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EU Council June 2014

Volume 754: debated on Monday 30 June 2014


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I will now repeat a Statement made by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place. The Statement is as follows:

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on last week’s European Council.

Before turning to the appointment of the next Commission President, let me briefly report back on two other points. First, the Council actually began in Ypres with a moving ceremony at the Menin Gate to mark the 100th anniversary of the gunshots in Sarajevo which led to the First World War. It is right that we should take special steps to commemorate the centenary of this conflict and remember the extraordinary sacrifice of a generation who gave their lives for our freedom. The Government are determined to ensure that Britain has fitting national commemorations, including the reopening of the newly refurbished Imperial War Museum next month.

Secondly, the Council signed association agreements with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. These reflect our commitment to supporting these countries as they undertake difficult reforms that will strengthen their economies, bolster their democracies and improve the stability of the whole continent. President Poroshenko joined the Council to discuss the immediate situation in Ukraine. The Council welcomed his peace plan and the extension of the ceasefire until this evening. The onus is now on Russia to respond positively by pressing the separatists to respect a genuine ceasefire, to release hostages and return occupied border posts to the Ukrainian authorities. The Council agreed that if we do not see concrete progress very soon, we remain willing to impose further sanctions on Russia, which would not necessarily require a further meeting of the Council. But the Council will return to this issue at its next meeting, which has now been arranged for 16 July.

Turning to the appointment of the next Commission President, I firmly believe that it should be for the European Council—the elected heads of national Governments—to propose the President of the European Commission. It should not be for the European Parliament to try and dictate that choice to the Council. That is a point of principle on which I was not prepared to budge. In taking this position I welcome the support of the Leader of the Opposition, as well as the Deputy Prime Minister, in opposing the imposition of Jean-Claude Juncker on the Council. I believe that the Council could have found a candidate who commanded the support of every member state. That has been the practice on every previous occasion and I think it was a mistake to abandon this approach this time.

There is of course a reason why no veto is available when it comes to this decision. It is because the last Government signed the Nice treaty, which gave up our veto over the nomination of the Commission President, as well as the Lisbon treaty, which gave the Parliament stronger rights to elect the Commission President. So once it was clear that the European Council was determined to proceed, I insisted that the Council took a formal vote—something that does not usually happen. Facing the prospect of being outvoted, some might have swallowed their misgivings and gone with the flow, but I believe it was important to push the principle and our deep misgivings about this issue right to the end. If the European Council was going to let the European Parliament choose the next President of the Commission in this way, I at least wanted to put Britain’s opposition to this decision firmly on the record.

I believe this was a bad day for Europe because the decision of the Council risks undermining the position of national Governments and undermining the power of national Parliaments by handing further power to the European Parliament. So while the nomination has been decided and must be accepted, it is important that the Council at least agreed to review and reconsider how to handle the appointment of the next Commission President, the next time this happens, and that that is set out in the Council conclusions.

Turning to the future, we must work with the new Commission President, as we always do, to secure our national interest. I spoke to him last night and he repeated his commitment in his manifesto to address British concerns about the EU. This whole process only underlines my conviction that Europe needs to change. Some modest progress was made in arguing for reform at this Council. The Council conclusions make absolutely clear that the focus of the Commission’s mandate for the next five years must be on building stronger economies and creating jobs, exactly as agreed with the leaders of Sweden, Germany and the Netherlands at the Harpsund summit earlier this month. The Council underlined the need to address concerns about immigration arising from misuse of, or fraudulent claims on, the right of freedom of movement. We agreed that national Parliaments must have a stronger role and that the EU should act only where it makes a real difference. We broke new ground with the Council conclusions stating explicitly that “ever closer union” must allow,

“for different paths of integration for different countries”,

and, crucially, respect the wishes of those such as Britain that do not want further integration. For the first time, all my fellow 27 Heads of Government have agreed explicitly, in the Council conclusions, that they need to address Britain’s concerns about the European Union. That has not been said before. So while Europe has taken a big step backwards in respect of the nomination of the Commission President, we did secure some small steps forward for Britain in its relationship with the EU.

