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EU Council

Volume 759: debated on Monday 23 February 2015


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 the most recent European Council, which covered Ukraine, the eurozone, terrorism and extremism.

On extremism, let me first address the case of the three British schoolgirls from east London leaving their families and attempting to travel to Syria. All of us have been horrified by the way that British teenagers appear to have been radicalised and duped by this poisonous ideology of Islamist extremism while at home on the internet in their bedrooms. They appear to have been induced to join a terrorist group which carries out the most hideous violence and believes that girls should be married at nine and women should not leave the home. Their families are understandably heartbroken and we must do all we can to help.

We should be clear that this is not just an issue for our police and border controls. Everyone has a role to play in preventing our young people being radicalised, whether that is schools, colleges and universities, families, religious leaders or local communities. That is why we have included a duty on all public bodies to prevent people being radicalised as part of our Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, and of course stopping travel to join ISIL is vital. When people are known risks, whatever their age, they go on our border warnings index and we can intervene to prevent travel and seize their passports. But what this incident has highlighted is the concerning situation where unaccompanied teenagers like these, who are not a known risk, can board a flight to Turkey without necessarily being asked any questions by the airline.

We need new arrangements with the airlines to ensure that these at-risk children are properly identified and questioned, and the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Transport will be working with the airlines to bring this about. First, whenever there are concerns, police at the border should be alerted so they can use the new temporary passport seizure powers to stop people travelling. Secondly, given reports that one of the girls was following as many as 70 extremists online, this case underlines the importance—this was covered at the EU as well—of the work we are doing with social media companies. We have made progress with these companies which are working with the police and the Home Office to take down extremist content online. And at the EU Council we agreed to do this across the European Union. But we also need greater co-operation over contacts between extremists and those who could be radicalised. Internet companies have a social responsibility and we expect them to live up to it.

Thirdly, we need to continue to press for our police and security services to have access to passenger name records for as many routes as possible in and out of Britain, and we need this to happen right across the European Union, which was the subject of the most substantial discussion at the European Council. These records provide not just passenger names but also details about, for instance, how the tickets were bought, the bank accounts used and who people are travelling with. This is vital information that helps us to identify in advance when people are travelling on high-risk routes and often helps us to identify terrorists.

I raised this explicitly with my Turkish counterpart in December and we will continue to press to get this vital information wherever we need it. Until recently, and in spite of British efforts to get the issue prioritised, discussions on these passenger name records in the EU had been stuck. But following the terrible attacks in Paris and Copenhagen, it was agreed at the European Council that EU legislators should urgently adopt, and I quote, “a strong and effective” European passenger name records directive. That was probably the most important outcome of this EU Council. What I would say is that we have to fix it. It would be absurd to have the exchange of this information between individual EU member states and other countries outside the EU, but not among ourselves.

Most of the people travelling to Syria do not go there directly. They often take many different routes within the EU before even getting to Turkey and so we need this information badly. The European Council also agreed that law enforcement and judicial authorities must step up their information sharing and operational co-operation, and that there should be greater co-operation in the fight against the illicit trafficking of firearms.

Turning to the situation in Ukraine, I met President Poroshenko ahead of the Council. He thanked Britain for the role we have played in ensuring a robust international response at every stage of Russia’s illegal aggression. We were the first to call for Russia to be expelled from the G8. We have been the strongest proponent of sanctions, and a vital ally in keeping the EU and US united. President Poroshenko welcomed the diplomatic efforts that had been made leading up to the Minsk agreements, but he agreed that it was essential to judge success not by the words people say but by the actions they take on the ground.

We should be clear about what has happened in the 10 days since the Council. Far from changing course, Russia’s totally unjustifiable and illegal actions in eastern Ukraine have reached a new level, with the separatists’ blatant breach of the ceasefire to take control of Debaltseve made possible only with the supply of Russian fighters and equipment on a very large scale. It is clear what now needs to happen. The ceasefire must be respected in full by both sides. Heavy weapons need to be drawn back, as promised. People have to do the things they have signed up to. All eyes are now on Russia and the separatists. Russia must be in no doubt that any attempts by the separatists to expand their territory—whether towards Mariupol or elsewhere—will be met with further significant EU and US sanctions. Russia must change course now—or the economic pain it endures will only increase.

