It is a great pleasure to have the honour of opening the first European Affairs debate of this new Government. These debates provide the House not only with the opportunity of considering developments in the European Union in general but more immediately they allow the House to give its thoughts on the forthcoming meeting of the European Council. In the past these debates have been held so shortly before those meetings that this House has had no real chance to ensure that its thinking is absorbed by the Government in its approach. This Government means to do better than that. It is our intention that this Government will be far more open to scrutiny from this House for all its actions at the European level.
New Government’s approach
The new Government will bring a fresh approach to Britain’s involvement in the EU. I said in Opposition that we would be active and activist, positive and energetic, from day one and we have been exactly that. The Prime Minister’s first visits to foreign capitals were to Paris and Berlin, where he had highly successful meetings with President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel.
I and my Hon. friend the member for Taunton Deane attended the EU-Latin American and Caribbean meeting a fortnight ago in Madrid, and I can report to the House that my Hon. friend had the good fortune of spending his fortieth birthday in deep consultation with his counterparts from Latin America. I was able to meet many of my European counterparts at that meeting, the beginning of the close engagement with our European friends that this Government will undertake. I was in Sarajevo yesterday for the EU Western Balkans meeting, which I shall come to later. I have also had contacts with most of my fellow Foreign Ministers from around Europe and look forward to visiting Paris, Berlin, Warsaw and Rome in the coming days. The Minister for Europe also attended the informal ministerial meeting on the Eastern Partnership in Sopot in Poland last week, was pleased to host the Spanish Europe Minister Lopez Garrido at a meeting in the Foreign Office last Tuesday and to meet members of the European Parliament and Commissioner Sefcovic in Brussels earlier this week. In addition, the Minister for Latin America attended the EU-ASEAN summit in Madrid.
This Government strongly believes that the European Union has a crucial role in enabling the countries of Europe to work together to face the vast challenges of this century that stand before us: the maintenance of our global competitiveness, the problem of climate change, the grim facts of global poverty and the need for the nations of Europe to use their collective weight in the world to deal with foreign policy issues. All are better dealt with if the nations of Europe can bring together common solutions and, above all, the right solutions.
We will, where necessary, be more robust in defending Britain’s national interests than the last Government. We will not repeat the last Government’s wretched handling of the negotiations on the current financial perspective, which saw them accept a cut to our rebate of £7 billion while obtaining nothing of substance in return.
It is also this Government’s intention to approach European issues in a more coherent way across Whitehall. In the three weeks I have held the office of Foreign Secretary it is already apparent to me and my colleagues that under the last Government departments could have worked together better, and in particular more strategically, than they did. We intend to put that right, we are establishing a new Cabinet Committee on European Affairs, which I will chair with the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change as deputy chair. This committee will allow the new Government to take a more holistic approach to EU issues than the last one and achieve better results for Britain. We must ensure that we are always ahead of the game in the Brussels agenda, unlike the last Government of whom it could not always be said that they were, the hedge funds directive being a particular example. In all this I am sure we will be aided by the truly collegiate feeling in the new Cabinet, again a contrast to the old.
The main issue before the forthcoming European Council is the current economic situation. A number of EU Member States face severe fiscal difficulties and growth across Europe is anaemic. The priority for all of us is to rectify our budgetary problems and deal with the fundamental underlying problem of weak economic growth.
The Government has made the choice to stay out of the Euro. But the EU is our single biggest trading partner. Problems in one Member State affect us all, whether we are single currency members or not. Recent developments in the Eurozone have exemplified the need for fiscal consolidation, which is the number one priority right across Europe. We’ve made an urgent start to dealing with the deficit, and those actions will be crucial for the stability of our public finances after the frontbench opposite bequeathed the country the worst peace-time deficit in modern times.
