membership of the EU is in the UK’s national interests and it is what this coalition Government believe, but the EU needs to reform to meet the challenges of competitiveness. It needs a stable eurozone and greater democratic legitimacy. It is to that end that the Prime Minister will be making a speech later this week.

My Lords, we heard clearly from the noble Baroness about the benefits of being in a position to exploit our membership of the single market. Does she agree with me that it would be inappropriate at present to do anything to disturb that, particularly as sterling is currently devaluing against the much criticised euro, which is improving our terms of trade with Europe and giving us greater potential competitive advantage there?

The Government believe that we can have a better Europe and that Europe can be reformed with a view to increasing those real benefits that come from the European Union.

My Lords, when the Prime Minister speaks later this week, will he draw attention, as the Minister has done, to the significance of the single market, which was strongly supported by Mrs Thatcher, to the insistence of many of our closest allies, such as the United States and the leading countries of the Commonwealth, that our influence within the EU is vital to the position of the West in the world’s global discussions, and to some of the outstanding developments in global fields, for example, on climate change and not least on organised crime, which have been successful examples of British influence within the EU and of EU influence within the world more generally?

My noble friend raises a very important issue and these are matters that will be raised. It is important that we value our relationship with the European Union. My noble friend quite rightly raises the issue of our place in the world. On foreign policy, for example, I know that the work we did on smart sanctions against Iran’s nuclear programme, against the Burmese regime to encourage democratic reform and against the Syrian regime was possible because we worked collectively.

My Lords, the noble Baroness sets great store by encouraging investment into the United Kingdom from the emerging giants of Asia. Following the Prime Minister’s speech on Friday, we will face at least five years of economic uncertainty over our continued membership of the European single market. That is likely to prove a great deterrent to all forms of inward investment just at the moment when jobs and the revival of investment depend on it? Does the noble Baroness agree that in doing this the Prime Minister is not speaking for the national interest?

It may well be that the noble Lord opposite has had sight of the speech and is therefore making judgments based on his opinion of what is in the speech. I await to see what will be in that speech, as do many of us in this House, and I can assure the noble Lord that this Government have done all they can to make sure that when opportunities present themselves, both within the Commonwealth and in the wider world, especially in relation to India, Brazil and China, we have very clearly laid out our store to say that Britain is open for business.

My Lords, do the Government agree that we have some 3 million jobs exporting to the European Union but that it has 4.5 million jobs exporting to us? Are we not, in fact, its largest client? When we leave the EU, will it not come running after us for a free trade agreement which suits us at least as well as our present arrangements?

The noble Lord always has an interesting take on these matters and is in an interesting position to trade statistics. I can assure him that most Members of this House believe that we are stronger for being within the European Union.