In the coming days, I will be speaking to fellow G7 leaders to agree how we can together ensure that the Minsk agreements do indeed bring an end to this crisis. We are also looking urgently at what further support we can provide to bolster the OSCE mission, and the International Development Secretary is today committing an additional £15 million to support the humanitarian effort. However, at this moment, the most important thing we can do is show Russia that the EU and America remain united in being ready to impose an ever increasing cost if the Russian Government do not take this opportunity to change course decisively.

Turning finally to the eurozone, immediately before the Council started, I met the new Greek Prime Minister, Alexis Tsipras. With him, and then again at the Council, I urged all those involved to end the standoff between Greece and the eurozone over its support programme. We welcome the provisional agreement subsequently reached last Friday evening. Britain is not in the eurozone, and we are not going to join the eurozone. But we need the eurozone to work effectively. The problems facing Greece and the eurozone continue to pose a risk to the world economy and to our own recovery at home. That is why we have stepped up our eurozone contingency planning. Prior to the Council, I held a meeting in Downing Street with all the key senior officials to go through those plans and ensure that vital work continues apace. This crisis is not over.

Protecting our economy from these wider risks in the eurozone also means sticking to this Government’s long-term economic plan. It is more important than ever that we send a clear message to the world that Britain is not going to waver on dealing with its debts and that we retain the confidence of business—the creators of jobs and growth in our economy. We must continue to scrap red tape, cut taxes, build world-class skills and support exports to emerging markets. We must continue investing in infrastructure. Today’s figures show that in 2014 the UK received a record level of lending from the European Investment Bank to support the infrastructure projects in our national infrastructure plan. I hope the shadow Chancellor will cheer when we win European money for British infrastructure—for the roads, the bridges and the railways that we need.

Today, we have the lowest inflation rate in our modern history. We have the highest number of people in work ever and we have the biggest January surplus in our public finances for seven years—putting us on track to meet our borrowing target for the year. Put simply, we have a great opportunity to secure the prosperity of our nation for generations to come. We must not put that in jeopardy. We must seize that chance by sticking to this Government’s long-term economic plan. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by the Prime Minister in the other place.

I start by expressing our deepest sympathy to the families of those killed in Copenhagen. We absolutely condemn these atrocities—in Copenhagen, and Paris before that—and stand with all of Europe against those who seek to undermine or attack our most cherished values and propagate intolerance, anti-Semitism and all other forms of prejudice. It is clear that effective co-operation on tackling terrorism across the EU, including intelligence co-operation, will be vital to securing the safety and security of our citizens. The statement from the Council itself was right to mention the importance of Europol and Eurojust. The European Council said that there would be action to step up information-sharing and co-operation with our European partners. Can the noble Baroness tell us how that is going to happen? What action is being taken to progress the establishment of a European PNR with the European Parliament? I know that the noble Baroness mentioned this, but as the Statement said, the process is stuck. It is stuck in the European Parliament, but Labour MEPs, for example, are in favour of it, and I wonder what the Government are going to do to ensure that the measure is agreed at the earliest possible opportunity.

The noble Baroness rightly spoke of the deeply disturbing news at the end of last week of the three young schoolgirls going to the region for potentially the wrong reasons. This reinforces the need for action. The Statement mentioned the importance of work being undertaken at the moment in relation to social media. We welcome the progress that is being made with the companies that are working with the police and the Home Office to take down extremist content online and the fact that it was agreed at the European Council to do this across the European Union. Would the noble Baroness agree that here in the United Kingdom the Prevent programme needs to be strengthened, with a stronger role for local communities, and that more action should be taken to directly challenge the warped ideology and lies being propagated, particularly, as I mentioned, through social media?

Turning to the fight against ISIL in the region, I condemn unreservedly the barbaric murder of 21 Egyptian Coptic Christians by ISIL-linked extremists. Our thoughts go to the families and loved ones of those killed as well as, of course, to the Christian community in the region. Our sympathies are with the Egyptian people at this time. These latest brutal acts of violence simply reinforce the importance of our efforts, alongside our allies, to counter the threat posed by ISIL in the region.