The major issue now dominating discussion of European affairs is the difficulties facing the Eurozone. A strong and healthy Eurozone is, of course, in this country’s interests: much of our prosperity depends on our neighbours’ prosperity. 49 per cent of our exports go to the Eurozone. But more than that, the members of the Eurozone include many of our closest friends and allies in the world and we wish them well in their affairs. So we will support them in their efforts to deal with present difficulties, without being drawn further into the Eurozone ourselves. So, for example, while we recognise the importance of maintaining a dialogue on deficit reduction across the Eurozone and the wider EU, we are absolutely firm in our view that our national budget must always be presented first to our national parliament.
We are listening to those Member States who are discussing institutional reforms to the Eurozone. That is an ongoing debate but I can assure the House that this Government will absolutely maintain its position that there should be no further transfer of sovereignty or powers from Britain to the EU over the course of this Parliament. Sanctions for breaches of the Stability and Growth Pact may be the right way forward for our partners in the Euro-area, but they should never apply to those countries which retain their own currencies. This country will retain its own currency.
The next question for the members of the whole EU is ‘where is the growth we need to come from’? This is a question this Government, working with our European partners, means to address with vigour. We know that spending our way further into dangerous levels of debt is not the answer. We need to get Europe back to work, create jobs and attract investment and deal with the erosion of our long-term competitiveness. All those are issues that concern every member of the EU, not just the Eurozone.
So we will be urgently making the case for the extension of the Single Market, for better regulation that can lighten the burdens on businesses and for seizing opportunities to create freer and fairer trade between the European Union and third countries. In that context we will encouraged greater economic engagement between the EU and new rising economic powers.
In the Single Market, in particular there are real opportunities to boost growth by further opening up the energy and services sectors and moving forward on patents. There are many helpful proposals in Mario Monti’s recent report on relaunching the Single Market which we want to build on.
All of this is germane to the Europe 2020 strategy, which will be the main formal item of discussion at the forthcoming European Council. This is the successor to the Lisbon Strategy, which is widely acknowledged to have been well intentioned but a disappointment in the results it has produced. The current crisis in the Eurozone demonstrates that it is vital that the EU has a coherent strategy for growth and jobs. But that strategy must fully respect the balance of competence between Member State and Community action. We will be working with partners on the Commission’s proposals for a Europe 2020 strategy to promote growth.
The intentions are to drive growth over the next decade and secure jobs. These are, of course, the right objectives. We will want to pay close attention to the detail. At the Spring European Council five EU-level target areas were identified: employment, research and development, energy and climate change, education and social inclusion. We are concerned that some of these, whilst non-legally binding, may stray into areas that are the competences of Member States. Some of them are inappropriate for the different systems and models the various Member States use.
That variety must be respected in creating a meaningful strategy that addresses the economic issues faced by the EU. We are clear that the EU has a role to play through providing for example: a deeper and stronger Single Market with smarter regulation; a more strategic approach to trade; and the framework conditions for innovation.
The 2020 Strategy also faces two immediate problems that need resolution. The first is that the next financial perspective - the seven year EU budgetary framework - needs to cohere with it. In our view its priorities should be aligned with the Strategy. It is deeply unfortunate that the budget review has been so long delayed that linking the two has been made more difficult than it should have been -The second problem is that the 2020 Strategy is a long-term strategy. Recent events require a more immediate response to drive growth now and that response, as I have said, will be this Government’s priority.
If we can get the 2020 Strategy to cohere with the financial framework and link the Strategy’s long-term nature with the immediate action that needs to be taken we can avoid the risk that it will again be disappointing in the benefits we hope it can bring European economies in the future.
**Other Council issues
**The Council will also set the Union’s position for the G20 Toronto Summit at the end of June. We will want to ensure that the position agreed at the Council reflects our views on fiscal consolidation and strengthening standards on financial regulation and bank levies.
