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European Council

Volume 798: debated on Monday 24 June 2019


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

“Mr Speaker, before I turn to the European Council, I am sure that the whole House will join me in sending our very best wishes to the former Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott. All our thoughts are with him and his family at this time and we wish him a speedy and full recovery.

Last week’s European Council focused on climate change, disinformation and hybrid threats, external relations and what are known as the EU’s “top jobs”. The UK has always been clear that we will participate fully and constructively in all EU discussions for as long as we are a member state and that we will seek to continue our co-operation on issues of mutual interest through our future relationship after we have left. That was the spirit in which I approached this Council.

Earlier this month, the UK became the first major economy in the world to commit to ending its contribution to global warming by 2050. I am pleased that the regulations to amend the Climate Change Act 2008, which are being debated in this Chamber later today, have received widespread support across this House. But ultimately we will protect our planet only if we are able to forge the widest possible global agreements. That means other countries need to follow our lead and increase their ambitions as well.

At this Council, the UK helped to lead the way in advocating for our European partners to follow suit in committing to a net zero target by 2050. While a full EU-wide consensus was not reached, a large majority of member states did agree that ‘climate neutrality must be achieved by 2050’. I hope that we can build on this in the months ahead. In the margins of the Council, I also met Prime Minister Conte and discussed the UK’s bid to host next year’s UN climate summit, COP26, in partnership with Italy. This will continue to put the UK at the heart of driving global efforts to tackle the climate emergency and leave a better world for our children.

Turning to disinformation and hybrid threats, we agreed to continue working together to raise awareness, increase our preparedness and strengthen the resilience of our democracies. I welcome the development of a new framework for targeted sanctions to respond to hybrid threats. This sends a clear message that the UK and its EU partners are willing and able to impose a cost for irresponsible behaviour in cyberspace.

We must also make more progress in helping to ensure that the internet is a safe place for all our citizens. That is why we are legislating in the UK to create a legal duty of care on internet companies to keep users safe from harm. This will be backed up by an independent regulator with the power to enforce its decisions. We are the first country to put forward such a comprehensive approach, but it is not enough to act alone. Building on the Christchurch Call to Action summit, the UK will continue to help drive the broadest possible global action against online harms, including at the G20 in Japan later this week.

In the discussion on external relations, the Council expressed its concern over Russia’s issuing of passports in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk regions and reiterated its call for Russia to release the Ukrainian sailors and vessels captured in the Kerch Strait in November last year. Russia has consistently failed to deliver its commitments under the Minsk agreements and continues its destabilising activity. So, with the UK’s full support, the Council agreed a six-month rollover of tier 3 sanctions, which include restrictions on Russia’s access to EU capital markets, an arms embargo and restrictions on co-operation with Russia’s energy sector.

In marking the fifth anniversary of the downing of flight MH17, we also welcomed the announcement from the Netherlands that criminal charges are being brought against four individuals, and offered our continued support in bringing those responsible to justice.

The Council also expressed serious concerns over Turkey’s drilling activities in the eastern Mediterranean. The UK has made it clear to Turkey that drilling in this area must stop, and our priority must be to see the situation de-escalated.

In the margins of the Council, I also raised the issue of Iran. We are calling on Iran to urgently de-escalate tensions. Finding a diplomatic solution to the current situation in the region remains our priority.

A substantial part of the Council focused on what are known as the EU’s “top jobs”—namely, the appointments of the next Presidents of the EU’s institutions and the EU’s high representative. Of course, this is primarily a matter for the 27 remaining EU member states, so I have been clear that the UK will engage constructively and not stand in the way of a consensus among the other member states. However, it is also in our national interest that those appointed are constructive partners for the UK as well as successful leaders of the EU’s institutions. The UK supports President Tusk’s approach to create across the top jobs a package of candidates that reflect the diversity of the European Union. As there was no consensus on candidates at this meeting, the Council agreed to meet again after the G20 this coming Sunday and to hold further discussions with the European Parliament. So, while I originally anticipated that this would be my final European Council as Prime Minister, I will in fact have one more.

Finally, President Tusk and President Juncker updated the remaining 27 member states on Brexit. This scheduled update was part of the agreement I reached in April to extend the Article 50 deadline for our departure from the EU to 31 October. The Council repeated its desire to avoid a disorderly Brexit and committed to work constructively with my successor as Prime Minister. I commend this Statement to the House”.

