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UK: EU Membership

Volume 750: debated on Tuesday 7 January 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of public reaction to recent ministerial statements about United Kingdom membership of the European Union.

My Lords, I start the year by wishing all noble Lords a very happy new year. It is clear that there is wide support for the United Kingdom’s membership of a reformed European Union, both in the United Kingdom and across Europe.

I thank the Minister for that Answer and wish her a happy new year. Will she reassure the House that the Government will be earnestly rebutting the nationalist hysteria in some of our newspapers in this country and in UKIP about various aspects of European policy and will she constantly remind the public—and the Government too—of the enormous benefits that accrue to us from membership of the European Union?

My Lords, membership of the European Union is in the United Kingdom’s interests and we will continue to make the case vigorously as we progress with our proposals for reforming the EU. My noble friend is absolutely right that there is no doubt about the huge benefits that membership of the European Union brings to us, including the 3.5 million jobs in the United Kingdom which are dependent upon trade with the EU.

Is the Minister aware of the enormous damage that the Government’s constant criticism of this country’s membership of the European Union is doing to Britain’s reputation within Europe? Increasingly we are seen as a semi-detached part of Europe, and that does us immense damage.

There are voices across European Union countries that echo our sentiment that we need to move forward with a reformed European Union. Indeed, after the Prime Minister’s speech, we heard voices from the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria and across the European Union who, too, felt that we need to have a Europe which is much more flexible and democratically responsive to the needs of its members.

Surely the noble Baroness did not suggest that, were we to leave the political construct of the European Union and maintain our free trade, as of course we would because it sells us much more than we sell it, any jobs would be lost. She was not saying that, was she?

I did not quite catch the question, but I can assume what the noble Lord asked. There are great benefits to our membership of the European Union.

Does my noble friend agree that, not only is there an overwhelming desire among the British people to have their say on this matter, such an opportunity gives all of us a first-rate chance to make the case for strong membership of Europe?

My noble friend makes a vital point. The question about the direction in which the European Union is heading is out there and ignoring it will not make it go away. Therefore it is right that the Conservative Party’s political view is that we will negotiate a fresh settlement and then hold an in/out referendum before the end of 2017. We on these Benches feel that we need to let Britain decide, and I hope noble Lords will follow in the referendum Bill we have at the end of the week.

Will the noble Baroness accept that, grateful as we all were for her best wishes for a happy new year, perhaps she ought to direct them to Mr Clegg and Mr Cameron with a maybe forlorn hope that they will manage to get on with each other on the important issue of Europe?

I firmly hope and believe that the season of good will is not over. I can assure the noble Lord that, as far as the coalition is concerned, the season of good will is certainly there and we have a coalition that is working well.

My Lords, given the leadership role that the noble Baroness has just outlined for Britain regarding a number of countries in Europe, can she say whether that leadership will be advocating to those countries that they should undertake a referendum in the form that we are?

I will repeat the question and try to put it in simple terms. Are we as the new leaders of a grouping in Europe advocating that others should undertake a referendum in the form that we are likely to take in this country?

I think the Conservative Party’s position is that this country needs to have the option to decide and that is why we feel that a referendum should be held in this country before the end of 2017.

My Lords, does my noble friend accept that the leadership of the EU, which will of course be renewed post the European elections in 2014, would be advantaged by having a senior Briton among its leadership team? We have had the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton, who we know has done such a super job. Does she agree that in seeking a British candidate on the leadership team it would be again be highly advantageous to have a female in those positions?

My Lords, I am always supportive of Brits holding leadership positions in all institutions, including EU ones. Certainly, strong female leaders from this House have made a great impact in those institutions.

My Lords, does the Minister think that the Government are going about it in the right way to win friends and influence people to carry through their legitimate programme of reform for the EU? In the last month we have seen Ministers of the Crown stigmatising Bulgarians and Romanians as benefit tourists, threatening, to the great annoyance of the Polish Foreign Minister, Poles with benefit changes in the UK and attempting to blame Germany for all the horrors of the First World War. Is this the right way to go about winning friends in Europe?

It is important that Ministers do what they can to make sure that the best possible outcome for Britain is achieved. I think the noble Lord would accept that the first ever cut in the EU’s seven-year budget last year and protection of the UK’s rebate were two great successes. He would also accept that changes and reforms to the common fisheries policy—again Britain putting its interests on the table but doing so in the interests of all of the European Union—are progressive steps. We can therefore show that the Government can act in the interests of the United Kingdom in a way that is also beneficial to the rest of the European Union.

As a former MEP, can I ask the noble Baroness to tell us what the great benefits of membership of the European Union are, other than the single market?

Of course, the single market is one of its greatest benefits, both in relation to the amount of trade—the large marketplace that the European Union presents—and the free movement of persons around the European Union. Let us not also forget that the ambitious trade treaties that the European Union has managed to negotiate with larger developing economies around the world have had great benefits for Britain.