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European Political Community Summit

Volume 834: debated on Tuesday 12 December 2023


Tabled by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what preparations they are making for the fourth European Political Community Summit, to be held in the United Kingdom in spring 2024.

My Lords, I was glad to hear the Foreign Secretary refer to the European Political Community as one of the important fora for the UK. I ask the Minister—

I thank the noble Lord for sharing the second part of his Question; it is always good for a Minister to get early warning. The UK values the European Political Community as an important platform for co-ordination on European issues. The EPC enables European leaders to come together to tackle shared challenges, from the war in Ukraine to achieving energy security to tackling illegal migration. The UK has attended all three summits so far at Prime Minister level. We are continuing to consult partners about the UK EPC summit and will make an announcement in due course.

My Lords, I presume we are chairing this meeting as we are the host. Does that give us particular influence over the agenda? Does it imply that our Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary will be visiting some of our major partners in Europe in the coming months to ensure that the meeting goes well? If it is in May or June and it looks as if the Republicans are ahead in the US election campaign, this will clearly be one of the main multilateral fora for British foreign policy. What preparations to involve the country and inform the public will there also be beforehand?

My Lords, I think that many countries will be seized with elections next year—about 60 regional and national elections are planned. I can assure the noble Lord that both my noble friend the Foreign Secretary and my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who attended the last summit, are focused on strengthening our partnerships on important issues including the war on our continent in Ukraine. The EPC has shown a strong ability to co-ordinate and to be very vocal in our unity of purpose and action on such important issues.

My Lords, the noble Lord stressed the importance of security in discussions at the summit. With the war in Europe, it is even more vital that we discuss those issues. As the noble Lord knows, I have asked this question before. Are the Government prepared to use this summit to propose a new UK-EU security pact, as advocated by Labour, to complement the work of NATO to ensure that we properly address those security issues with our nearest partner?

There are several issues the noble Lord has now caveated when asking me questions by saying “as advocated by Labour”.

Well, it is always good to be prepared, but do not count your chickens before they are hatched. To quote a former Baroness, “We fight on, we fight to win”. We will continue to be resolute.

In all seriousness, the EPC is an informal gathering of leaders, as the noble Lord knows. We remain very much focused. The agenda is important. It is not just on security. The noble Lord will be aware that previous EPC summits have discussed important issues of security, particularly energy security. I think that the whole of Europe, and indeed the world, is seized of the importance of energy security for the medium and long term.

My Lords, my noble friend the Minister will be aware of the discussions about collaboration and co-operation with the EU on defence and security matters, known as PESCO, which have been ongoing for over 12 months. There have been concerns about openness and transparency in respect of that agreement. Is the Minister satisfied that there will be sufficient scrutiny and oversight by Parliament during the ongoing discussions and on the final agreement that is reached?

One of the points my noble friend has raised—my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been clear on this, as have other members of the Cabinet—is the importance of the sovereignty of the British Parliament on a range of issues. While we value strengthened co-operation and engagement on a raft of issues, including those we have with the EU when it comes to European multilateral co-operation, it is important that the sovereignty of Parliament is always prioritised.

My Lords, Russia and Belarus will not be participating, which is right, because a thread within the three EPCs has been human rights and the consistent message to support the European Court of Human Rights and re-embolden the Convention on Human Rights. The Minister will recall that the first topic in the first EPC was immigration. Will the Foreign Office be advising our European friends that, in response to immigration challenges, they should bring forward legislation on whose front page the Minister responsible cannot certify that it is consistent with the obligations that we have to the convention?

My Lords, I am sure the noble Lord will be watching the debate in the other place with great attention and, of course, immigration is very much the remit of my colleagues in the Home Office. The United Kingdom has stood steadfast on the issue of human rights, and it is important that we continue to do so and that the legislation brought forward rightly gets tested by our own legal system. I think the Government’s record has also shown that even where we disagree with decisions taken by our courts, we adhere to them. That adherence to the rule of law is an important strength of our United Kingdom.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the first three EPCs have been great successes and that that success has largely been born not of what is on the agenda at the EPC but in the fact that leaders of the 47 countries now concerned are able to meet to discuss matters even on a bilateral basis? Can he confirm that, because it is very important for people to hear it around the place? Secondly, do we have any plans for developing the EPC beyond where the first three got to?

On the noble Earl’s second point, this is a new organisation which was put forward by the French President and we supported it. I agree with him on his first point as well: that we have seen the convening of leaders. It is not just the formal agenda—if there is such a thing—because this is an informal meeting. The noble Lord, Lord Purvis, alluded to illegal migration, and at the last summit Prime Minister Sunak and Prime Minister Meloni were able to meet to tackle some of the key issues that impact not just our country but Europe as a whole.

To follow up the question just asked by the noble Earl, will the Prime Minister be conducting a series of bilateral conversations and, if he is doing that, will he include at the top of the list the new Prime Minister of Poland?

My Lords, I am not the diary manager for the Prime Minister—but you never know with the extension of mandates, roles and briefs. In all seriousness, I can speak quite specifically, as I know that my noble friend the Foreign Secretary is very seized of the importance of strengthening our relationship with our key European partners, and I am sure he will be focused on the agenda issues of artificial intelligence and the war in Ukraine. These are important issues not for our country alone, not just for Europe but for the world as a whole.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned migration, as did other noble Lords. Can the Minister indicate what tangible result has come from the discussions on migration at these summits?

My Lords, they provide an opportunity for agreements to be put in place, such as the UK’s agreements with Albania. Practical suggestions can be shared, and it can be ascertained how successes can be reflected across Europe. It is important when we look at illegal migration to note that there are two sides to the coin. The first is stopping illegal migration, but we also recognise that people migrate to countries for a variety of reasons, including bettering their lives, and some are fleeing persecution. The country that I represent on the world stage has a long tradition of standing up for the rights of the persecuted and that is really where we should be focused. Parties of different colours and different political persuasions have always stood up for that right and it is a proud tradition of our country.

Further to the supplementary question from the noble Lord, Lord Purvis, when the Prime Minister meets other member states, will he discuss concerns that others have about the rulings of the European Court of Human Rights? Will he do so particularly with the French Government, who have announced that they will disregard such rulings and have already begun to do so by sending an Uzbek asylum seeker back to Uzbekistan even though the European Court of Human Rights said that he would stand at risk torture and death? Can he also ask why they get away with it, but it causes a great rumpus here but no concern to the Lib Dems?

It has often been said that I have an ever-widening brief, and I am now being asked to speak for the French Government.

I shall not take up my noble friend’s offer, but I assure him of two things. First, we do point out the importance of adhering to agreements. Indeed, the United Kingdom is at the top of the league for adherence to the European Court of Human Rights’ decisions. Notwithstanding the criticisms we often get, the action demonstrably shows that the United Kingdom remains a proud holder of the international obligations that we have signed up to.