Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk) (Con): May I begin by sending on behalf of the official Opposition our deep condolences to the families and friends of the two British soldiers who were sadly killed in Iraq, the second one being the 100th British soldier killed there? We send our best wishes to the soldiers who were injured.

I thank the Minister for giving me advance sight of the statement, and for informing the House about the Government White Paper. Having read and heard the statement, however, many of us regard it as a non-event, to say the least. It is a curious time and place to make a statement but, nevertheless, it raises a number of interesting questions, not least because more than two thirds of the statement was retrospective and did not look at prospects for the EU in 2006.

The coming year may not be as dramatic as the last for the European Union, but we should be in no doubt of its importance for the EU's future. It will be the time for the   EU to reflect on the constitution's rejection and the    long-term strategic issues that it faces on competitiveness, security and its own future as an institution in the 21st century. The Minister stated the Government's position with his usual confidence, but does he remember that when the Foreign Secretary introduced a similar statement last year, he went into detail about the Government's position on the EU budget? He told the House that the Government were working

However, the Government ended up agreeing a rise in the EU budget to 1.045 per cent., which is an increase of £25 billion, but they obtained no guarantee of further common agricultural policy reform. The Foreign Secretary assured the House that Britain's rebate "remains fully justified" and reminded hon. Members that Britain had a veto. We all know what happened next—the rebate was cut by £7 billion for the budget period. Does the Minister understand that hon. Members are suspicious whether what the Government say will match what the Government actually achieve?

The White Paper rightly underlines the need for economic reform. Does the Minister agree that the services directive is essential in achieving a more competitive Europe? The European Parliament will vote on the directive in a fortnight. Does the Minister agree that the main aim for member states is to reach a political agreement in the Council by the March economic summit? Does he agree that there has already
31 Jan 2006 : Column 171
been extensive consultation with social partners? It would be unacceptable if further consultation became an excuse for yet more delay. Does he agree that the European Parliament's internal market and consumer protection committee has produced a balanced text to ensure the freedom to provide services, and that it should be our common goal to maintain it, particularly with regard to article 16?

Turning to trade, many hon. Members on both sides of the House were disturbed to hear Commissioner Mandelson say two or three weeks ago that the Chancellor of the Exchequer had not spoken to him recently—it appears that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been ignoring him—which is causing much upset on the Government Benches. I understand that the Minister is a protégé of both Commissioner Mandelson and the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which means that he is caught between a rock and a hard place. Nevertheless, will he use his good offices to get them talking? It is good to talk, but on such a crucial issue, it is vital.

Does the Minister agree that Britain's opt-out from the working time directive is vital to our competitiveness in a globalised marketplace? Will the Government ensure that our opt-out is maintained in its entirety and that it will not be negotiated away in any form?

Paragraph 143 of the White Paper rightly emphasises the importance of energy security. Does the Minister agree that recent events in Ukraine and Georgia prove the need for secure and diverse supplies? Will the Minister outline in more concrete terms how the Government plan to achieve that?

All hon. Members agree that Europe's greatest achievement over the past two decades has been the spread of democracy throughout the continent. In March, a presidential election will be held in Europe's last remaining authoritarian state, Belarus. Why does the White Paper not mention that election? What steps will the Government and our European partners take to ensure that that election is free and fair?

The middle east is a vital area for our security and for the cause of peace in the world, so Hamas's election victory must be a matter of the deepest concern. Will the Minister tell the House the criteria by which the continued funding of the Palestinian Authority by the EU will be judged? Is it not essential that Europe and America hold a united position in dealing with Hamas? Does he agree that if a Hamas-led Palestinian Authority remains wedded to terror, it should not receive EU funding?

One of the most important questions for the European Union concerns how it can modernise itself to meet the demands of the 21st century. The constitution's defeat in last year's referendums proves that the old model of integration is failing Europe and alienating its people. Does the Minister agree that a British vision of an open, flexible Europe has never been more relevant? Is not that the issue for British leadership? Will the Minister explain why no British Minister attended last week's important Sounds of Europe conference in Salzburg? How do the Government expect to influence the debate, if they do not participate?

We all agree that the EU needs to be more open and accountable. To that end, what steps are the Government taking to achieve open voting in the
31 Jan 2006 : Column 172
Council and a stronger say—the so-called yellow-card procedure—on subsidiarity for national Parliaments? Some member states and EU commissioners still insist that the EU constitution will soon be ripe for revival. This month, the Foreign Secretary told us that

The dead parrot syndrome. Should not a British Government, leading in Europe, have a clearer view than "perhaps yes" or "perhaps no"?

Britain's last presidency was marked by the contrast between the hype in the last paper presented to Parliament, and a failure to deliver fully in many areas. Over the next year, we will support the Government where they take practical steps to reform the EU to meet its long-term challenges. But it is now time for the Government to outline a British vision of Europe that can meet those challenges, rather than merely parroting what the EU requires.

Mr. Alexander: I will endeavour to answer the many questions put to me by the hon. Gentleman, who began his contribution rather uncharitably by describing the White Paper as a non-event. I shall resist making the same observation about his response to my statement and instead address his specific questions.

