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European Political Community

Volume 825: debated on Monday 31 October 2022


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government how they intend to use their involvement in the new European Political Community to the advantage of the United Kingdom and for the improvement of relations with its European neighbours.

My Lords, the UK attended the summit of the European Political Community as an independent sovereign nation, pursuing our national interest and working with our European neighbours on issues that matter to the British people, such as our support for Ukraine, energy and migration. The summit was an opportunity for the UK to lead the European debate through productive exchanges with European leaders, and we will build on this enhanced co-operation with our European neighbours.

I am grateful to my noble friend for those encouraging remarks and particularly for the attendance of the then Prime Minister at an event that dealt mostly with security and energy matters. Can he elucidate on future programmes for that entity? Do we know precisely what it will be discussing in future? Can he give me an assurance that our current Prime Minister will also attend? Does my noble friend also agree that we should use every opportunity to re-establish and improve our relations both with Europe and with the EU?

My Lords, it is expected—more than expected; it has been agreed—that the next host will be Moldova, followed by Spain, and the former Prime Minister Liz Truss agreed to host the third summit in the UK. Needless to say, we will engage with the hosts as well as with other partners to shape not just the event that we are hosting but those in Moldova and Spain.

My Lords, it was certainly a significant meeting. I want to ask the Minister two things: first, when will the Government set out to Parliament their aims and principles underlying engagement in this new forum? Secondly, will the Government commit to making a Statement to both Houses following each plenary session?

I thank the noble Earl for the second half of his question, which I will convey to the Government; it is not a commitment that I can make but I imagine that it is something that the Government will want to do. The UK has been clear from the start about the importance of any new European political gathering not duplicating the established work of, for example, NATO, the Council of Europe, the OSCE or the UN. However, the summit was an opportunity for the UK to lead that European debate and deliver on issues that matter for the UK. It is worth pointing out that around a third of the participants at the summit are not members of the European Union. No new structures, institutions or anything of the sort were created; this is a forum for addressing pan-European issues of common interest.

The attendance of the former Prime Minister at the EPC meeting was a welcome surprise. Given that one of the themes was security, as cited by the noble Lord, Lord Kirkhope, can the Minister tell us what plans the Government have to advance co-operation in the foreign and security sphere; for instance, by providing support to EU civil and military missions under the EU’s common security and defence policy?

My Lords, there were no formal conclusions from the summit itself but progress was undoubtedly made in a bunch of areas and key priorities for the UK. For example, the former Prime Minister and President Macron issued a joint statement confirming plans to finalise arrangements to proceed with the Sizewell C nuclear power station by the end of the month—to be built, as noble Lords will know, by EDF. There was also agreement to enhance broader civil nuclear co-operation, to conclude a bilateral agreement on illegal migration, and to hold the first bilateral summit since 2018 in France next year.

My Lords, on the list that my noble friend just read out, he did not mention the use of interconnectors between the UK and the EU and what would happen in the event of an energy emergency. My understanding is that there is no agreement between the UK and the EU to cover such an eventuality. Was this discussed at the summit and what progress is being made to implement such an agreement?

My Lords, it will be for BEIS to provide specific details on next steps in relation to this issue but I can confirm that it was discussed. The former Prime Minister pushed for the development of new North Sea hybrid interconnectors to accelerate renewables capacity, among other things, but I am afraid that I will have to leave the outcome to colleagues in BEIS.

My Lords, I know it feels like some time ago but, at the Conservative Party conference, the Foreign Secretary said:

“We want to find ways of working well with our neighbours and partners … in Europe”.

I am rather disappointed with the Minister’s response; the security situation is incredibly grave and we do need more formal structures to address security. Instead of trading insults and threats to break international law, will the Government consider an EU-UK security pact to complement NATO in light of the security threats that we now face?

My Lords, the UK will always do what is in our interests, and our interests are closely aligned with those of our European neighbours. The fact that progress was made at the forum without that forum being owned exclusively by the EU, with the summit being open to other non-EU member countries on the continent—as I said, one-third of the attendees were not members of the European Union—and the fact that no new structures or institutions needed to be created mean that this is exactly the kind of forum that we need, to be able to talk honestly with our friends and to align our response to things such as Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine with one another in our mutual interest.

My Lords, both the UK and the EU have said that they want musicians to be able to tour freely. The present situation is particularly damaging to young up-and-coming artists seeking to perform in the EU. Might the UK Government seek to give a lead in improving relationships through unilateral actions, such as setting up a music export office to help to promote UK musicians globally or providing extra funding through a transitional support package, similar to that for fishing, particularly to help younger artists?

Music has been one of the great exports of this country for many decades now. I know that the noble Lord’s comments will be heard loud and clear by colleagues in the appropriate departments.

My Lords, what provisions have been made for this new community, which we warmly welcome, to meet in an emergency? Is there to be a small—I stress “small”—secretariat so that these nations, which include so many outside the European Union, can keep closely in touch?

My Lords, as I understand it, there are no plans for a formal secretariat. That is not to say that some kind of structure would not be set up on informal basis, but there are no plans for a formal secretariat. I point out to the noble Lord that there are numerous forums—not least NATO and the UN—where countries can meet in the event of emergencies.

Does the Minister agree that the strength of a bilateral relationship is when the participants in that relationship come equally to the table? There is a real benefit from having parliamentarians engaging first-hand with colleagues around the EU, as indeed with the Commission, just to help out the overall form of camaraderie and get things moving.

The noble Viscount makes an important point. That is true across all issues in all sectors. One of the most valuable organisations that I have been involved in is called GLOBE. It is about bringing legislators together from around the world to compare, and sometimes helpfully compete with one another in relation to, environmental legislation. That worked beautifully, and no doubt it works in every important sector.

My Lords, is not the overwhelming evidence of anyone involved in public life that if something starts out with a small secretariat, it nearly always ends up being a big secretariat?

My Lords, the participants, including the host country, are very clear that no new structures or institutions are to be created. That is absolutely not the purpose. There is a healthy scepticism towards the creation of such structures, precisely on the basis that they could end up duplicating the work of other such structures or even undermining it.

My Lords, given the suspected sabotage of the underground cables and communication pipes outside the island of Bornholm, affecting the supply of energy to Denmark and Sweden, what precautions are the Government taking to protect not just our interconnectors but all our underground cables, which are vital to our communications system in this country?

My Lords, I mentioned in response to a question from another noble Lord that discussions around the interconnectors took place, but I am afraid I am not in a position to provide an authoritative update. I will make sure that such an update is made available if that is possible.

My Lords, the Minister will recall the reply that he gave to the debate in your Lordships’ House in July about the blockading of the terminals in Ukraine, preventing grain flowing to the Horn of Africa and other poorer countries. He will have seen over the weekend that more than 200 vessels have been held in those ports, as Putin has now said that the blockade will recommence. Given that Turkey participated in the important summit in Prague, what discussions are we having with that country to ensure that the flow of grain will continue?

My Lords, those discussions with Turkey are ongoing, and they are key. As the noble Lord will know, Turkey, as an important NATO ally, played an important role in negotiating the Black Sea grain initiative that has enabled the export of over 8 million tonnes of grain and other foodstuffs through Ukraine’s Black Sea ports since 1 August. Those discussions continue with urgency, and they matter.