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European Union: Reform

Volume 764: debated on Monday 6 July 2015


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government when they expect to announce the results of their discussions about the European Union reform agenda with other member states.

My Lords, at the June European Council, agreement was reached to launch the renegotiation process and revert to the issue at the December European Council. The next stage will involve technical discussion in Brussels. How long the overall process takes will depend upon progress over the substance. The Government have committed to holding a referendum on EU membership before the end of 2017.

I thank the Minister for that Answer. I hope I will not embarrass her if I express great commiseration and sympathy for the task ahead for her and fellow Ministers with this portfolio. As Kenneth Clarke said very recently of Eurosceptic Tory MPs:

“They want us to leave, they don’t want reform … They are all right-wing nationalists”.

What on earth will the Government do to get out of the wholly sinister trap that the Government have created?

My Lords, there is no trap. The trap is wide open and we are out of it as you are when you are in a race. However, this is the festina lente race, where the people with the ideas and the determination first work through the process, which has now been launched with regard to the European Council, and technicians look at the process of how change can be achieved. We also know that the Prime Minister has launched the political discussion on the substance. So we are out of the trap and negotiating for the good of Britain and the rest of Europe.

Could the noble Baroness give the House some clue, so that we can judge whether these negotiations are successful, as to what the main planks of the negotiating mandate are? All our partners in the European Union have shared in it, but the British people, who ultimately will have to make a judgment, have been given no idea what the demands are and therefore will not be able to judge success or failure.

It is the nature of parliamentary democracy that the Government outline their plans to Parliament first, and we did, not only as a result of speeches in another place but thereafter, further setting out the details. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made it clear, as indeed have those negotiating with him—the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary—that the four planks of our negotiation are: fairness for those both within and outside the eurozone; changes with regard to immigration so that welfare benefits do not act as an overlarge pull factor and movement is for work not for benefits; sovereignty is an issue. so we must tackle the problem of ever closer union, which may be all right for others but not for us; and competitiveness. We have led the way. We have already achieved advances on this, but for hard-working people in this country we need to improve competitiveness across Europe, including the digital single market. That is it.

Are reports correct that officials have been working on possible fast-track treaty changes in case Greece leaves the euro but stays in the European Union? If so, would these be under the passerelle procedure set out in the 2011 Bill on the European Union? Would they be wrapped up with the general strategy for European reform, which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has indeed outlined in very clear direction and which provides a useful basis for major reform in the future, which will involve treaty change?

My Lords, with regard to the timing of changes, we have clearly said that the only date that is certain is that by the end of 2017 we will have put to this country a referendum on the deal that has been achieved. With regard to treaty change, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has made it clear that there are some circumstances in which treaty change would need to be obtained, but he has also made it clear that in advance of any referendum what is needed is a binding, irreversible agreement with all the other states that a treaty change would take place. On that basis, there would need to be an acceleration of treaty change.

My Lords, in the light of the Greek referendum result, do the Government intend to follow the advice of the Member for Uxbridge and try to secure a no vote in a referendum as apparent leverage for further negotiations?

My Lords, I was brought up in a family who said yes because you tended to get the right answer more frequently. I can see that I have caused amusement on the Privy Council Bench of the Conservative Party, but clearly their minds are far superior to mine. With regard to the impact of the negotiations, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has my confidence and the confidence of the Government that he will deliver a deal that is right for this country, and we will be able to support him when it comes to putting it to the population.

My Lords, the Business Secretary recently berated the CBI for being too pro-EU on the grounds that this weakened the Prime Minister’s negotiating position. Does the Minister believe that that was a sensible position for her colleague to take, given the vocal pro-EU position of the CBI on EU membership and the catastrophic impact that leaving the EU would have on business in the UK?

My Lords, the CBI has made it clear that it is in favour of reform of the European Union that delivers more competitiveness. We have the support of the majority of its members in the way we are proceeding. There will always be differences of views; that is part of the nature of a democracy.

Does my noble friend recall that the Duke of Wellington used to state that he thought the English constitution was “incapable of improvement”? Is it not the case that the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, thinks exactly the same thing about the European Union? Does my noble friend recall how the noble Lord, Lord Dykes, always used to advocate joining the euro and went on singing the same tune after it was in deep, deep trouble? If so, will she take his advice with a very large pinch of salt?

Does the Minister agree that, like charity, competitiveness begins at home? Will she therefore counsel her colleagues in the Government against continuing the large cuts in net public sector investment, the 40% cuts in further education for over-19s, and other measures that are fundamentally undermining the competitiveness of our economy, as is shown by the record balance of payments deficit?

My Lords, this Government and the previous coalition Government made great headway in overturning some of the most dire economic situations the country had to face in 2010. It was a difficult task. We wish to continue to do that. This Wednesday, the noble Lord will have the opportunity to see the next stage in plans to resuscitate our competitiveness and the economy.