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President of the European Commission

Volume 836: debated on Tuesday 12 March 2024


Asked by

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Affairs when he will next meet the President of the European Commission.

My Lords, I have no immediate plans to meet the Commission President, but I meet regularly with Josep Borrell, the high representative, and with Maroš Šefčovič, who is the commissioner responsible for the UK-EU relationship. The Prime Minister meets regularly with the Commission President, and they have a very strong relationship.

I am grateful for that reply. In last week’s debate on financial affairs, a number of noble Lords proposed that Russia’s frozen assets should be used to send armaments to Ukraine and to repair its damaged infrastructure. My noble friend replied sympathetically, saying:

“We are aiming for the maximum amount of G7 and EU unity on this”.—[Official Report, 5/3/24; col. 1545.]

Six months ago, at the end of an EU summit, where there was broad support for that proposition, the President of the Commission said that the next step would be an actual proposal. When my noble friend next meets the President, therefore, will he urge her to make progress with the next proposal, because Ukraine needs every help it can get?

The noble Lord is completely right that Ukraine needs our help, and needs it urgently. We are continuing to discuss with allies the best legal basis for making progress. We believe that there are a number of options. We could take collective countermeasures, saying that all countries have been affected by Russia’s illegal invasion so there is that legal basis. The Americans believe that there is a case for using individual countermeasures, arguing that their individual country has been affected. Nevertheless, what we need to do in the G7 is to get the maximum unity. It may not be possible to get everyone to agree to the same process or the same amount, but we are hoping to make good progress.

My Lords, whenever the Foreign Secretary next meets the EU commissioner, will he take on board the need to resolve the supply of veterinary medicines under the Windsor Framework to Northern Ireland? The recent Command Paper said that technical solutions would be pursued with the European Commission. Can the Foreign Secretary indicate what discussions have taken place, or will take place? Will he give assurances to your Lordships’ House that these issues will be resolved to ensure the expeditious supply of veterinary medicines and vaccines to farmers in Northern Ireland?

I will look closely at the case that the noble Baroness raises. The Windsor Framework was a very good piece of negotiation that has helped to get the institutions back up and running in Northern Ireland, and that is wholly welcome. Of course, there are still issues that we need to resolve, and I will look carefully at the one she raises.

My Lords, a good place to have a meeting would be at the European Political Community. Originally, that meeting was going to take place in the spring of this year. In January, it was suddenly going to be in the first half of this year and no date has yet been set. Can the Minister say why there has been a delay in setting a date and when a date is likely to be set?

I am confident that a date will be set, that an excellent venue will be provided, and that the meeting will be a great success. We found that in the early part of the year there was a bit of a traffic jam of summitry. So many summits were coming at the same time that finding the right time where the leading people who needed to be there could be there was a challenge. However, we are very close to meeting that challenge, and I will update the House as soon as I can.

My Lords, on the question of the manufacture of weapons and munitions for Ukraine, is the Foreign Secretary aware that there is great concern that there is a depletion of these weapons in this country? Can he assure us that manufacturing in this country of weapons and munitions for Ukraine will be stepped up considerably over the next few weeks and months?

I think I can give that undertaking. The Prime Minister announced the package of support for Ukraine, at over £2.7 billion, which will ensure that it has the support it deserves from the United Kingdom. The Government are fully aware that we need to step up production, not just for Ukraine but to make sure that we deal with our depleted stocks. However, at the same time, there is a real task to be done across all the countries that support Ukraine to look at any weapons systems that are close to their expiration date. We will not be able to use them, but it could use them now.

My Lords, during the current Foreign Secretary’s sabbatical from politics, his immediate successor as Prime Minister, Mrs May, was negotiating an EU-UK security treaty. Does he think that now is a good time to reopen such discussions, precisely in light of the situation in Ukraine? That is one area where we could have common cause.

I do not think we should rule out different ways of working with the EU, but the Ukraine situation shows how the current arrangements can be made to work well. I have always said that, after Brexit, Britain should aim to be the best friend, neighbour and partner of the EU, and I think Ukraine shows that is exactly what we are doing. We have found ways of working together through these various formats, including the Wiesbaden formats and others. I am not sure that it is necessary to form some structured way of working when we have managed to do it on an ad hoc, rapid and effective basis.

My Lords, can I come back to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Young, about repurposing seized Russian assets for use in Ukraine? The Foreign Secretary will be aware that at the recent G20 meeting of Finance Ministers different views were expressed. I would be grateful if he could say something more about the position taken by the UK representative at that meeting, and, following on from his comments last time we had questions on this issue, could he say something about the discussions he has had with other nations which have adopted a more cautious approach? Has he been able to find a way forward or more agreement?

We have taken quite a forward view. We think there is a moral and political case for doing this, and we do not see the supposed economic damage that would be done as a strong argument against it. It is certainly true that some other countries are more cautious. Some EU countries are looking at spending the interest on the capital sum rather than the capital sum itself, but we are still making the argument for the maximum amount that can be done. Our view is simple: one day, Russia will have to pay reparations, and it does not make sense to wait for those reparations. It makes better sense to use the frozen assets and to make that that money available now.

My Lords, one of the weapon systems that Ukraine could certainly deal with is the Taurus missile from Germany. The German Parliament has passed this to be sent to Ukraine, but for some reason Chancellor Scholz is holding it up. Can we do anything to encourage the Germans to send the Taurus missile to Ukraine?

I am grateful for the noble Lord’s question. I spent some time in Germany last week making exactly this argument. It is obviously a sovereign decision for Germany, and so, just as we do not like other people telling us how to make sovereign decisions, we should couch our arguments carefully. However, I made the argument that there is no doubt that Storm Shadow has been incredibly effective, and no doubt that it has not been escalatory, because it has been used responsibly and correctly. The other point worth making is that if we want peace, we are more likely to get a just peace through strength and through backing our words with actions. We make these points to our German allies, but ultimately it will be for them to decide.

My Lords, when the Foreign Secretary wound up the debate a short while ago in this House, he said that ad-hockery was often quite a good approach in negotiations with European counter- parts. I can understand that in terms of taking advantage of opportunities when they arise. However, given the huge range of difficulties that businesses, particularly small businesses, are having at the moment in trying to surmount the various non-tariff barriers to trade between us and the EU, do we not also need a focused and comprehensive approach to the forthcoming negotiations with the EU?

I think the noble Baroness is right to put it like that, but that is what the trade and co-operation agreement is about. We have structured co-operation when it comes to that part of our relations, and obviously it is up to us in the time before it is re-examined to make the most of it and look at what other things we could do to help small businesses, such as VAT thresholds and—I have raised it before—electricity trading. These are some of the ideas that we are putting forward that we think could make a difference.

My Lords, can we look forward to an agreement with regard to Gibraltar and, if so, by when and with what conclusions? I am referring to the trilateral negotiations.

Generally speaking, in negotiations it is not a good idea to have too many artificial deadlines. Obviously, there is something of a deadline coming up as we are heading for a new set of EU elections and so a new set of Spitzenkandidat, which I remember from before my brief—how did the noble Baroness put it: holiday?—sabbatical. I am confident we can reach a good agreement. My honourable friend the Europe Minister was in Gibraltar yesterday, having talks with the Chief Minister. I think there is a good basis for an agreement, and we are working very hard to bring that about.