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Foreign Secretary statement on the Balance of Competences of the European Union

Full text of the Foreign Secretary's statement to Parliament on the Balance of Competences of the European Union.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

“With permission, Mr Speaker, I will make a statement on the review of the balance of competences of the EU as it affects the United Kingdom.

Membership of the EU is in the UK’s national interests. The Government are committed to playing a leading role in the EU and protecting the UK’s national democracy, but the EU needs to reform to meet the challenges of competitiveness, a stable eurozone and greater democratic legitimacy. The crisis in the eurozone will almost certainly mean great changes for the European Union over the course of this decade. We understand the case for eurozone countries to take steps towards closer fiscal and economic integration as a logical consequence of monetary union. Given the UK’s place outside the euro, it is right that we have said we will not be part of that closer integration. We support the existence already of multiple forms of EU membership. This flexibility is in the interest of both the EU and UK. The EU is not and should not become a matter of everything or nothing.

As the European Union continues to develop, however, we need to be absolutely clear when it is most appropriate to take decisions at the national or local level–closer to the people affected–and in other cases when it is best to take action at the EU or global level. It would be rash to predict with certainty how the eurozone crisis will end, what solutions will be agreed upon and found to be workable and sustainable, and what choices other countries will make. Until we have a better idea of the answer to those questions, we will not know the decisions that all EU countries will be facing.

The crisis in the eurozone has intensified the debate in every country on the future of Europe, and there is no exception to that here. Equally, it is essential for the long-term success of any institution that its members are vigilant in reforming it so that it remains modern, effective, efficient and legitimate. The EU is no exception to that, either, but our national debate and the broader European debate must be thorough and informed.

Today, I have published a Command Paper that sets out in detail how we will deliver our undertaking in the coalition programme for government to

“examine the balance of the EU’s existing competences”.

The review will be an audit of what the EU does and how it affects us in the United Kingdom. It will look at where competence lies, how the EU’s competences, whether exclusive, shared or supporting, are used and what that means for our national interest. These are issues that affect all EU member states and could have a bearing on the future shape of the EU as a whole.

The review will be a valuable exercise for deepening understanding in Britain of the nature of our relationship with the European Union and how it has evolved over time, and will provide a constructive and serious British contribution to the public debate across Europe about how the EU can be reformed, modernised and improved. The review will be taken forward in a comprehensive and analytical way, jointly co-ordinated by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Cabinet Office, and the Minister for Europe and I will answer to Parliament for it.

Government Departments will undertake the review for the areas of EU competence for which they are responsible. For example, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will be responsible for conducting the review on the EU’s competence on fisheries, and will be jointly responsible with the Department of Energy and Climate Change for the EU’s competence on the environment. The review will be an outward-facing exercise, both domestically and internationally, and Departments will be tasked with consulting and inviting evidence from everyone with a knowledge of and interest in the exercise of the EU’s competences, including not only Committees of Parliament and the devolved Administrations but businesses, civil society, other interested parties and individuals with expertise in and experience of each area.

We will be as interested to hear from car manufacturers about EU product standards as from non-governmental organisations about environmental policies or security experts about combating organised crime. We will also invite our European and G20 partners, as well as the EU institutions and other international bodies, to contribute evidence if they wish. The review should be seen as a necessary and positive part of reforming Europe. Unless there is a good reason to the contrary, we expect to make all evidence submitted publicly available.

To do justice to the complexity of the issues and the interests at stake, it will be important to allow enough time for this process to cover the necessary ground. Departments will begin substantive consultation this autumn, and reports informed by evidence received on individual areas of competence will be published as the review progresses. The review will conclude in 2014.

The end result will be the most thorough and detailed analysis possible of what the exercise of the EU’s powers does and what it means for the United Kingdom. The review will present the evidence and analysis, and of course it will be for political parties to decide on their own policy recommendations. Such a comprehensive piece of work has never been undertaken before, but it is long overdue. It will ensure that our national debate is grounded in knowledge of the facts and it will be a valuable aid for policy makers in the future. Of course, this country is not alone in giving thought to the future evolution of the EU. Work is also being undertaken by, for example, my colleague the German Foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle, and a number of my EU colleagues on the future of Europe. Our exercise will inform that wider debate.

With the European Union Act 2011, this coalition Government have already made an historic change to how we handle EU matters in this country, with new powers for Parliament and a referendum lock, so that no future treaty change that transfers powers from the UK to the EU can happen without the express consent of the British people. The work that I am announcing today will help to inform decisions on Britain’s future path in Europe. It is not a consultation about disengaging or withdrawing from the EU. The coalition Government’s policy on Europe has not changed. We remain committed to our membership of the EU and to a strong and stable Europe. [Interruption.] I am smiling: I am amused by one of my hon. Friends behind me. I also believe that the EU’s future lies in continued variable geometry, in different layers of integration. Britain will choose not to take part in some layers, such as Schengen or the euro, but will continue to play a leading part in completing the single market, championing free trade and enlargement, as well as in foreign policy and new areas, such as the unitary patent, which benefits British business.

It is my view, as it is the Prime Minister’s, that in future we must take the opportunities for Britain to shape its relationship with Europe in ways that advance our national interest in free trade, open markets and co-operation. That should involve less cost, less bureaucracy and less meddling in the issues that belong to nation states. This analytical exercise will help to inform political parties and the British public, as they consider how the United Kingdom’s democracy, prosperity and security are best advanced in Europe–and in the world at large–and what kind of Europe it should become.”

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Published 12 July 2012