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European Affairs

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Steve McCabe.]

1.6 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Margaret Beckett): Tomorrow and on Friday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and I will represent the United Kingdom at the European Council in Brussels. We expect discussions to focus on the constitutional treaty, enlargement and Hampton Court follow-up, as well, of course, as current world problems. This afternoon, the House has its customary opportunity to debate the Government’s priorities.

It is now a year since two founding member states of the European Union, France and the Netherlands, rejected the draft treaty establishing a constitution for Europe. Out of those two decisions and the intense debate that they provoked came a very clear message: the European Union needed to reconnect more closely with the people of Europe. They were wary of a European Union that seemed to set its own direction with minimal reference to what they actually wanted out of it, or what was relevant to and would improve their daily lives. That may be an unjust perception, but it was clearly a strong one. Citizens were looking for an effective Europe: one that helped member states to overcome problems together and by so doing brought concrete benefits to their citizens on the things that mattered to them—in short, a Europe that was part of the solution, not part of the problem. That is the kind of Europe towards which this Government are working.

Let me emphasise one point. An effective Europe is exactly that. I do not mean automatically less Europe, whatever that means. I do not mean a weaker Europe and I certainly do not mean a Europe in which the British Government fail seriously to engage, and in consequence fail to advance or defend Britain’s interests. This Government believe, as I do, that the best interests of the British people are served by this country being a strong member of a confident, effective, outward-looking European Union—one that delivers security and prosperity to its citizens. We are committed to working with our European partners to achieve that.

On that point, I have to say to the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) that it is far from clear to me that withdrawal from one of the major political groupings in the European Union will be of assistance in fighting Britain’s corner. I should say at once that I have every sympathy for him in the predicament in which he finds himself. When he was leader of the Conservative party, he sensibly chose to keep his party within the European People’s party. Now he has been lumbered with a foolish pledge made by his leader in a moment of desperation during the recent leadership contest, and I understand that he has been forced to meet some pretty unsavoury characters in his attempts to cobble together a new coalition. Indeed, one of his own MEPs called them

From the point of view of the British public, it is a sorry state of affairs when the man who notably led
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clarion calls to save the pound and to prevent Britain from becoming a foreign land is now regarded as a moderate in his party on these issues.

Tomorrow’s is the first European Council that I shall attend, but it is only the latest development in a process of sustained engagement with the Union’s institutions. In negotiations both within Europe and at international level, I have seen just how great a difference our engagement in and with the EU can make. We want and need to be an influential part of that effective European Union. Many of the challenges we face as a country can be met only if we work together with our European partners.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes) (Con): The right hon. Lady started by saying that the discussions over the next two days would be about, among other things, the constitutional treaty. If my memory serves me correctly, when the constitutional treaty was signed, we were told that if it did not pass within two years, it would fall. What is the position now?

Margaret Beckett: I do not recall hearing that, but no doubt my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe will deal with that when he winds up the debate.

Let me give one classic example of problems that, by their very nature, transcend national boundaries: environmental issues, not least climate change. Many of the substantial environmental improvements that we in the UK have seen in recent years—cleaner air and cleaner water—have been driven by regulation agreed at EU level and can be said to be “due” to the EU. There can be little doubt that climate change, the greatest long-term threat facing the world, is a trans-boundary problem. Climate change will have a direct impact on the lives of people in this country and across the EU, and people across Europe are demanding that their Governments take action. However, neither the UK nor any other member state can hope to succeed through unilateral action. Carbon emissions anywhere affect the climate everywhere, and international consensus and action within and beyond the borders of the EU are imperative.

It is because, under the present Government, the UK’s voice is recognised and respected within Europe that we have been at the forefront of European Union efforts to tackle climate change. Those efforts have led to concerted action among the 25 member states to reduce their own carbon emissions. There is still much more to do, but what we have already achieved would have been unthinkable if we had needed to rely solely on a network of bilateral agreements.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central) (Lab): As my right hon. Friend has pointed out, many EU countries have implemented measures to combat climate change, often to the detriment of their domestic industries. By far the two greatest contributors to global warming and climate change are the United States of America and China. Does she envisage the EU taking a much more robust position to persuade those two countries to reduce their emissions?

Margaret Beckett: We have always taken a forward-looking and robust position on climate change. The
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whole House will recall the tremendous efforts made by the Prime Minister last year, particularly during our G8 presidency, to create an atmosphere in which the US could agree to do as they did in Montreal and take forward the discussions—something that it had been resisting until then. Similarly, my hon. Friend will recall that, as well as the G8, we invited to Gleneagles what are known as the “plus five” countries—five major energy users now and in the future and consequently five countries that may have substantial emissions—and that we successfully drew them into the discussions. Both the United States and China are participants in the Gleneagles follow-up dialogue, of which the next meeting will be held in Mexico this autumn.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Does not the Foreign Secretary destroy her own argument when she talks about the G8 and the “plus five” countries? It has nothing to do with the EU.

Margaret Beckett: No. The G8 is a grouping in which the United States is a participant and China was invited to the meeting. However, one of the reasons why we were able to get that agreement at the G8 is the strength of the ties between the European members of that body.