Last week’s outcome will make renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the European Union harder and it certainly makes the stakes higher. There will always be huge challenges in this long campaign to reform the European Union but, with determination, I believe we can deliver. We cut the EU budget. We got Britain out of the bailout schemes. We have achieved a fundamental reform of the disastrous common fisheries policy and made a start on cutting EU red tape. We are making real progress on the single market and on the free trade deals that are vital for new growth and jobs in Britain. My colleagues on the European Council know that Britain wants and needs reform—and that Britain sticks to its position.

In the European elections, people cried out for change across the continent. They are intensely frustrated and deserve a voice. Britain will be the voice of those people. We will always stand up for our principles, we will always defend our national interest and we will always fight with all we have to reform the EU over the next few years. And at the end of 2017, it will not be me or this Parliament, or Brussels, that decides Britain’s future in the European Union. It will be the British people. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by the Prime Minister in the House of Commons. First, I associate these Benches with what the Statement says about the importance of commemorating the centenary of the First World War and the sacrifice of a generation who gave their lives for our freedom. I also welcome the references to the association agreements signed with Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine.

I must congratulate the Government on their chutzpah. It is an extraordinary feat to claim that a 26-2 defeat and isolation is both a triumph and a strength. The results might have pleased those in the Conservative Party who favour a Brexit but they were greeted with dismay by business, trade unionists and all those who understand that the future success of our country and our place in the world depend on being part of a reformed European Union. The Prime Minister suggested that by pushing the Council to vote on Friday, he was defending a deeply held principle. I suggest that he was merely trying to defend the reputation of his party and maintain its unity.

The Prime Minister ended up with the candidate who he said would be a disaster for Britain but it could have been so different. A few weeks ago, we had a European Council divided about the presidency of the Commission; last week, we ended up with a European Council united against the Prime Minister. Personality politics might work well in the popular press or among the populists who are peddling fear in our country but they patently do not work among European leaders. They were the ones who might have been won round by discussion and diplomacy, rather than shouting and foot stamping. I understand that at the start of the process Chancellor Merkel said that the agenda of the next European Commission “can be handled by” Juncker,

“but also by many others … At the end, there will be a fairly broad tableau of names on the table”.

I would be grateful if the Leader could explain how the Government think that we reached a situation in which 26 European leaders coalesced around one name.

Personal attacks and threats followed by splendid isolation are a testament to weakness and a lack of tactics rather than strength, while insults such as the one from the Health Secretary, who called the other European leaders cowards, are simply rude. As Chancellor Merkel said in Sweden:

“Threats are not part and parcel of”,

the European spirit and,

“this is not part of the way in which we usually proceed”.

It was not too late to rethink tactics and tone at that stage, but no efforts to change were made. Does the noble Lord agree that leaving the EPP Group nine years ago and the very recent decision by the European conservatives to invite the German AfD, a right-wing opponent of Chancellor Merkel’s CDU, to join their group in the European Parliament were tactics for short-term political gain rather than being in the interests of either his party or our country?

This morning, I had wide-ranging discussions with members of the governing party in Italy and over the weekend I spoke to other European colleagues. It is clear that reform of the European Union is needed and desired by our partners. The Prime Minister suggests that it is only his conviction that Europe needs to change. I assure noble Lords that that conviction is widely shared and has been reinforced throughout the European Union as a consequence of the results of the EU elections. My party also wants reform but the difference between us and the Prime Minister is that we want it for the sake of our nation, while his major preoccupation is to heal the divisions within his party.

