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EU: Membership

Volume 750: debated on Thursday 5 December 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what discussions they have had with representatives of British business following statements by Ministers calling for a referendum on United Kingdom membership of the European Union.

My Lords, reflecting the coalition agreement, the Government have no plans to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU in this Parliament. The Government continue to have regular discussions with British business organisations on the need for EU reform and the direction it should take. The other 27 member states of the EU are key trading partners of the UK, and this relationship supports UK jobs, growth and prosperity.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the recent survey by the CBI and YouGov that showed that, of the firms surveyed, 80% wanted to stay within the EU, and that many of them were worried about both the prospect of a referendum and the effects on investment and competitiveness of the uncertain timing of such a referendum? Will the Minister assure me that he and his colleagues, particularly his Conservative colleagues, across Government will address these real concerns with industry rather than, as so often seems to be the case, simply trying to appease the unappeasable critics on their own Back Benches?

My Lords, I am aware of the CBI survey. Some 80% of UK businesses want to be in Europe; Europe is good for them. Their position is that there is already a question mark as to what the future will lead to, and most businesses support both a referendum and the reforms that need to take place.

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that it would be quite outrageous if this unelected House were to seek, using its procedures, to frustrate the will of the House of Commons to give the people an opportunity to have their say on our membership of the European Union in a referendum?

My Lords, the House of Commons has given the Bill a smooth passage towards becoming law, and it is important that this House, too, gives a clear passage for the Bill to go through in the new year.

My Lords, has the Minister seen the Opinium poll today, which goes somewhat wider than the CBI? It finds that 38% of British businesses want to stay in the EU and only 31% want to leave. But as for the CBI, did it not tell us that we were finished if we did not join the euro? Did not the CBI get the gold standard wrong in the 1920s? Was it not in favour of appeasement, nationalisation and state planning, price controls, tripartite industrial relations and the exchange rate mechanism? Why on earth should we listen to this absurd organisation?

My Lords, the CBI, the IoD and the Federation of Small Businesses represent a large number of businesses in the UK, and they are all in favour of being in the EU. In fact, 55 business leaders wrote to the Times to show their support for the Prime Minister’s position, saying:

“As business leaders we are passionate about Britain’s prosperity. We agree with the Prime Minister that Britain’s best chance of success is as part of a reformed Europe. We need a new relationship with the EU, backed by democratic mandate”.

My Lords, on this side of the House we are very ready to welcome and listen to the views of British business. In its recent report the CBI said:

“No alternative option to full EU membership can combine all the benefits of EU membership with none of the costs”.

Do the Government agree with that position—that there is no conceivable alternative to our EU membership? If so, do they accept that the process of renegotiation is pointless, because it will always be in Britain’s national interest to stay in the EU?

It is important and in our national interest to stay in the EU. We are for the EU. The EU brings a lot of prosperity to the UK, including approximately 3.5 million jobs and around 11% of the workforce. In 2011, 47% of our exports were to the EU. Without any doubt, we are for EU membership. However, we need a reformed European Union. We need to compete in the global race. In order to compete in the global race, it is important that we reform the European Union; hence, the mandate for the European Union Bill.

My Lords, have the Government engaged in dialogue with the City of London Corporation about the anxiety felt by financial institutions about what would happen if Britain left the EU? Did he notice the statement yesterday by Michael Sherwood, a co-director of Goldman Sachs, that if the country left the EU, it would move its offices to Paris or Frankfurt?

My Lords, there is no question of leaving the EU, which is very important for trade and prosperity. But we need a reformed EU, in particular for SMEs and micro-businesses.

My Lords, as the Official Opposition state that an in-out referendum makes for uncertainty but decline to rule out an in-out referendum themselves, does my noble friend find that this is an instinctively convincing and coherent position?

My Lords, there is already uncertainty, and ignoring it will not make it go away. We have a credible, certain referendum plan and we need to let the British people decide.

My Lords, is it not time to take this issue out of the hands of the elites and end their unseemly squabble? We have the “kippers” who think that it is a mortal sin to be on the same continent as Europe, and we have the “sprouts” who think that Brussels is the answer to everything—unless, of course, it is a question about audited accounts. The only way to end this unseemly and damaging squabble is to take the issue and give it back to the people, where it belongs, so that they can decide their own future in a referendum.

My Lords, I completely agree with my noble friend. It is certainly time for the people of Britain to have their say. If the Conservative Party wins a majority at the next election, it has committed to negotiating a fresh settlement and to holding an in-out referendum before the end of 2017. I very much look forward to the Second Reading of my noble friend’s European Union (Referendum) Bill on 10 January. I hope that this Bill, which has a clear democratic mandate from the elected House of Commons, will pass speedily through this House. For the unelected House of Lords to stand in the way of giving the people of Britain their say would be very wrong.