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European Union: Reform

Volume 754: debated on Tuesday 10 June 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what are their specific objectives for the reform of the European Union.

My Lords, the UK’s chief objective is to reform the European Union so that it is more competitive, flexible and democratically accountable, and works fairly for those both within and without the eurozone. As Her Majesty said at the State Opening of Parliament, the Government are working to promote these reforms together with other Governments, including strengthening the roles of the national parliaments of member states in the functioning of the EU.

My Lords, that is a very nebulous and unspecific response. Will the Government be guided in these negotiations by an honest and evidence-based assessment of the national interest? If so, is it not the case that such an assessment might well throw up opportunities for repatriating powers but equally well throw up areas where it would be better in the national interest for more powers to be concentrated or given to the Union at the Union level? Will the Government remain entirely pragmatic and open-minded about that or will they reject out of hand, or shy away from, conclusions of that kind?

I thank the noble Lord for his complimentary response, as usual. I merely emphasise that reform is a process. We are negotiating with other like-minded Governments. I am sure that the noble Lord has seen the reports from the Dutch and Danish Governments on EU reform. As you know, the Prime Minister is in Sweden talking with his Dutch, Swedish and German counterparts today about a reform agenda. We are therefore working with others to change the EU so that it faces in the sort of direction that we need. Of course we are not spelling out exactly what we would want and what we will say no to unless we are given everything we want, because that would lock us into the sort of negotiation that would be one against 27 rather than a collective multilateral negotiation, which is what we need.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the danger that the noble Lord, Lord Davies, is tempting us into with regard to specifics is the drawing up of wish lists and red lines that would automatically lead to Brexit should they be unfulfilled, and that the more pragmatic approach that my noble friend talks about is to see what the composition of the institutions looks like, to see what happens after May 2015 in this country and then to devise a negotiating strategy in pursuit of those practicalities?

My Lords, if one looks back to the Prime Minister’s Bloomberg speech, now over a year ago, it is clear that we have already been making progress on reform. We have seen the quite remarkable reform of the common fisheries policy, for which we have been working for years, and a budgetary agreement that for the first time reduces the EU budget in real terms. Reform, I repeat, is a process in which we work with other like-minded Governments, and on which we are already making progress.

The Minister is absolutely right to try, as he said, to avoid locking in Britain’s position in the EU because of the way in which that would compromise the possibilities of negotiation and influence. That being the case, and I entirely agree with him, why was the Prime Minister foolish enough to declare his position regarding Mr Juncker way before there was any possibility of a context, thus surrendering the kind of influence that is essential on the top Commission job?

My Lords, this question was addressed yesterday in the House, and I am very happy to say that the Labour Party has expressed its agreement with the British Government’s position on it.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the principle of subsidiarity, which is already enshrined in the treaty and is supposed to ensure that the Union shall not act in areas where the member states can do so, whether at government or regional level, has in many ways been neutered by the bureaucratic procedures built around it—for example, the green card system? Will he give assurances that Her Majesty’s Government will try to convert the green card system into a red card system?

My Lords, green cards, yellow cards and red cards are all floating around at the moment. The only one that is in the Lisbon treaty is the yellow card; the green and red card proposals are on the table and I think that they are mentioned in the House of Lords EU Committee report. With regard to subsidiarity, this is acquis—it is agreed. It is what the Dutch Government were talking about; the phrase in their report, as I recall, is, “European where necessary, national where possible”. That is something that the Danes, Swedes and a number of others agree on. The new Italian Prime Minister talked in terms that my own party leader, the Deputy Prime Minister, used many years ago when he was an MEP: “Better Europe, not more Europe”.

My Lords, we all agree that the European Union needs reform. However, the Prime Minister seems reluctant, maybe for internal party reasons—of course I exclude the Minister from those internal party reasons—to set out any specific reforms that Her Majesty’s Government want to see, in marked contrast, if I may say so, to my party, which has set out specific proposals. Will the Minister assure the House that the Prime Minister will set out specific proposals in time for discussion at the next EU Council meeting on 26 June?

My Lords, I am very sorry that I have missed the specific Labour proposals; I look forward to receiving them from the noble Lord. The Prime Minister has made it quite clear that in terms of a stronger role for national parliaments, a much clearer definition of the areas that the Commission should be leading on and those where it should be much more cautious, a number of other Governments have already agreed that those are the directions in which we should now travel. However, every week Ministers from Britain are going to different European Councils of Ministers in which negotiations of this sort are under way. Actually spelling out a checklist, all of which had to be achieved or we would leave, would be absolutely the wrong way forward. In this respect I am absolutely at one with the Prime Minister.