It is hoped that the Council will sign off the EU position for the UN High-Level Plenary Meeting on the Millennium Development Goals in September just before the United Nations General Assembly. We will encourage other Member States to fulfil their aid commitments. I am pleased to report that the United Kingdom is on track to meet both our 2010 targets of 0.56 per cent of Overseas Development Assistance and 0.7 per cent ODA target for 2013. We can be proud that this is a point of consensus in the House of Commons between all three main parties and I pay tribute to the work the Party opposite did in Government.
The EU collectively, however, is not on track to meet its commitments and we will encourage all Member States to reinvigorate their commitments to this end. Tackling global poverty is one of the great causes of our age and one in which the nations of Europe should play their full part.
The European Commission will present a communication on the EU’s ambitions for a 30 per cent carbon emissions reduction target, including an analysis of the costs and benefits to the EU economy; the impact on energy security, exports and job creation. We want the EU to show leadership in tackling international climate change and we will support an increase in the EU’s emissions reduction targets once this has been addressed with proper thoroughness.
Looking ahead, this Government also recognises that there is a serious problem with the lack of proper democratic control in this country over the way the EU develops.
So beyond this Council, this Government will introduce a Bill amending the 1972 European Communities Act. The new Government is agreed that there is a profound disconnection between the British people and what has been done in their name by the British Government in the European Union. Over the past thirteen years, under the Party opposite, the percentage of the British public who believe our membership of the EU is a good thing, according to surveys, has fallen from 36 to 31 per cent. That is the last Government’s legacy on Europe: public disenchantment after years of arrogance from ministers who did not listen to the people and it is a lesson that the shadow foreign secretary should bear in mind as he seeks to take his Party back to office.
Both Parties in the coalition were determined to make this Government more accountable to the British people for what it does in the EU. This Bill will be presented to the House later this year. It will enlarge democratic and Parliamentary scrutiny, accountability and control over the decisions the Government makes in the European Union. As the House will know, it will include a referendum lock so that no future Treaty may pass areas of power or competences from the United Kingdom to the European Union without the British people’s consent in a referendum. This Government has already agreed that, in any case, there will be no further transfer of sovereignty or powers in this Parliament. The lock will also cover any proposal for Britain to join the Euro. We regard this measure as essential in ensuring that the European Union develops in a way that has the British people’s consent. We have always been absolutely clear that the referendum lock will only apply to any proposed future Treaty transfers of power or competences from Britain to the EU. It will not apply to Treaties that do not, such as Treaties making technical changes or accession treaties. We are now busily working on the legislation in detail.
The Bill will also ensure that the ratchet clauses present in Treaties will require primary legislation before the British Government may authorise their use. These clauses allow for a modification of the Treaties in certain places, or provide options for existing EU powers to expand. The proposed use of a major ratchet clause, such as the abolition of national vetoes over foreign policy, would also be subject to a referendum. This will be built into the legislation.
Taken together, these measures will ensure that, unlike under the Party opposite, the European Union can only increase its powers vis-a-vis the United Kingdom with the agreement of the British people. It is a major step towards rebuilding popular trust in the EU.
As set out in the coalition agreement, we are also examining the case for a United Kingdom Sovereignty Bill. That examination is under way. We will also examine on the balance of competences between the United Kingdom and the EU.
On matters of European scrutiny, it is also our intention to improve and strengthen this House’s powers in this area. I look forward to engaging closely and attentively with this House on these issues in the month ahead. The Government is moving as swiftly as possible to re-establish scrutiny committees.
Returning to the issues immediately before the European Union, I will attend the Foreign Affairs Council on the 14th June.
As I have long said, it is strongly my view that the nations of Europe should do more to use their collective weight in the world to advance shared values and interests. The problems have not been institutional but political - a lack of will and consistency. So that is the spirit in which we will approach these matters.
As I said in our recent debate at the Queen’s speech, this Government will give greater weight to elevating our relationships with emerging powers across the world. This policy should be complementary to other European nations doing the same and to our collective work through the EU.