I fear that the Prime Minister is trying to appease those in his party who want to leave the EU. They cheered his lack of support because they do not want reform; they just want exit and real isolation. Mr Cameron’s erstwhile friend, the Polish Foreign Minister, was undoubtedly speaking for many when he said in relation to the Prime Minister and his Back-Benchers:

“He is not interested. He does not get it … his whole strategy of feeding them scraps in order to satisfy them is … turning against him …. he ceded the field to those that are now embarrassing him”.

The threat of exit is clearly real but I wonder whether the Leader believes that this somehow increases our influence in Europe. Do guns to the head represent a real strategy that will deliver the reforms which we all desire?

Our membership of the EU is important for jobs and business, as well as strategic action on everything from climate change to terrorism. Yes, we need to ensure reform of the budget, of transitional controls for immigration and of benefits. I am sure that working together with our partners we can secure reforms. Is the Government’s real problem not the fact that there is a gap between what the Conservative’s Brexit faction—or perhaps I should say the Conservative majority—is demanding and what sensible European reform amounts to?

Reform is possible through constructive discussion, but those discussions need to take place in the Council and at all levels in the European Commission, not just within the college. I would be grateful if the Leader could tell the House what plans there are to ensure that we have more Brits working at senior level in the Commission at this crucial time and also at more junior levels, who will feed through to higher levels in due course.

Reforms require successful negotiation, and I fear that the Prime Minister’s negotiating skills have been proved to be sorely lacking and that his strategy is in tatters. The gulf between the demands of those in the noble Lord’s party who want to leave the European Union and what the Prime Minister can negotiate grows ever wider. As the gulf widens, so the drift towards exit will loom larger. That would be disastrous for the future prosperity of our country.

I am grateful for and agree with what the noble Baroness said about the commemoration of the Great War and the extremely serious and growing problems in Ukraine. Notwithstanding everything she said subsequently about European policy more generally, I think we are as one in wanting to find a way forward and to handle that situation as sensibly as possible.

On her main point about the European Council and the outcome for the United Kingdom, the Prime Minister has not pretended, and I have not pretended for one moment, that the appointment of Mr Juncker was what the Prime Minister sought. However, I do not accept the way in which the noble Baroness characterised the Prime Minister’s policy towards the European Union, its future and the coming negotiations. First, I do not accept her characterisation of the situation when she said that the Prime Minister’s negotiations over the past four years in Europe had been unsuccessful. It was Mr Cameron who managed, for the first time, to secure a reduction in the EU budget—something that everyone, not least some members of the party opposite, predicted was not possible to pull off. That kind of negotiation cannot be successfully achieved unless one has alliances and influence and is able to negotiate successfully within the European Union.

I agree with the noble Baroness about the importance of wanting to make sure that our influence going forward is secure and on some of the points she was making about appointments and having British officials working there. It remains the case that the Prime Minister’s wish is to negotiate hard for what he hopes will be a renegotiated agreement with the European Union. He would then be in a position to recommend to the British people that they accept it in a referendum in 2017.

It is clearly the case that the outcome of the discussions over the new president make that task more difficult, but the Prime Minister was faced with a position in which, given the way that the apparent positions of some of our colleagues in Europe changed over time, he could either go quietly and accept the imposition of Mr Juncker and the European Parliament’s land grab or to try to argue the principle. He took the view that rather than going quietly to spare his own blushes, he should seek to make the principled case that it was an appointment that should have been made by the European Council, not the European Parliament. The fact that in the conclusions after the meeting there was acceptance that that decision would be reviewed for the future underlines that the concern about that process is more widely spread than might be suggested by the noble Baroness.

There is also the point that, as it is the case that there needs to be reform, which the party opposite accepts, having as President of the Commission someone who in the past has not been associated very strongly with a reform agenda is not going to make the task easier for Britain. It was clearly the case that the party opposite and my noble friends on the Liberal Democrat Benches shared those principled objections to Mr Juncker’s appointment. The Prime Minister was therefore right to stick to his guns.

