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Council of the European Union: UK Presidency

Volume 774: debated on Tuesday 19 July 2016


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to take the Presidency of the Council of the European Union in the second half of 2017.

My Lords, we remain a full member of the EU until negotiations are concluded, with the rights and responsibilities this entails. Obviously, the outcome of the referendum raises a number of issues, of which the presidency is one, which we will want to discuss with our European colleagues and come to an appropriate decision on in a timely manner.

My Lords, while I regret the additional acronym on the Order Paper, I warmly congratulate my noble friend on his well-deserved new appointment. It is an extremely challenging one. I was somewhat reassured by what he said, but I ask him not to be so tentative. Is it not true that we are a full member of the European Union until we cease to be a full member? Would a man who announced that he was going to retire at the age of 65 stop work at 64, and if he did, would he not be roundly criticised for so doing? We must accept all the obligations, meet all the challenges, and indeed accept all the privileges that membership brings, until we cease to be a member.

First, I thank my noble friend for his comments. I am sorry that he does not much like the acronym. I entirely agree that we will and must continue to play our full role in the EU, as I said, exercising the rights and observing the responsibilities that our membership brings, and as your Lordships will know, just yesterday we played an active role at the Foreign Affairs Council. We will clarify our position in due course. I am mindful of what my noble friend has just said and of the wish for clarity that some member states have expressed. We are considering the options, but we have not had substantial talks on this as yet.

My Lords, I congratulated the noble Lord yesterday—although I am not sure how we pronounce DfEEU—and I think that we have made some progress here today. When, on 27 June, the then Lord Privy Seal answered a similar question, the response was, “Well, that will be decided in the months ahead”, so we are now doing this in a timely fashion. However, it is important that the Government set out a clear timetable for these things not only to reassure our European neighbours but to reassure Parliament about our obligations as a member of the EU.

I thank the noble Lord again— and by the way, I think he pronounced DfEEU very well. I cannot go further right now on setting out a timetable, but I absolutely understand what he says. He is right to say that we need to respect the views of our European partners. As I said, we are considering our options and will do so in a timely fashion.

While the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, is taking his time, does he accept that it would be extremely difficult for the United Kingdom to conduct a presidency if, under Article 50, it is banned from taking part in certain meetings that will inevitably have to happen during the presidency? Does he also accept that the parliamentary authorities will need to make arrangements—catering, venues and functions, among many others—if we are to carry out that presidency? Will the Government commit to refunding the House if they make a very late decision and contracts have to be cancelled?

I thank the noble Baroness for those points. Those are exactly the kinds of things that we need to take into consideration.

My Lords, why would the United Kingdom not want to take up the presidency—not just of the whole of the European Union but of each Council of Ministers? It would give us significant influence in those Council discussions over a six-month period which will be crucial to the negotiations for Britain leaving the European Union. It would be madness not to take up this opportunity.

The noble Lord speaks with great experience—far more than I have had after only 36 hours in the job. I absolutely heed what he says but, as I said, that is exactly why we are taking our time to consider these matters.

My Lords, will my noble friend think of the morale of those who currently work for the European institutions? What thought is being given to their exit strategy when the European Union is left free of the United Kingdom? Will they immediately come back to the British Civil Service or will they have to leave the Civil Service completely?

My noble friend makes a very good point. Obviously, there is a large reservoir of talent and expertise in the EU among British citizens who could play a considerable role and make a significant contribution in the months and years ahead. We are looking at that, but I cannot go any further at this precise moment.

I suggest to the noble Lord that, in the interests of consistency, which is always a good facet in government, he now goes to the Statement made after the last European Council meeting, repeated by the noble Baroness, Lady Stowell, in this House. I questioned her about that Statement and she insisted that the words in it meant exactly what they said—that we would play a full role, accepting all our obligations.

We will play a full role, exercising the rights and observing the responsibilities that membership brings. However, on the presidency itself, I have nothing further to say now.

My Lords, is there not another consideration that demands urgency in the Government’s decision? Should we decide not to take the presidency, there will be an awful lot of preparatory work to be done by whichever country has that responsibility. Are we completely egocentric?

No, my Lords. The noble Lord also speaks with a lot of experience on these matters. That is exactly why we need to make this decision in a timely manner and after due consideration of all the points that have been raised this afternoon.

My Lords, as we have no Commissioner at the moment in Europe and we are informed that we must continue as full members of Europe, is it not right that we should appoint a new Commissioner to that organisation?

Last week my right honourable friend the Prime Minister confirmed to the Commission president that Sir Julian King is the UK candidate to replace the noble Lord, Lord Hill. As I am sure a number of your Lordships know, Sir Julian is an experienced diplomat. It will now be for the President of the European Commission to propose a portfolio for the new Commissioner.