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European Union: Reform

Volume 756: debated on Thursday 6 November 2014


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what progress is being made in European Council discussions on reform of the European Union treaties.

My Lords, the UK regularly discusses EU reform with counterparts both in the European Council and bilaterally. We have already made progress. The June European Council conclusions clearly set out a strong commitment to reforming the EU and it needs to address the UK’s concerns. We will continue to work with our European partners to achieve these reforms, many of which can be made right now.

I thank my noble friend for that Answer. In the mean time, can I tempt her to endorse the very wise advice of our new British Commissioner, Jonathan Hill, that everybody should calm down and avoid hysteria about the rather technical nature of the budget dues dispute, because our membership of the EU is surely the essential requirement and target, and is much more important than appeasing UKIP and other Europhobes?

My Lords, the policy of this Government is to argue for the interests of this country. My noble friend is right to point to the very detailed nature of the investigation that must now take place of the demand, out of the blue, for an extra £1.7 billion. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made clear that Her Majesty’s Treasury will now assess the data in exhaustive detail to check how the statistics were arrived at and the methodology that was used. After all, it is British taxpayers’ money and therefore it needs to be examined in detail and discussed properly by Finance Ministers. That will happen tomorrow.

Does the Minister agree that there is a greater likelihood of Great Britain getting some of the demands that it is making for reform if it talks to the people to whom we always refer as “our partners” as if they were partners, rather than haranguing them, banging the table and treating them as if they were some form of colonial servant from days gone by?

Well, the noble Lord has certainly been in a different place and listening to different things than I have.

Does my noble friend accept that this EU issue is not really a bilateral matter between the United Kingdom and Brussels and the rest of the European Community but an issue of the reform of Europe as a whole, which millions of Europeans are actively waiting for and are seeking now? That is bound to lead eventually to a replacement of the flawed Lisbon treaty and to a new basis from which the European Union can fit into the 21st century.

My Lords, the Government are looking at what reforms can be made now. Clearly, we are a long way off from looking at treaty change, but there is much that we can do now. Our call for change has been echoed by many across Europe. My noble friend is right to talk about our negotiations there, including with the new Presidents of the Council and Commission. Indeed, when the Italian Prime Minister was in London last month, he called for change in Europe and cuts to bureaucracy. We agree with the Dutch when they call for “European where necessary, national where possible”.

My Lords, assuming that the Government have at last seen through the propaganda that the EU has brought peace and prosperity and is useful for trade, geopolitics and so on, why cannot they also see that the EU is wholly unreformable and that the only sensible thing to do is to get out of it and help to close it down? What is the point of the European Union?

My Lords, I am sorry that the noble Lord still fails to see the benefits that we have achieved by our membership of the EU, but also the achievements that we need to have through reform to make sure that we can continue to be a successful member. That is where we want to be. We want to see the EU reformed with us as a strong member of it, and other countries recognise that it needs reform. As to leaving it—not now.

My Lords, in relation to freedom of movement negotiations, have the Government made any calculation about what effect this might have on the 2 million British citizens who live in the rest of the European Union? If they were repatriated, what would happen to social services and the National Health Service infrastructure in this country?

My Lords, can the Minister tell us of any member state that supports a treaty change to limit the principle of free movement, as has been advocated by the Prime Minister? In connection with that, what is the Government’s response to the report that came out yesterday that found that migrants from Europe between 2000 and 2011 made a net contribution of £20 billion to this country?

My Lords, all academic studies are of interest, but one has to balance them against each other. Clearly, yesterday’s report points to some of the advantages that have accrued in the short term from new migrants who work hard here and who come here and work and do not use benefits. As other academics have said in the past 24 hours, one also has to look at the pattern of claim—at social services use and access to the health service as well as, later on, benefits in old age. So this is a snapshot of a short period. With regard to the broader issue of reform, we have strong support for reforming the EU as it currently stands. That is where our work is going to be.

On the vexed subject of the extra £1.7 billion bill, could we ask the EU for a certificate from its auditors that it is the right sum? Given its inability to get its accounts approved for the last very many years, would that be beyond it?

My Lords, would the Minister give an assurance that, in pursuing reform of the EU and EU treaties, the Government will pursue what is in the coalition agreement of 2010, which is to end the travelling circus to Strasbourg, which costs about £150 million a year? That reform would really resonate with the people of this country. Is the Minister aware that there is now a considerable cohort of Members of this House who have personal experience and can tell her in great detail about the inconvenience of it, as well as the cost, which is the most important thing to taxpayers?

My Lords, it is a pleasure to see my noble friend back in her place, although losing her seat in Europe was not perhaps the best way in which to achieve it. But her expertise is welcome here, and she makes an extremely important point. Negotiations must proceed to ensure that the EU spends our money wisely.