There will clearly have to be a lot of hard work to continue to make progress with the reform process. I think some of the wording in the conclusions already signifies the recognition by many of our colleagues that they need to be sympathetic to and make movement on Britain’s concerns. I think the Prime Minister was right to make that case and to stick to principle. He will work hard over the next three years to negotiate the best possible deal for Britain and will then be in a position, he hopes, to recommend it to the British people in a referendum.

My Lords, on the appointment of the new President of the Commission, Mr Juncker, there has clearly been a transfer of power or competence, as the Prime Minister has pointed out, to an EU institution from national Governments. What is the position under the European Union Act 2011, in particular under Section 4(1)—paragraphs (g), (h) and (i)—which I had the privilege of guiding through this House at the time?

I will have a go, although I suspect I may need to write further to be more accurate. My noble friend took the Bill through and enacted it, and I am sure he knows it far better than I do.

My understanding is that the Act applies to changes in the rules that transfer power from Westminster to Brussels. Under the EU treaties, the European Council, acting by qualified majority, shall propose to the European Parliament a candidate for president of the European Commission. In this instance, we believe that the existing rules were pushed to shift power from the European Council to the European Parliament rather than any fresh transfer of power from Westminster to Brussels. That is the distinction. It did not represent a further transfer of power from Westminster. If I have got that wrong, I will make that clear to my noble friend in a letter that I will circulate to the House and place in the Library.

The Leader of the House has spoken of policy and by the use of that word has inferred a strategy in the mind and conduct of the Prime Minister. Was it policy that produced the withdrawal of the Conservatives from the EPP in 2005—thus relinquishing, as they were warned, any degree of influence over the largest group in the European Parliament? Was it policy that made the Prime Minister proclaim his opposition to an individual candidate very early on in this procedure, thus removing any room for Chancellor Merkel or others to negotiate about the final resolution of the position? When the European Commission, the European Council and the European Parliament to varying degrees all favour reform, does the Leader of the House think that that mission is propelled forward by allowing one of his Cabinet colleagues to describe a heroine—a genuine heroine since her earliest years—Angela Merkel as a coward? If these are all policies, what hope is there for the Prime Minister to be the man to negotiate the change that is necessary and welcome in the European Union?

The point I was trying to make was that on policy grounds it was the view of the Prime Minister and others within the European Council that the decision about the next President of the Commission should be taken by the Council rather than by the European Parliament. That was the principled point that he was seeking to pursue. More broadly, in answer to the noble Lord’s question about the policy, if one looks back, the Prime Minister as a matter of policy has sought to influence and move the agenda of the European Union towards growth, jobs and trade deals with the United States, Canada and other countries. One can see, in progress on deregulation and all the rest of it, a shift over a number of years which reflects the policy that he has been seeking to pursue.

My Lords, I first endorse the sentiment expressed by the Prime Minister about the centenary of the conflict which led to the First World War. The question I want to ask is very brief. We keep hearing about the reform agenda. When are the Government going to spell out what this reform agenda is all about? Surely it is inappropriate not to know that particular matter until after the general election. Are we likely to hear what the Prime Minister and the Government have in mind in terms of this agenda?

First, as part of that agenda, the Government are pursuing the general objectives of progress on trade talks and on liberalising markets. This is something the Government have set up, and we have made some decent and solid progress. Other aspects will become clearer over time as the negotiation continues, but the Prime Minister set out the main strands and objectives we are pursuing in a number of areas in his Bloomberg speech. That is the approach to which he has been sticking.

My Lords, would the Minister accept a mild change to the Prime Minister’s Statement that it was a “bad day for Europe”? It was a bad day for Britain in Europe.

I will not go too far down the road of asking the noble Lord how on earth the Prime Minister managed to find himself in Brussels last Friday with only one supporter, but perhaps he could tell us how he found himself in Brussels on Friday with only one supporter and no alternative President of the Commission. It was a little odd to have asked the European Council to reject someone without having the slightest idea about whom they might appoint.