We will all be increasingly concerned about the growing number of attacks within Libya specifically. It was right to take action to protect civilians and prevent a massacre in Benghazi in 2011, but, tragically, Libya looks as if it is coming perilously close to being a failed state. Are the Government satisfied by the post-conflict planning and the work that is being done? Does the noble Baroness agree that for stability to be restored in Libya, the UN-led process towards establishing a transitional Government must be followed? If so, what further steps can the UK, along with allies, now take to support this approach?

I must make clear, following the exchanges at Question Time, that the Opposition have not changed their position on the situation in Ukraine. We are doing what an Opposition should do, which is asking questions of the Government—that is what Parliament and the people of this country would expect us to do. As efforts have intensified to resolve the crisis in Ukraine, the fighting on the ground has continued and the costs of Russian aggression are mounting. Here in the UK, reports of Russian planes flying into the UK’s area of interest are concerning. It is unnecessarily provocative. We welcome the joint initiative by Chancellor Merkel and President Hollande for peace in Ukraine, and support fully the conclusions of the Minsk agreement. But why were the UK and the Prime Minister not involved in this initiative? Their absence was extremely disappointing.

I am sure that the noble Baroness will have read the excellent but disturbing report by your Lordships’ European Union Committee, The EU and Russia: Before and Beyond the Crisis in Ukraine, and I wonder what lessons the Government will take from the report in future discussions on Ukraine with our European partners. As the US has said, Russia’s continued support of ongoing separatist attacks in violation of the ceasefire in eastern Ukraine is undermining international diplomacy and multilateral institutions—the foundations of our modern global order. Therefore, if in the coming days Russia fails to meet its obligations under the terms of the Minsk agreement, such as withdrawing heavy weaponry, does the noble Baroness believe that the EU is prepared to implement and agree further sanctions, and will the Government commit to being willing to take action? President Putin must understand that he risks further isolating Russia on the world stage if he continues to display belligerence and aggression in the face of established international laws and norms.

Finally, turning to Greece, we welcome the deal agreed last week between the Greek Government and eurozone members. Will the noble Baroness tell the House what steps the Council is taking to deliver the necessary reforms across the eurozone so that Greece’s economy can grow again? Do the Government agree with the investment plan put forward by the European Commission, and specifically with the proposals put forward last week by the noble Baroness’s noble friend Lord Hill for unlocking Europe’s growth by creating a capital markets union? Given that the four-month extension for Greece runs out in June, what preparations are being made within the eurozone to secure a long-term financing deal so that we do not face this crisis again?

In the past month across the world we have experienced attacks on our fundamental values and freedoms. These attacks aim to spread fear and divide us, but they will fail. They will fail because the British people are united in rejecting extremism and because we have faced down these kinds of threats before and will do so again. We must remain united and strong in the face of such threats.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Royall, for her comments about the atrocities in Paris and Copenhagen and the rise in anti-Semitism. I certainly share her views on all the dreadful actions that have happened over the past few weeks in Europe. She asked some specific questions about measures to tackle terrorism. She asked in particular for information on what further work will be done to promote the information-sharing that was agreed at the Council. This is something that should be progressed through the established law enforcement authorities, such as Europol, Interpol and Eurojust.

The noble Baroness asked for an update on the timetable for agreement and implementation of the passenger name record measure. I certainly welcome the points that she made about the support for this among her own party’s European Parliament Members. This was a big step forward at the European Council. It was very much led by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. It was agreed that movements should be made now in order to ensure that legislation is drafted and prepared within Europe, and we will certainly be pressing hard for that to take place and to be progressed as soon as possible.

As to measures back here at home to deal with terrorism, the noble Baroness made some points about the Prevent programme. I think it is worth reminding the House that we commissioned a report by my noble friend Lord Carlile about what was happening in this area. He was clear that this Government’s approach to splitting the programme for Prevent, which deals with deradicalisation, from the work that is led through the DCLG to encourage integration was the right thing to do, and that our approach in this area is working well and is an improvement on what went before. She also asked what measures we have taken to increase the protection for people who may be affected or may be being radicalised via social media. Clearly, the steps that were introduced in the recent counterterrorism Bill were a big step forward in that area.