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, I thank the Leader of the House for her comments about my noble friend Lord Prescott. I am sure that the whole House concurs. We wish him a full and speedy recovery.

It has been some time since we have had a European Council or Brexit-related Statement, but now we hear that we will have two in a very short space of time. I am sure that the Prime Minister is delighted. It is an extraordinary position, given the urgency of the issue. Perhaps it is a reflection on the state of the Government on Brexit. Back in March, the Government’s request to extend the Article 50 period was agreed by the EU 27. Despite the previous commitment, as we were told, that the UK would not, under any circumstances, participate in the European Parliament elections, the Government were forced to do just that to secure the further extension. The results of those elections were unsurprising, and the issue of Europe has now forced the resignation of a second Conservative Prime Minister in a little over three years.

However, any hope that the Conservative leadership race, including a refreshingly honest campaign by Rory Stewart, would inject a bit of realism into the Brexit saga was short-lived. The man most likely to become the next Prime Minister continues to display a wilful ignorance, asserting that we can leave with no deal in October but still benefit from a transition period and the continuation of tariff-free trade. Either he does not understand the importance of ratifying a withdrawal agreement in order to secure a transition period or he is willing to mislead the country in his quest to enter No. 10. Neither of those possibilities reflect well on him; nor do they suggest that, as Prime Minister, he would be able to negotiate a close and mutually beneficial ongoing relationship with the EU 27. Jeremy Hunt initially pledged that he was willing to take the country out of the EU with no deal and that it was his firm intention that our exit would take place on 31 October, but that, as the slightly more sensible candidate, his preference is for a deal, even if it takes a little extra time. With clarity like that, it is not hard to understand why our European neighbours find British politics so confusing and frustrating.

A no-deal Brexit—the worst possible outcome—is, as the clock ticks down, a real and frightening possibility. I had hoped to hear from the noble Baroness today that Mrs May had emphasised that the UK would do everything possible to avoid that scenario, but we did not. That is why I have tabled a Motion for debate next Wednesday, 3 July—your Lordships can see it in the green sheets of House of Lords Business—to establish a Joint Committee of both Houses to explore the costs and implications of a no-deal exit. Our aim is to be helpful to Parliament in investigating and reporting back with hard facts, not just views or opinions.

To return to the matter at hand, this summit provided Mrs May with the opportunity to bid farewell to her fellow leaders and pave the way for the new Prime Minister. However, with Mr Johnson currently most likely to win the keys to Downing Street, perhaps this was the moment of realisation. There were some warm words for Mrs May, including from an unlikely source in the form of President Macron. Perhaps he was recalling a song from Joni Mitchell in which she sang,

“you don’t know what you’ve got

Till it’s gone”.

This summit highlighted that, while Theresa May is still in office, she is not in power. That is not entirely her fault. The UK lost considerable influence under David Cameron, and Mrs May’s authority has been undermined both by members of her Cabinet and by her Back-Benchers. Nevertheless, last week’s meeting made it clear that, although Mrs May had a seat at the table, the UK had lost its voice. In years gone by, the UK has been a decisive player in allocating the EU’s top jobs, including gaining the office of High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy in 2009—a position held by the former Leader of this House, the noble Baroness, Lady Ashton of Upholland. Under the last Labour Government, we were instrumental in advancing collective international action, both within the EU and beyond, to prevent a climate catastrophe.

The outcomes of this summit matched expectations in the run-up to it. There was no agreement on appointments, meaning, as we have heard, further discussions and another summit in the days and weeks to come. Despite the UK Government having been pushed, via an Opposition day Motion in the Commons, into acknowledging the urgency of dealing with the climate emergency and setting a target of zero emissions by 2050, the EU’s commitment is disappointing. I understand that the position was watered down by member states, including Poland, one of Mrs May’s strongest allies. Given the urgency of the issue, I hope that the Prime Minister pressed Poland and others to accept a stronger position. Perhaps the noble Baroness can tell us whether the Prime Minister made any attempt to gain support from Poland and whether she had any bilateral discussions with the head of that country.