Further issues to be discussed at the Council include Iran and the Western Balkans. An important issue that will need to be discussed is the situation in Gaza.
The countries of the European Union should also be more active in foreign affairs and more focussed on using their collective weight in the world when it comes to Iran.
Whether we can act in a peaceful and united manner to prevent Iranian nuclear proliferation and to achieve a diplomatic solution to this dispute will be a pre-eminent test of European will and determination in foreign affairs. Nuclear proliferation is a threat to all countries and all countries have a responsibility to help avert it.
We believe that European countries should actively prepare to adopt sanctions to complement the new United Nations Security Council Resolution on Iran which is being negotiated in New York, and to do so decisively and comprehensively if there is to be any prospect of convincing Iran that its interests will be best served by engagement not confrontation. This is a debate which needs to be had in Europe with urgency and I look forward to discussing Iran with my colleagues in Paris, Berlin, Warsaw and Rome next week.
The House will know that a full and comprehensive diplomatic offer has been made to Iran and remains on the table. The pressure placed on Iran must be peaceful, multilateral and legitimate but unless it is intensified the opportunity to change Iranian behaviour may be lost.
The Government has made it clear that we believe the European Union must sharpen its focus on the Western Balkans until all the countries of the region are irreversibly on the path to EU membership. Achieving this and helping to turn the page decisively on the painful chapters of the region’s past will be a major test of what the European Union can accomplish in world affairs. An EU without the Western Balkans would forever have a disenchanted and disillusioned hole near its centre. The Western Balkans matter to stability and prosperity in Europe and we cannot afford to ignore developments there, particularly the current lack of progress in Bosnia-Herzegovina which demands sustained international attention. Yesterday I attended a High Level meeting of EU and regional Foreign Ministers in Sarajevo and set out our support for a clear strategy of firm action from European countries as well as concrete steps by the countries of the region. We will work actively and intensively with our European partners, the EU High Representative and the governments of the region to take this work forward in the coming months.
The Western Balkans brings me to enlargement more generally. In Britain we have always had a happy cross-party consensus on the principle that widening the European Union is a good thing, and I hope that consensus will continue. Widening of the European Union must, of course, go hand in hand with the rigorous application of the accession criteria in the accession process. This Government will continue to champion the European Union’s enlargement, including to the Western Balkans and Turkey. Turkey’s accession negotiations currently face some obstacles. This government will be assiduous in working with Ankara and other member states to resolve outstanding issues.
We continue to support the negotiations to re-unify the island of Cyprus - I am pleased they restarted last week. Although we do not underestimate the difficulties, it would be very greatly in the interest of both communities on the island for those talks to succeed.
The House will also want to know about the institutional aspect of the EU’s external relations, the establishment of the European External Action Service. As the House will know, my Party did not support the creation of the External Action Service’s creation but its creation has now been agreed. We warned that its creation would not necessarily lead to greater inter-institutional harmony in Brussels and that has unfortunately proved to be the case so far. It is now our task to ensure that the Service is both useful to the nations of Europe and respects the role of national diplomatic services. The European Parliament has made suggestions on how the Service is to be organised and there are discussions on the matter with the High Representative and the Spanish presidency. I hope the European Parliament will recognise that the Service will only be a success if it commands the confidence of Member States. That is important.
The High Representative has made a good start to her very challenging role. We wished her well when she embarked on her task and we look forward to continuing to work together closely in the future.
The last Conservative Government left a considerable legacy in the European Union: the creation of the Single Market, the enlargement from nine members to fifteen and setting in train the further enlargement to the East. I will not take away from the last Government their achievement in helping to complete that enlargement, but in other respects their legacy is largely to be regretted: the alienation of the British public from the EU by their high-handedness, the failure to stand up for Britain’s interests on the budget and so on. This new Government has started as we mean to continue, with activity and energy. We will play our role with enthusiasm while vigorously advancing our country’s interests and never taking the British people for granted.
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