On Libya, I certainly share the noble Baroness’s remarks about the appalling murders of the Coptic Christians. She asked whether the Government were satisfied with the post-conflict situation in Libya. I can be clear that, no, we are not satisfied with the situation. What NATO and our allies did was stop the murderous attempt by Gaddafi to kill his own people, and in doing that we gave the Libyans a chance to build a better future, which sadly so far has not been taken and we need to help them take that opportunity. She will know that in our efforts in this area we are also working with a former colleague of hers, Jonathan Powell, to see what more is possible to support Libya and to achieve the settled future that it so rightly deserves.

The noble Baroness asked about Ukraine and what might happen if Russia fails to meet its Minsk obligations. Indeed, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for clarifying that the Opposition support our efforts on sanctions, because it is very important that we all stand together on sanctions. She asked about the way in which the rest of Europe is approaching sanctions. We have to continue to apply pressure and ensure effort among our European partners so that we are all consistent and united in demanding that those sanctions are kept in place and that, where necessary, they will be strengthened in the future. We all need to ensure that we use what influence we have with all our contacts in the respective member nations on this. It is worth saying that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was the first to call for a strong approach on sanctions. He was the first to call for Russia to be expelled from the G8. He has been very much in the lead in that area.

Finally, the noble Baroness asked me about Greece and what prospect there is for a long-term financing deal for Greece. We are still some way away from a long-term funding deal. As the House knows, Greece is required to publish today its proposals for reform. We believe there will have to be some give and take on both sides. At the European Council meeting, it was clear that those other countries that have taken the very difficult decisions in order to meet the demands put on them by the eurozone were not supportive of greater flexibility being given to Greece. But clearly the most important thing, as I said in the Statement that I repeated, is that the eurozone continues to be secure in terms of its impact on the British economy. We very much hope, therefore, that agreement is reached between the eurozone and Greece swiftly to that end.

My Lords, the Statement repeated by my noble friend the Leader put a welcome emphasis on European co-operation against terrorism. Is she as glad as I am that the two-year campaign waged by some to pull the UK out of the European measures and institutions that she mentioned, including Europol and Eurojust, did not succeed? That would look entirely ridiculous in the current circumstances.

The passenger name record—PNR—directive is of course a matter of dialogue between the Council and the Parliament. But are the UK and the rest of the Council committed to progressing updated data protection measures for law enforcement access to PNR and other data simultaneously with the PNR directive and expansion of data collection? Certainly in my time that was emphasised by the European Parliament; it is the proposed directive on law enforcement access.

On Ukraine, my noble friend mentioned, slightly obliquely, the need for EU solidarity and the possible challenges involved. Can she assure us that some very candid words are being spoken to that minority of EU member states that appear to be undermining EU solidarity in respect of Putin’s aggression, including the hosting last week by Viktor Orban of a visit from President Putin? Given that Orban is in the same political family as Chancellor Merkel and European Commission President Mr Juncker, is this not the right context for some full and frank exchanges with Budapest and other capitals?

Finally, on the European economy, can the UK act as a bridge—

My Lords, I draw noble Lords’ attention to the Companion, which states that questions following a Statement should be brief and not the occasion for debate.

In that case, it is probably right for me to respond to the points made by my noble friend.

On Ukraine, it is essential that we in Europe are united in our demands of Russia and our support for Ukraine in having a secure future for its people. That is what we are seeking to achieve and we are applying pressure on others. Although there may not have been as much enthusiasm in the past for sanctions when this approach was first adopted, it is clear now that because the sanctions are having a real effect and because we need to judge Putin on his actions and not his words, the sanctions regime must remain in place and if necessary be strengthened further. That is what my right honourable friend will ensure.

My Lords, Russia has annexed Crimea. It has created another frozen conflict. We in the West appear to accept that this is permanent, just as we have done in Georgia with South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Now that Russian surrogates have taken over sections of eastern Ukraine along the border, is there not again a serious prospect that this will become permanent and that President Putin, notwithstanding the pressures put on him, will be prepared to pay the price for yet a further Russian victory over the West, particularly, as has been said, as there is a real danger of flakiness on the part of some of our EU partners?