To use a slightly more emollient tone, I do think it was a mistake—and I believe the noble Lord has already begun to comment—not to put all the emphasis on what is called the strategic agenda, which has come out pretty well. The text of the strategic agenda, to which the noble Lord referred, and to which the Prime Minister referred, has some really good points along the lines of a positive reform agenda. If the Prime Minister had put all the weight on that, and not gone for an over-the-top personalised campaign against Mr Juncker, we might have got a bit further. I wish the noble Lord would comment on that.

Finally, I was quite startled to hear that the Government are going to be the voice of all those who voted in protest at the European elections. Are we to be the voice of Golden Dawn? Are we to be the voice of the Front National? Are we to be the voice of UKIP? I hope not. Not in my name, please.

As far as the voice of UKIP is concerned, we have the voice of UKIP here, which I am sure we will hear later. I agree with the noble Lord on his remarks about the strategic objectives and his welcome of the language. There has been some solid progress, which I will not overstate. It is significant that the noble Lord spotted that and, being a fair-minded person, relayed that to the House. There is some good language in there which reflects the kind of reform agenda that not just Britain but other countries are keen to see taken forward.

As for the Prime Minister speaking for the whole of Europe, his point was that the scale of apparent disaffection with the European Union reflected in the recent elections needs to be addressed—and by those who are supporters and champions of the European Union more than anyone else. That was the point he was seeking to make: disaffection from the European Union is clearly evident and growing, and the best way to address it is to have a reform programme that responds to it rather than to ignore the popular discontent that seems to have been expressed.

Does the Minister agree that it is now incumbent upon the Prime Minister to come forward with much clearer detail as to what reforms he wants to see. One of the difficulties that allies and potential allies on the Continent have is knowing what it is exactly that he wants. He talks about reform, but he has not been very specific. Does he also agree that it is very important that the Prime Minister should convince our allies and potential allies on the continent that he wants to bring back a programme that he can recommend to the British electorate and that he is not primarily concerned with trying to reconcile the irreconcilables in our own party? The noble Lord may tell me that the Prime Minister is indeed concerned to bring back a programme he can recommend, but impressions are very important. The impression has gained ground that his principal objective is to reconcile the irreconcilables in our party rather than to conduct a successful negotiation. It is very important that he should push that impression into the background.

I know that the Prime Minister will want to carry out and, he will hope, complete successfully a renegotiation that he can recommend to the people of Britain that he believes is in the interests of Britain. That is not about a party political agenda or management task. In putting that package, whenever it is concluded, to the British people it would clearly need to command the support of the whole of Britain and all of those from any party who want to see Britain remain in a reformed European Union.

My Lords, does the Leader of the House recall that when a Labour Prime Minister wanted to achieve something at a summit, we arranged for the ambassadors in all the countries of Europe and our Foreign Office Ministers to do some preparatory work to move us in that direction? We also worked through the Party of European Socialists to get all our socialist colleagues into line to support us. Could the Leader of the House explain what the Prime Minister did along those lines?

I will take it very happily from the noble Lord that that was how the previous Government operated. Unfortunately, they also gave up our veto through the Nice and Lisbon treaties. That made the pursuit of our national interest much more difficult in these circumstances.

My Lords, will the Leader of the House comment on paragraph 27 of the conclusions, which seems to give great comfort to the PM about the Commission process as the selection of the President is going to be reviewed? Has he noticed the wording that says it will be reviewed respecting the European Treaties? How is that any different to what was in the Lisbon treaty which referred to taking account of the treaties?. Given that the House of Lords European Affairs Committee warned of this situation in 2008—six years ago—does he not think he needs to tell us a little bit more about the reform agenda, because we will need to prepare the ground for some years before 2017?

My noble friend is right to point us towards that paragraph which contains a number of important points. Her point about the European Council considering the process for the appointment of the President of the European Commission is set out in the way that she says. As it happens, that paragraph also says,

“the European Council noted that the concept of ever closer union allows for different paths of integration for different countries, allowing those that want to deepen integration to move ahead, while respecting the wish of those who do not want to deepen any further”.

