Skip to main content

Council of the European Union: United Kingdom Presidency

Volume 774: debated on Wednesday 20 July 2016

Private Notice Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government to explain the sudden change in policy in respect of the UK’s expected presidency of the European Council, despite the reassurance given to the House as recently as 19 July 2016 that the UK would remain a full member until exit negotiations were concluded.

My Lords, as I said yesterday, we wanted to discuss this issue with our European colleagues. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister had a conversation with the European Council president yesterday evening in which this matter was raised. It was agreed that the UK would relinquish the presidency as the Government concluded that it would be difficult for us to hold the presidency while prioritising our negotiations to leave the EU.

My Lords, the promise to clarify the issue fairly quickly is appreciated, but I am disappointed that the Government did not seek to make a Statement to the House today. Yesterday, in response to a question from the noble Lord, Lord Cormack, the noble Lord, Lord Bridges, told us that Ministers would discuss the issue of the presidency with EU colleagues. He also said that,

“we remain a full member of the EU until negotiations are concluded, with the rights and responsibilities this entails”.—[Official Report, 19/7/16; col. 529.]

I appreciate that holding the presidency might be uncomfortable for Ministers—it might even be a bit embarrassing at times. But, as we prepare to enter into negotiations, we want to be as strong and as influential as possible to get the best possible deal and the best benefits for the UK.

The Minister gave the reason of how busy we are, and the statement from Downing Street today for not holding the presidency was that we will be,

“very busy with negotiations to leave the EU”.

Presumably, some analysis was undertaken of the costs and benefits before reaching this decision. What benefits will there be compared with what we stand to lose by not holding the EU presidency?

I am delighted to be back here to discuss this again in such a short time—the third time in three days. On reflection, I slightly refute the point that has been made that holding the presidency is a reflection of our full responsibilities, simply because nobody can claim that Germany or France, when they are not holding the presidency, are failing to play a full role in the EU.

My Lords, let me make the point. This point was discussed in the report of the European Union Committee which was published on 4 May. I shall cite the evidence that was given by Sir David Edward, a former judge of the European Court of Justice, who asked:

“What is the interest of the United Kingdom, particularly as President of the Council, in discussing the details of a directive that will not apply if we withdraw?”.

Another witness, an emeritus professor of law at the University of Oxford, set out similar concerns and argued:

“There would be some air of unreality in the UK presiding over meetings most of the work of which would involve future action”.

As a result, the committee itself concluded:

“Were the electorate to vote to withdraw from the EU, the Government should give immediate consideration to suggesting alternative arrangements for its presidency”.

That is what we have done. As I say, the Government have decided that it would not be possible to chair discussions on the future of Europe in a dispassionate way when everyone around the table knows that our country is leaving the EU. To do so would not be in Europe’s interests or in our own.

My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that, as a result of this decision, which I very much welcome, not only will officials be able to concentrate on Brexit but taxpayers will be saved the cost of the presidency, which would be up to €100 million?

My noble friend makes a very good point. I cannot verify the actual or estimated costs of the presidency, but I have been told that the estimated range of costs of recent presidencies has been between €35 million and €170 million. As an indication of the impact on time that a presidency has, we understand that over six months, the Irish presidency held 374 trilogue meetings and used 111 hours of Ministers’ time just in the European Parliament.

My Lords, does this not go to show the importance of involving Parliament very soon in a comprehensive Brexit strategy? Are we going to be subjected to this salami slicing so that by the time the decision is made to trigger Article 50, however that decision is made—which should involve Parliament—it will all have been wrapped up without us? How many other decisions are going to be made incrementally over the next few months?

I am sorry that the noble Baroness feels that way. I can assure her that the Prime Minister and the Secretary of State have made it absolutely clear that they wish to involve Parliament, and indeed I intend to have conversations with my opposite numbers on other Benches as well as with the wealth of talent that rests in this House. Many of your Lordships have extensive experience of the European Union and I fully intend to draw on it.

My Lords, does not my noble friend realise that to change policy effectively in less than 12 hours is hardly treating this House with respect? Yesterday the answers he gave—which I am sure were given in total good faith—led us all to believe that whatever the decision, it was some little time off. If trust is to be maintained and Parliament is to play a part, we cannot have any more of this cavalier treatment by the Government of either House of Parliament.

I apologise for that, but when I said in a timely manner, I meant in a timely manner. If the noble Lord feels that I am treating him in a cavalier way, given that he of all people is a Cavalier in the sense that he is a person who respects the traditions of this House as opposed to the Roundheads, I must apologise to him. But as I just said to the noble Baroness, we fully intend to involve this House and the other place in decisions as we go along.

My Lords, is it not the case that the person who was treated in a cavalier manner was the noble Lord himself? Can he tell us whether the decision was taken at No. 10 or in the department of which he is a Minister—and, if so, whether he was party to that decision?

Noble Lords on all sides of the House know full well the mantra that discussions between Ministers are kept between ourselves. All I would say is that this decision was taken yesterday afternoon in light of the conversation with the President of the Council.

My Lords, we have been told repeatedly by Ministers at the Dispatch Box that nothing will change until the day we leave the European Union. But so far our Commissioner has resigned, admittedly to be reappointed, and the Government have now decided that we will not take on the presidency of the European Union. What else are we likely to withdraw from between now and actually leaving the Union?

As I say, we will keep the House informed. I am sorry that the noble Baroness feels that way but I have nothing further to add.

My Lords, is the Minister familiar with the phrase, “I beg your pardon. Could you say that again?”? Yesterday, clearly, in answer to the noble Lord, Lord Cunningham of Felling, he said:

“The noble Lord speaks with great experience … I absolutely heed what he says but, as I said, that is exactly why we are taking our time to consider these matters”.—[Official Report, 19/7/16; col. 530.]

It is a complete contradiction from yesterday to today without an adequate answer to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Cormack. Can the Minister explain to the House exactly what happened?

I have to say that a number of discussions have taken place informally across Europe, culminating in the conversation that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister had last night. It was a culmination of discussions and consideration.

My Lords, can my noble friend explain why the noble Lord, Lord Hill, left his post as Commissioner—thereby, as I understand it, depriving us of holding a crucial financial portfolio?

I think that that was a decision taken by the noble Lord, Lord Hill, and I shall leave it to him to explain it. We have now replaced the noble Lord and I am looking to the future, not always to the past. We have replaced the noble Lord, Lord Hill, with an extremely experienced diplomat, Sir Julian King.

My Lords, surely the Government are right on this, leaving aside the question of timing. We cannot on the one hand plan to come out of the European Union and at the same time claim to represent its longer-term interests. It goes far deeper than just embarrassment, as the Opposition said.

I agree. That is why I cited what was said to the House’s European Union Committee itself, which cited exactly that point.

My Lords, a little while ago the Minister said that the Government would make alternative arrangements for our presidency, which we have since decided not to do. What alternative arrangements do the Government have in mind?

If the noble Lord is referring to who will replace us, that matter is being determined by the European Union as we speak.

My Lords, may I commend the Government on the very sensible decision they have taken, for the reasons set out by my noble friend? I must say that I find this very curious. Normally in this House I hear noble Lords criticising the Government for not making up their mind. Now they are being criticised for having made up their mind.

I thank my noble friend for that point and can reassure the House that this decision was taken after due consideration.