Whatever happens next with Brexit, the next Prime Minister must recognise the importance of the UK and the EU working together to protect the environment. All the issues raised by this summit—disinformation and hybrid threats, climate change and external relations regarding Russia—are ones on which EU co-operation is absolutely vital and in which the role of the UK could and should have been positive. What could have been an optimistic and ambitious start to a new institutional cycle was instead a sign of a Europe in flux. Populist rhetoric and climate change scepticism are on the rise, and not just in the Conservative Party.

Mrs May obviously wants to secure a more positive legacy, both at home and abroad, than that of her predecessor. She could have tried to use this summit to that end. Sadly, it echoed her premiership: an exercise in mismanagement and missed opportunities, and that, sadly, will be her legacy.

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement and join her in wishing the noble Lord, Lord Prescott, a speedy recovery and all our good wishes.

I do not know whether noble Lords saw the interview given by the Prime Minister as she arrived at last week’s Council meeting. It made me wince because she was asked, in effect, what she was hoping to get out of the meeting for the UK. The answer was, in effect, “Nothing”. She went with no authority at home and no locus for intervening substantially on any of the real discussions. I have been trying to decide when the UK last had such little influence in the affairs of Europe as a whole, but I cannot think of such a time. No doubt other Members of the House, particularly the historians, will be able to help me, but I suspect they too will be struggling.

The Council discussed some of the most crucial issues facing us: climate change, the disinformation threat to our democracies and external relations with our neighbours including Russia and Turkey. On all the conclusions reached, as the Statement makes clear, the UK was in agreement. On climate change, for example, the fact that a large majority of member states have signed up to reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 is in no small measure as a result of UK leadership on this issue over a number of years.

But the Council also adopted a new strategic agenda for the next five years, a decision about which the Statement makes no mention at all. Normally, when I see the words, “strategic agenda”, my eyes glaze over, but I have read this document; I wonder whether the Leader of the House has done so too. It is extremely wide-ranging and covers,

“protecting citizens and freedoms”,

economic development,

“building a climate-neutral, green, fair and social Europe … promoting Europe’s interests and values in the world”,

and “how to deliver” on its policy priorities. Everything in this strategy chimes in with the kind of Europe and world which we on these Benches have spent our political lives trying to promote.

Will the Leader of the House tell us whether there is anything in this strategy with which the Government disagree? If not, how do they think the UK can help achieve its aims while outside the EU, outside the negotiating chamber and outside the institutions which will be absolutely key if the strategy is to be made to work? The truth is that the EU’s agenda is our agenda. It is not Trump’s agenda, nor Putin’s, nor Modi’s, nor Xi’s, nor that of any other significant player on the world stage; yet these are the people whom the Brexiteers are asking us to embrace. To be unable to participate in implementing this strategy when we leave the EU would reduce the EU’s effectiveness in all the crucial areas it covers, as well as our own. Both of us would be losers.

The other thing that the Council covered was who should occupy the top posts in the EU for the period ahead. There were—indeed are—some excellent Liberal candidates, such as Margrethe Vestager for Commission President and Mark Rutte for President of the Council. It was one of the most oft-repeated arguments during the referendum that we had such people foisted on us, with no say; of course, as full participating members, we did have a major say. The irony is that, if and when we vote to remain in the EU at some point over the next 12 months, we will, for the first time ever, be a member state that will have had no say on who occupies these top posts.

This, however, is the least of the challenges we now face as a country. We have a Government with no effective majority, a potential Prime Minister who is the laughing stock of the world, and a Commons which cannot agree on any form of Brexit. The only way out of this shambles is a referendum on whether to remain in the EU followed by a general election to sweep out this Government. Only when we have done so will a British Prime Minister again be able to hold their head up at a future EU Council meeting, and in the world more generally.

I thank the noble Lord and the noble Baroness for their comments. I am happy to be here discussing an EU Council meeting, and I look forward to doing so again once—or, who knows, maybe more than that; let us hope it will be just once more.

The noble Lord and the noble Baroness asked about climate change. I can certainly reassure the noble Baroness that we led the way at this Council for our European partners to follow suit in committing to a net zero target by 2050. The Prime Minister was indeed disappointed that there was not unanimity on this. However, we are pleased that progress has been made and that the large majority of member states agreed that,

“climate neutrality must be achieved by 2050”.