I think I have already made it clear that because President Putin has not delivered on his words and we must judge him on his actions, which so far have not met his words, we are strong and united within the European Union and alongside America in our demands of him and in making sure that he meets the terms of the Minsk agreement. We will continue to apply sanctions, which will stay in place until he meets the terms of that agreement.

My Lords, I welcome the reference in the Statement to the Government’s eurozone contingency planning. Could she perhaps elaborate on that? Is it not apparent that despite all the bailouts, concessions and negotiations and so on, there is no way in which Greece will become competitive at the present exchange rate and will at the end of the day need to leave the eurozone? In those circumstances, it is crucial that it should be done in an orderly way, which will be a very difficult task involving exchange controls and so on. It is essential that our Government, because we have an interest in this issue, co-operate to make sure that there are contingency plans for an arrangement whereby Greece can withdraw on an orderly basis.

I do not share my noble friend’s view that Greece will leave the eurozone. Certainly all efforts are being made by the eurozone’s other members to ensure that Greece remains in the eurozone. It is in everyone’s interests—those of the countries that are part of the eurozone and those of the United Kingdom—that the eurozone continues to operate securely. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister held contingency planning meetings with senior officials none the less because that is the right and prudent action for him to take. We are working on the basis that the eurozone will continue.

My Lords, I spent last week in Ukraine with a small, three-person IPU delegation. I encountered everywhere the deepest disappointment, anxiety and in one or two cases actual despair that whereas the Ukrainian army had been taking serious fatalities in the east of Ukraine defending its country, the western world has declined to supply it with the effective defensive weapons that it so obviously needs. Is it not the case that, quite apart from our obligations under the Budapest agreement and quite apart from our general commitment to peace and justice in the world, we have a very strong national interest, which we share with our NATO partners, in ensuring that over the long haul and irrespective of whether Mr Putin happens to be respecting the ceasefire agreement this week, Ukraine maintains a credible self-defence capability and remains a viable state? If either of those two things ceases to be the case, we shall have much greater problems than we currently confront. Is it not time that the Government looked at the possibility of taking the lead in agreeing to supply effective defensive weapons, including where necessary lethal weapons, to the Ukrainian armed forces?

The noble Lord is right to highlight the terrible casualties that have taken place in Ukraine during the past few months—it has been absolutely dreadful. We believe that the right course of action is via a diplomatic route, which is the direction that we have been taking. We continue to work very hard in that way. We recognise that the people of Ukraine want our support, because they want their country to operate in the same way as the rest of us in the West are able to. We have not ruled out the supply of weapons, but we do not believe that it is the right course of action for us to take at this time.

Will the Government try to mobilise all kinds of media around the world to establish the truth of what has happened in the Ukraine and to present that to the people of Russia over the heads of their Government? Will they also try to unmask the lies arising from all sides but especially from Moscow?

The noble Lord makes an interesting point. In some of the background reading that I did over the weekend about Ukraine and Russia, I was intrigued to learn that the people of Russia, notwithstanding the propaganda, do not put responsibility for the situation in Ukraine at the feet of the western world. While the noble Lord is right that we need to ensure that the people of Russia are very much aware of what is happening in Ukraine, I think that they are perhaps more aware already than we give them credit for.

My Lords, talking about actions not words, when can we expect the brave speeches about Russia to be backed by effective action on our defences?

Perhaps I may rephrase the question. When can we expect the brave speeches about Russia that we hear from our side to be backed up by proper changes in our defences?

Our defences are absolutely secure, and there is no issue of concern there. It is worth reminding the House that we are meeting the 2% of GDP guideline for our defence spending, and we are one of only four NATO countries to do so. The Prime Minister has already committed to a real-terms increase in defence equipment spending by 1% over the next 10 years and said that there will be no further reduction in the Army, so our defences are sound.

Although it is clearly right that we must stand absolutely firmly together in refusing to yield to the ruthless pressure by the Russians, and that we must also resist the pressure by the militant extremists in Ukraine itself, is there not at the centre of all this a real issue of the Russian community in Ukraine—its sense of identity and security? Amid all our priorities at the moment, how much thought are we giving to how that issue can be resolved in the long term?

