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EU: Membership

Volume 743: debated on Monday 11 February 2013

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government which European Union member states have indicated that they are willing to consider a request from the United Kingdom to develop a different relationship with the European Union, either within or outside the existing European Union treaty.

My Lords, the Government frequently discuss a range of issues with other European Union member states, including the key challenges that all EU countries face. Those include dealing with the eurozone crisis, increasing competitiveness and taking steps to improve democratic accountability. Many EU member states agree about the need for reform to address those challenges.

I thank the Minister for that reply. I am sure that most member states would agree on the need to reform some aspects of the EU, but for the UK to develop a different relationship with the EU, every member state would have to agree. Any country could say no, and that would be the end of the story. That would leave this country in a very precarious position, particularly given that the Prime Minister has promised a referendum. Does the Minister therefore agree that the fate of the future relationship with the UK with its main trading partner is too serious a matter to gamble on the whim of any single country, particularly in the light of the fact that the Governments may change in the next few years?

The Government certainly feel that the challenges in Europe at the moment are too serious to ignore. As the noble Baroness herself says, there is a need for reform. There are some serious challenges in relation to competitiveness, the changes that have come about because of the eurozone and the most serious issue of improving democratic legitimacy. There is a real disconnect between the citizens of the European Union and what they feel that the European Union is doing for them. It is right, therefore, that Britain is leading that debate.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that, with banking union on the table, the financial transaction tax, fiscal union and eventually political union within the 17 euro-ins, now is probably not the time to be defining parameters and deciding where we want to go; and that we need to see how those things evolve before we decide what representations we are to make about the EU?

My noble friend always comes at these matters with real experience, but on this occasion I have to disagree with her. It is precisely because of the real challenges to which she refers that this is the time to ensure that we are at the forefront of forming the debate and reforming the EU to being in the best interests of this country, but also of the wider European Union.

My Lords, taking the noble Baroness back to the original Question, although there is sympathy among several member states with some of the themes of the Prime Minister’s speech, and although there is widespread agreement on the need for reform, surely that is seen to be reform that affects the whole of the EU. What is the position if there is no treaty that reforms the whole EU by 2017? Will the British Government then be pressing for a special renegotiation purely for Britain? Since the Prime Minister’s speech, how many member states have indicated that they might support such a special renegotiation for Britain alone?

I can assure the noble Lord that we have set out on the right path. It is right for us to acknowledge, as he does, the need for reform. It is right for us to move forward with ensuring that we work out our relationship with the European Union. The balance of competences review that the Government are undertaking will lay out where we feel that the European Union helps and where it hinders.

The noble Lord asked from where support has come. Only last weekend, we saw the Prime Minister take a very front-footed, brave and national-interest position on the European budget. I could read to the noble Lord many quotes of support from around the European Union—from the Danish PM, the Swedish PM and the Finnish PM. I assure him that there is a real appetite for reform across the European Union. Those of us on this side of the House are leading that debate, but I am sure that, in due course, noble Lords opposite and, indeed, the Labour Party will also commit to that reform.

My Lords, it seems likely at the moment that some reform will be required to meet the needs of the eurozone. As the noble Lord, Lord Owen, powerfully reminded us in the debate on the Queen’s Speech at the opening of this Session, that requires the United Kingdom to have a position about what the situation should be because it is not in the eurozone. It is bound to affect the whole European Union. Surely it is better to think about it now than to wait until a decision that we have not had time to think about is suddenly required.

I assure my noble and learned friend that we think about these matters all the time. A new treaty has not been ruled out; it is being actively discussed in the corridors of Brussels and many capitals across the EU. The Prime Minister agrees with those who believe that, in the next few years, the EU will need to agree on treaty change to resolve the crisis in the eurozone, to which my noble and learned friend referred, while protecting the interests of those outside the eurozone and driving forward reform for all.

Would the Minister agree if I suggested to her that in all these requests that we are making for renegotiating the relationship with the European Union, some of them must be abundantly clear without waiting for the balance of competences review? Can she give us a list of some of the imperative items on that shopping list?

This Government do not believe in pre-empting decisions without consulting experts and the public.

Noble Lords opposite may see this as a matter of fun, or indeed as a matter that they take quite lightly. We take consulting with the public, and indeed with experts, extremely seriously. We believe it is important that those with the expertise in various areas take part in the balance of competences review, which will conclude in 2014. On the basis of that, matters will be put into the manifestos of individual political parties. I can assure noble Lords that in the Conservative manifesto, there will be a referendum. I am not sure whether noble Lords opposite can confirm whether their manifesto will have a referendum in it.