That is quite a significant addition to the kind of wording one typically sees in these conclusions. That, in itself, is part of the answer to the point about the influence that Britain is still able to have. On some of my noble friend’s more specific points, if there is anything further I can say about the Select Committee, perhaps I will talk to her about that subsequently.

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that it is hard to find a normal person who knows why Mr Juncker’s job is so important? Might it create public support for the Government’s EU reforms if they were to reveal the unelected Commission’s role, with its monopoly to propose and execute all EU law and to issue regulations which are binding in all EU countries? Or could it be that the Government share the BBC’s fear that, if the British people understood just how irrelevant this their Parliament has become, and how rotten and anti-democratic the EU really is, their clamour to leave it might become irresistible? If our leaving the EU leads to its collapse, so what? What is the point of it now? One can see the point of NATO, the United Nations and the World Trade Organisation, but what is the point of the EU? Can the noble Lord tell us that?

Not in the time that we have available, when I know a lot of other noble Lords want to get in. It clearly is an important job, and that is why we were determined to try to make sure that the process for appointing the person followed the approaches that we thought were set out in the treaties. However, the Government’s position is not the same as that of UKIP. The Prime Minister intends to work extremely hard over the next three years to try to negotiate a package of measures that he will feel confident in putting to the British people in a referendum, which we aim to hold before the end of 2017.

My Lords, in relation to the Prime Minister’s intentions and aims in this matter, does the noble Lord the Leader of the House recollect that last year in Kazakhstan the Prime Minister made a speech in which he said that he would wish to see the boundaries of the European Union extended eastwards to the Urals? He was not speaking of associate status. Is that still his intention? Is that the policy of Her Majesty’s Government?

My Lords, there are generally a number of countries in discussion with the European Union about becoming members. We have had the signing of the association agreements with Georgia, Moldova and, obviously, Ukraine. There was a discussion at the European Council about Albania being able to apply for status. There is appetite for membership to continue to grow.

My Lords, I express the hope that the Prime Minister will spend some time this summer in bilateral conversations with our friends, colleagues and neighbours in the European Union. Could we bear in mind throughout that isolation is rarely splendid, and is even more rarely successful or sensible?

I say to my noble friend that I know how much time the Prime Minister spends on bilateral relationships with a range of European partners in a range of different fora. I know from my time in Downing Street 20-odd years ago, when the European Union was smaller, how much time the Prime Minister of the day has to spend on those relationships. This Prime Minister will certainly do that, as have all previous Prime Ministers.

My Lords, whether we are in the European Union or not, we shall need the good will of our continental partners. Indeed, we shall need their good will even more if we leave, because we shall then have no more rights or entitlements under the treaty and every arrangement we have with its members will have to be laboriously negotiated. Does the noble Lord agree that in life, and particularly in negotiation, it is always a mistake to personalise an issue if you want your substantive points to be taken seriously? Does he also agree that in life, and particularly in negotiation, it is always a mistake to use public threats and blackmail, because no self-respecting human being feels inclined to make concessions under that kind of pressure? Is quiet, collaborative diplomacy not the best way?

I certainly agree that in normal circumstances, most of the time, quiet collaborative diplomacy is the right way to go. However, there are times at which, if that route does not work, you are faced with a choice of seeking to avoid embarrassment by going quietly, or of saying, “Actually, this is a point of principle about which I feel strongly, and I will therefore put up with that risk of embarrassment by arguing for it”.

On working with colleagues, I agree with the noble Lord’s point. That is how Europe works and how Britain pursues its relationships with other countries. I am sure that we will continue to do that. The noble Lord will already have seen the remarks made by a whole range of European leaders since Friday which demonstrate that they are keen that Britain should remain part of the EU. They understand our concerns and are keen to work with us to see what progress we can make in resolving them.