Over many years now, there has been support for the people of Ukraine. The start of the agreement between Ukraine and the European Union goes back as far as 2007. That programme has been ongoing for many years; it is not a new initiative. In making that possible, it was always clear that it was not a trade-off for Ukraine: that it could have a stronger relationship with Europe at the same time as retaining its ties with Russia. It does not have to give up one to have the other; it should be able to have both.

My Lords, Russia is of course an Asian power as well as a European power. I wonder whether any consideration has been given, in putting short-term pressure on Mr Putin—which is clearly right—through finance and sanctions, to talking to the rising powers of Asia, which carry considerable weight. With their co-operation, much more effective results will be achieved to bring Russia to a more sensible frame of mind. Was any consultation with Beijing, Tokyo or the other parts of Asia considered during the EU meeting?

My noble friend has huge experience in foreign affairs. I will have to check on his particular question; I fear that I do not have a clear answer to give him at this time.

It was encouraging to see that the Prime Minister has agreed with his colleagues that there should be a “strategic rethinking” of our approach to Syria. What strategic rethinking are we doing on Syria? What is our strategy in Syria, other than repeating the mantra that Assad must go? It is clear that American policy is changing. The Americans appear to have a strategy. Do we?

Our approach to Syria has been consistent throughout—certainly with regard to the threat of ISIL, which we have to ensure is tackled at source. As the noble Lord knows, we have a significant commitment to the effort focused on Iraq. Clearly, we are not supporting the effort in Syria militarily, but we are doing a huge amount by way of humanitarian aid, and that will continue.

My Lords, as my noble friend will know, in the past few days there has been a dramatic further fall in the value of the Ukrainian currency, the hryvnia, against the dollar. It has fallen by more than a third and is now about half its value only a few weeks ago. Given that, and given that there is a real prospect that the Ukrainian economy could break down, can she tell us whether there was discussion at the Council about the state of Ukrainian economy, the rising debts it has, especially in energy, and what emergency action might be taken by the European Union in the event that the hryvnia becomes an unacceptable currency?

I can tell my noble friend that the IMF agreed in principle on 12 February that Ukraine qualified for an extended fund facility. That is a four-year programme worth $17.5 billion. We are clearly supporting the Ukrainian Government in delivering the reforms that they have committed to under the association agreement and the IMF programme, so that they are in a strong position to use that support from the IMF and get themselves on a secure footing for the future.

Does the Leader of the House accept that there is acute concern about the lack of stability on the front line, if you like, between various European Union member states and applicant states and Russia? That has been growing for a considerable time. There is concern that European Union policy is not as clear as it ought to be. We need to give serious attention to that. Perhaps, so that we can have a louder voice on that, the very good report produced by the European Union Committee on those relations ought to be debated in this House before it rises. Can she help us to achieve that?

The report, to which the noble Lord refers, by the European Union Committee of this House was a comprehensive, serious piece of work. I was grateful to study it over the weekend; I thought that its publication was timely.

As for a debate on it, the usual process is for the Committee Office to respond to my noble friend the Chief Whip’s usual call out for what proposals it wants debated, so we would expect to hear in the first instance through the Committee Office, but my noble friend will of course want to liaise constructively.

The main thing about Europe, Ukraine and threats to others is that, yes, absolutely, we must be united; we must have a united force strength against Putin. Putin wants us to appear not to be united. We must present a united front. That is there. Via NATO, we are committed to protecting the Baltic states, should there be any attempt to threaten them in future.

My Lords, I wish to follow up the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Soley. I ask my noble friend, as Leader of this House, to ensure that we have a debate on the report and the wider situation. This is the gravest international situation that we have had in years. This Parliament will come to an end in four or five weeks’ time. It would be quite wrong—indeed, shameful—if this House, with all its expertise, did not have the opportunity for a full day’s debate. Will my noble friend absolutely guarantee that that will happen?

I can absolutely guarantee that if the committee, having produced its report, proposes a debate on that report via the Committee Office in the normal way, we will find time for it. We will find time for debates on committee reports, because we are committed to doing that. I urge the noble Lord and other members of the committee to make their request via the Committee Office in the normal way.