Further work on this will be happening, and the EU will seek to agree the target as part of its submission to the UN on how it will meet its commitments under the Paris agreement by 2020. There will of course be other opportunities to discuss this extremely important issue, not least at the G20 meeting later this week which I mentioned and again at the UN Secretary-General’s climate change summit in September, so will we continue to take the global lead that we have done.

The noble Lord, Lord Newby, suggested that we might not have intervened strongly on a number of issues at the Council. As I have just highlighted, we most certainly did on climate change. As ever, we supported the regular six-month rollover of the tier 3 sanctions against Russia, another issue that we have been very vocal on and led the way on in terms of our European partners.

I am happy to let the noble Lord know that I did indeed read the strategic agenda, as he did—we may be the only two who did so, but it was a very interesting read. We supported the adoption of that agenda at the Council. As he rightly pointed out, we have a strong interest in continuing to collaborate on the challenges that we face collectively, which is why we want a strong and successful relationship with the EU once we leave.

My Lords, as my noble friend will know, if certain members of the ERG had taken a different line, we would not be here this evening as we would have left at the end of March. Three or four times over the last three years, perhaps even more than that, I have asked that we have a Joint Committee of both Houses. I am delighted that the Leader of the Opposition has now put that into a Motion for debate next week. Can my noble friend assure me that that will receive a positive response? We want the best talent in both Houses from all parties and from the Cross Benches in this House looking at this, the greatest crisis that our country has faced in peacetime, perhaps ever.

I thank my noble friend for his question. I am afraid I must disappoint him: while the EU Council gets into a lot of detail, it did not discuss the merits or otherwise of the noble Baroness’s Motion. In fact the EU Council did not discuss Brexit, no-deal planning or the views of the Conservative leadership, but I very much look forward to our debate next week relating to the noble Baroness’s Motion. We look forward to that discussion.

My Lords, do the Government recognise that it is essential that the UK conducts itself at governmental and parliamentary levels with courtesy and respect, is not disruptive for disruption’s sake, and that, more than ever, we need to work on our bilateral and multilateral relationships?

I entirely agree with the noble Lord. That is most certainly the approach that the Prime Minister took at this Council and which we will continue to take in future.

My Lords, one matter that leaps out of this Statement is that Iran was discussed only in the margins. How can it possibly be that a matter of such pressing urgency should have been discussed only in the margins of the meeting? What response did the Prime Minister get to the discussions that she had? Indeed, with whom did she have them?

On these occasions it has become almost trite to say that nothing has changed, but one thing that has certainly not changed—I hope the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will agree—is that the 27 remaining members of the EU refuse to consider any renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement. Will she pass that message on to the two candidates for the leadership of the Conservative Party?

The noble Lord is absolutely right that, as I said, there was no substantive discussion of Iran at the Council but it was indeed raised in discussions at the margins. However, I am sure he is aware that over the weekend my right honourable friend the Minister for the Middle East went to Tehran and met senior Iranian government representatives there. That visit was an opportunity for further engagement about our long-standing concerns over Iran’s destabilising activity. In those conversations he reiterated our assessment that Iran almost certainly bears responsibility for the recent attack on tankers in the Gulf of Oman and stressed that such activity needs to stop to allow for an immediate de-escalation of rising tensions. He also discussed the nuclear deal and reiterated our support for that, as well as raising our concerns over the continued imprisonment of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe. So while discussions did not happen at the Council, as the noble Lord points out, I assure him that we took the lead in having discussions in Tehran over the weekend.

The noble Lord is absolutely right that without a withdrawal agreement, as the EU has said, there can be no implementation period.

My Lords, the Leader’s remarkable agreement with the support expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Newby, for the EU five-year strategy document sounds to me like the sort of thing people on this side used to say. Could she send a copy of this to both candidates to make sure that sensible questions can be asked at the hustings about the future of the European Union and our relationship with it, based on this document?

The noble Lord will know that the Council’s conclusions are available for all to read. I am sure everyone interested will do so.

My Lords, in view of the very positive remarks in the Council’s report about foreign policy co-operation and its usefulness to Britain, is it not time that the Government said something positive about how they intend to continue that co-operation after we leave—if we leave? Very little has been said about that. The current Foreign Secretary and his predecessor, who are now the two candidates for the Conservative Party leadership, have made hostile remarks about European co-operation on occasion when in office. What we need to educate our public is a clear statement from the Government about the sort of institutionalised foreign policy co-operation which they hope to continue after we leave.