I shall happily send to the hon. Gentleman the detailed figures on the proportion of European gross national income accounted for in the agreement reached at the December European Council, but my recollection is that by the end of the financial period, the percentage of GNI taken in the European Union's budget will be as low as that achieved in any one of the past 20 years. That is a clear victory for those of us who have argued in recent years for greater EU budgetary discipline. Indeed, comparing the agreement reached at the December European Council with the figures proposed six months earlier by the Luxembourg presidency, or with those previously proposed by the Commission, shows how effectively we argued for taking a lower percentage of European GNI within the EU's budget.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the services directive, and we continue to regard it as important. An unfortunate delay on First Reading prohibited us from reaching a conclusion to our discussions during our presidency, but we want progress to be made during the Austrian presidency. It might assist the House if I make clear the issues that we came close to resolving, but which are still on the table: the directive's scope; whether it should apply to labour law, given that that was never the intention, even according to the original wording of the Bolkestein directive; and the country-of-origin principle. Discussions will continue on each of those issues, but I share the ambition of reaching a conclusion that will result in an effective services directive that can guarantee a much more open market in services. Such a market will directly benefit not just the European Union but, I am convinced, many British companies.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about our discussions with Trade Commissioner Mandelson. Commissioner Mandelson reported the latest position on the EU to an informal meeting of trade Ministers in Brussels on Sunday evening, and another report was made yesterday to the General Affairs Council, which the Foreign Secretary and I attended. A further ministerial
31 Jan 2006 : Column 173
discussion took place at the margins of the Davos conference, which took place in Switzerland this weekend. So I can assure the hon. Gentleman that a great deal of discussion is taking place at all levels of government, and not just with the European Commission. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks about the Chancellor from a sedentary position. There is little doubt that the Chancellor has made clear his position concerning an ambitious and balanced outcome for Hong Kong, be it in speeches to the Labour party conference, in recent radio interviews, or in countless speeches made in the cause of achieving greater debt relief, aid assistance and trade justice in the years to come.

Retaining the opt-out continues to be the British Government's position, and we discussed this issue with our colleagues during the British presidency. Not only was there a blocking minority to any proposed change to the opt-out; we are increasingly winning the argument for the need for flexibility in the development of the European economy in years to come.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about energy supplies in the light of developments in Ukraine and Russia. Such developments partly explain why we had what was widely judged to be an effective and helpful meeting with the Russians—an EU-Russia summit—during our presidency; why one feature of that summit was discussing the need for a structured dialogue on energy; and why at Hampton Court, the Prime Minister showed real prescience in identifying the need for a common approach to energy issues, ahead of the difficult negotiations that took place between Russia and Ukraine at the turn of the year. Taking forward that work on energy policy, we are examining ways of making sure that there is a genuinely open market within the European Union. Issues relating to energy security have been on many people's minds in recent weeks and months, and there is also the pressing matter of diversity of supply. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will continue the work identified at Hampton Court and now being taken forward.

I was asked about the omission from the White Paper of reference to Belarus. Only yesterday a leading politician from one of the principal Opposition coalitions in Belarus met a range of delegations in Brussels, at the margins of the General Affairs Council, as well as Javier Solana, the high representative. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that in the discussions that took place, Belarus was very much in people's minds, not least as we anticipate the elections coming up in March.

Next, the hon. Gentleman turned to funding for the Palestinian Authority. There is little that I can usefully add to the contribution to the debate that has been made by our Foreign Secretary and by others in recent days, since the Palestinian Authority elections. Suffice to say that the policy remains as stated. In relation to specific British aid, I recollect that approximately half of that aid is in direct budgetary support, although that is suspended at present—indeed, it was suspended prior to the elections—because of our concerns about corruption in the Authority. The overwhelming additional resource is provided through the auspices of the United Nations. This is a subject to which I am sure
31 Jan 2006 : Column 174
the House will return in the weeks and months ahead, during which we will see the formation of a Government within the Palestinian Authority.

I was questioned about the Sounds of Europe conference that took place in Salzburg this weekend, where we were capably and effectively represented by our ambassador to Vienna, Ambassador Macgregor. The conference did not invite all 25 members of the European Union to address the conference. Rather, there was a round-table series of discussions involving academics and members of think tanks. There were contributions from some politicians, and of course British delegates were present at that conference. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will not lose any opportunity in the months ahead, whether from public platforms or in private discussions with the Austrian presidency, to continue to press the case for the kind of open Europe that we believe makes sense in a globalised world.

On subsidiarity, the Sharing Power in Europe conference, which was jointly hosted with the Dutch during our presidency, specifically considered engaging national Parliaments more effectively. It was rather curious for the hon. Gentleman to begin by expressing surprise at Parliament being involved in European Union discussions, and later in the same speech arguing for greater involvement of national Parliaments in the affairs of the European Union. We regard that as an important step that needs to be taken by the EU. That is why we hosted the conference with the Dutch.

I hope that that addresses each of the points that the hon. Gentleman raised, but no doubt other hon. Members will have questions for me in due course.

Next Section IndexHome Page