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EU: Balance of Competences Review

Volume 749: debated on Tuesday 5 November 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they will next hold discussions with the Council of Ministers and the European Commission on the current United Kingdom review of European Union competences.

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Minister for Europe recently briefed the September General Affairs Council of the European Union on the balance of competences review. This is but one example of the regular conversations that we are having with our European partners and the Commission as the review progresses. Lead departments also regularly engage with the institutions and their foreign counterparts during the consultation period for reports. Ministers will continue to raise the findings from each semester with EU partners and institutions.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. No doubt he would agree that emotional fans of the review of competences were few and far between, but even they would agree with the excellent results of the last EU summit at the end of October and the firm and detailed agreement reached by President Barroso and the Council of Ministers on a secure reform agenda for the future, which has also helped to anchor the United Kingdom membership into the Union even more strongly.

My Lords, I am pleased to hear my noble friend echoing the speech that the Prime Minister made to the CBI only yesterday. The balance of competences review is only one of the things that the coalition Government are undertaking on European issues. It is intended to be an evidence- based review, and we have so far had well over 1,000 contributions to the reports published and under consideration.

My Lords, could the Minister tell us how many of these competences he expects the Government to have agreed by 2017?

My Lords, it is not a question of which competences we agree. We are asking various stakeholders, and getting very large pieces of evidence from producer groups, about the current balance of competences. I think that the Scotch Whisky Association has produced the most pieces of evidence so far—clearly a stakeholder. As Ministers have said before from this Dispatch Box, the current Lisbon treaty has a lot of headroom on competences, not all of which are currently exercised by the European Union. We are asking stakeholders to say whether they are happy with the current balance, whether there are areas in which they would like the balance to be tipped back towards the national level or whether there are areas in which they would like the balance to be tipped further towards common European policies.

Would my noble friend, who knows a lot about these things, accept that it is not just a question of looking at the balance of competences? It is also about looking at unpicking and unravelling some of the categories of competences, which are now substantially out of date, as they were invented in the last century. For instance, agriculture now embraces all aspects of climate, energy and scientific issues as well; and many aspects of social policy, which used to be centralised, are now much better handled at a very local level. Those are all areas in which it is not just a question of taking the competence as it stands but unravelling and unpicking it to see what aspects are best dealt with at a global, national or local level. Would he take that message back to his ministerial colleagues?

My Lords, one thing that has come across strongly to me from the first round—and the second round, which we are currently considering—is the dynamics of globalisation, on which the noble Lord is himself a great expert, and the extent to which the context in which we operate with our European partners in a great many sectors differs fundamentally from the context in which we joined in 1973. As I have stressed before, we are not seeking to arrive at policy recommendations in this review; we are asking for evidence of how far the current arrangements satisfy the various stakeholders and where there is room for improvement, reform or change.

With regard to the claims by some members of the Conservative Party that we should withdraw entirely from Europe, I suspect that the reaction of the people whom the Government are consulting has been almost unanimously opposed to that extreme view.

My Lords, the Prime Minister made it clear in his speech to the CBI that he is interested in a reform and not a repatriation agenda, and that he seeks to use the process of reform as a way in which to convince the sceptical British public that our national interests remain in staying in the European Union.

My Lords, why do we allow the powers that be to translate competences as competences, when in plain English what we are talking about is powers? Why are we not talking about powers?

My Lords, I am not a lawyer, so far be it for me to question the sort of language they use, in particular international lawyers.

As our officials wander around Europe begging for bits and pieces that might be repatriated, does the Minister sometimes worry that the Government will end up generating a good deal of diplomatic irritation without achieving any genuine reconstitution of the relation between Britain and Europe?

No, my Lords, I do not. I am very struck by the extent to which a number of other Governments are following a similar agenda to ours. I am sure that the noble Lord is familiar with the Dutch Government’s recent study of subsidiarity. In the process of publishing the opening stage of papers, the Minister for Europe and I spoke to Ministers in other European Governments and many of them have very similar views to our own. We are pursuing a reform agenda for which there is a great deal of sympathy in a number of other Governments.

My Lords, will my noble friend get the message across to the Europeans clearly and strongly that the British housewife does not consider them competent to tell her how much sugar she should put in her jam?

The other day my wife and I were discussing how much sugar she puts in jam. We have rather a surplus of fruit from our allotment this year. I simply remind the noble Baroness that Britain is also a European country.

My Lords, while the Government conduct this interesting and potentially valuable but, in truth, somewhat academic exercise, has the Minister noticed the CBI report published yesterday which shows that the benefit to Britain of our membership is between £62 billion and £78 billion a year—4% to 5% of our GDP? Can he imagine any circumstances in which any British Government would be crazy enough to throw away these benefits, whatever the results of his review of competences?

My Lords, academic exercises have their valuable purposes as well. I look forward to hearing the Labour leadership say frequently and openly that they also agree with the CBI’s statement.

My Lords, in any future renegotiation, I hope the Government will bear in mind that currently we have a massive imbalance of trade with Europe, equivalent to £80 billion a year. Thus we are creating in Europe 1.5 million jobs more than are its trade with us creates. We also import 800,000 more cars from Europe than it buys from us. All these factors mean that in many respects from a trade point of view Europe needs us more than we need it. I hope that this imbalance of trade will be well remembered in any future negotiations. It is something that the CBI surprisingly missed.

My Lords, Britain has a trade deficit in goods with a great many countries, including China. I am not sure where the noble Lord’s argument is taking him. We have a surplus in financial services and other services with the European Union and a number of other countries as well.