I am afraid I disagree with the noble Lord. I think we have been quite clear about our desire to continue international co-operation. Of course, the EU represents one set of partners, but we are involved in a whole array of global and multilateral organisations. We will continue to play a leading part in those and are very proud to do so. That has been a hallmark of what we have been talking about and what we want to continue to do.

My Lords, as on many occasions when we have had Statements on the European Council, the story behind the Statement is one of sensible co-operation in so many important areas. In view of some of the wilder anti-European statements made by both Conservative Party leadership candidates in recent months, can the Leader assure us that co-operation on these very important areas will continue in future, with us as participants?

As I have said, and as the Statement made clear, the Prime Minister approached this Council as she always does—in an extremely co-operative manner. We have been very clear that we want a strong partnership with the European Union going forward, but it will be up to her successor to take that forward. The Prime Minister has always been constructive in her discussions with the European Union and our international partners.

My Lords, I realise that the noble Baroness cannot be held responsible for the views or words of the Tory party leadership candidates. However, unless I misheard her, she said very clearly in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, that, without a withdrawal agreement, there can be no implementation period. If I did not mishear her, would she care to speculate on why that apparent truth is not clear to at least one of the candidates?

I am afraid I will not be drawn into speculation, but I am happy to say that the noble Baroness did not mishear me. The EU has said, and I believe a number of Council members said so again over the weekend, that without a withdrawal agreement, there is no implementation period. That is why I, the Cabinet and the Prime Minister have been working hard to get a deal. I have always been clear that, in my view and the Prime Minister’s, that was the best way to leave and begin a prosperous and successful relationship with the EU.

My Lords, may I press my noble friend? I am well aware that the Council did not discuss the Motion tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, at its recent meeting. However, with the Motion now tabled, I asked her whether the Government will welcome it. I very much hope they will.

I am afraid I have said all I can on that matter at this point. As I said, we look forward to the debate next week.

My Lords, in answer to an earlier question, the noble Baroness said that the UK had taken the lead on Iran by going to Tehran. One of the key aspects of European co-operation in the past, and of the moves towards a JCPOA, was precisely the démarche of the EU3—the UK working with France and Germany. Can the UK realistically take a lead on foreign policy on its own? What work is the UK doing with its French and German partners, and ideally with the Dutch and other like-minded partners, to ensure that we have co-operation and leverage going forward, regardless of any EU-UK security treaty?

I did not say that the UK was taking the lead; I merely said that the noble Lord was right that there was no discussion of the matter at the Council. I wanted to point out, however, that we were involved and engaged and I highlighted the visit to Tehran as an example of that. I did not mean to mislead the noble Baroness or to say that we were in the lead, but we are playing an important part. We continue to talk to our partners, including France and Germany, about how to help to de-escalate this situation, which is in the best interests of not only the region but the world.

On the matter just raised, may we have an assurance that we will not buckle under pressure from the United States of America?

The Prime Minister has been very clear on this point. We have continued to support the nuclear deal, for instance, even though the United States have not, and we will continue to work with our European partners because we believe that this has helped stability. We will continue to talk to Iran on that basis.

Since there is a moment in hand—I apologise to the Leader—it might be worthy of note that the whole question of Iran and Russia, and therefore China, geopolitically, is a moving target that we need to understand fully. Iran is now a potential member of the Eurasian Economic Union so there is a whole new dynamic in world affairs that we need to understand. We in this country need to be on the right side of the future.

I agree with the noble Viscount. There will be a further opportunity at the G20 later this week for us to talk to our global allies about some of these extremely difficult and dangerous issues.

My Lords, as we have a few minutes to spare, may I press the noble Baroness on my point about Poland? Did the Prime Minister take the opportunity to discuss climate change with Poland and put pressure on it to take a better position than that taken by other EU countries?

I am afraid I cannot talk about private conversations. What I can say is that the Prime Minister led the advocacy for countries to adopt the target and was disappointed when that did not happen. We will continue through all our forums and in all our discussions to advocate that task because it is the right thing to do. I believe that a number of countries wanted further information and that the EU is doing further work to allay some of the concerns raised by countries that did not feel able to support the target. I reassure the noble Baroness that we will continue to put forward our view that the EU needs to make this move. To achieve what we want in tackling climate change, there must be a global effort.