Mr. Bone indicated dissent.

Margaret Beckett: It is no good the hon. Gentleman shaking his head—to disagree with that is to fly in the face of the facts.

Beyond the EU, it is as a negotiating group that we have a much stronger voice on the international stage. In five years of climate change negotiations, culminating in Montreal, I have seen it demonstrated time and again that the EU as a group plays a pivotal role in brokering agreement. We could not play that role or reach agreements such as the one reached in Montreal if Europe did not speak with a single voice.

The forthcoming European Council should adopt the EU’s revised sustainable development strategy. For the first time, we shall have a single, coherent and, I hope, accessible strategy that brings together all the Community’s internal and external objectives in that field. Two of the seven objectives within that strategy relate to climate change and clean energy. On climate change in particular, we want the European Council to make a clear statement on the need for a global consensus on the scale of the action that must be taken if we are to avoid dangerous climate change, including a long-term stabilisation goal and a truly global debate. That debate cannot only be between Governments; it must include business, investors, non-governmental organisations and consumers.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): The Foreign Secretary mentioned business interests. Does she accept that it is open to the United Kingdom Parliament to legislate on its own terms unilaterally if negotiations fail on removing unnecessary burdens on
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business that emanate from the EU and to require the judiciary to give effect to that latest inconsistent, clearly set out legislation, so that we can remove those burdens ourselves?

Margaret Beckett: I do not think that the hon. Gentleman was listening other than to the thread of the ideas that he has honourably pursued for a long time. I pointed out that a huge proportion—I have never worked out a precise figure—of the environmental improvements that have been made in this country in recent years and which are rightly welcomed on both sides of the House have come directly as a result of European regulations, which I know he hates. He refers to burdens on business, but some of the changes that are beneficial to the public, not least in terms of the impact on their health, are regarded by some people in the business community as burdens because they regard all regulation as a burden. One of the reasons why the Government made better regulation a theme of our EU presidency is that there is such a thing as beneficial regulation—even, dare I say, if it comes from Europe.

Mr. Cash rose—

Margaret Beckett: I shall not give way again to the hon. Gentleman, at least not for the time being, although I do not rule it out for ever.

On energy, the European Council will discuss the external aspects of EU energy policy as agreed by the spring European Council, with a view to maintaining the momentum of the work and giving a clear mandate to the Finnish presidency to develop it further. We shall continue to press for external aspects of energy policy to be reflected fully in the Commission’s strategic energy review, which is due in spring 2007.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) (Con): Does the right hon. Lady think that it would aid public understanding if the law-making process in the Council of Ministers was opened up to the public? That was Government policy until very recently—indeed, the right hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander), when he was Minister for Europe, wrote that it remained the UK objective

Yesterday in the Foreign Affairs Committee, the Foreign Secretary said that that is no longer her position. Will she explain why she has resiled from the commitment to openness, transparency and public understanding?

Margaret Beckett: I agree that it would be beneficial if the legislative process were opened up to a greater degree. That is precisely why the Government made that proposal, which we stand by. However, I said to the right hon. Gentleman yesterday that I thought that he had misunderstood the remarks that my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South (Mr. Alexander) made. My right hon. Friend was talking about all legislative business or items of legislative business and not necessarily every single aspect of the process. I shall return to the point.

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Mr. David Hamilton (Midlothian) (Lab): Returning to an earlier point about emissions, the aim cannot be to stifle China’s economic development. Instead, Europe should assist China to develop methods of carbon capture, and we should adopt such a strategy in this country, as well.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is right. He may know that, during our presidency last year, we presided over the EU-China summit and reached an agreement with China that the UK, through the EU, would help to pilot a clean-coal power station. China, India and the United States have substantial coal reserves that they are bound to use, particularly as development is the highest priority for China and India. There can be few more beneficial things both for development and for the cause of climate change than developing the capacity for clean-coal power

As I said at the beginning of my speech, we expect discussions at the Council on the constitutional treaty, enlargement and the Hampton Court follow-up. Since the rejection of the constitutional treaty last summer, Europe has been in a period of reflection. Throughout that time, the United Kingdom’s position has been consistent and clear. An effective Europe should focus on the things that matter to its citizens: creating jobs, cutting crime, tackling terrorism and protecting the environment. Those are the questions that face the European Union, and we strongly believe that the answer will not be found in more institutional wrangling which, to the outside observer, is at best opaque and at worst self-indulgent.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): May I welcome the right hon. Lady to her post as Foreign Secretary? In Helsinki last week, members of the Select Committee on European Scrutiny were told by the incoming Finnish presidency that, during the period of reflection, it would seriously consider invoking the passerelle clause on justice and home affairs issues. That would be a radical development, so would the UK Government support it?

Margaret Beckett: We would want to look carefully at the implications, but I will return to that in a few moments.

In his speech last June to the European Parliament, the Prime Minister set out the challenge for European leaders. That was the agenda we took forward, and which Europe agreed, at the informal summit at Hampton Court. It is the direction in which we will urge our European partners to continue at tomorrow’s council. In his statement to the House on 31 January 2006, my right hon. Friend the Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire, South said that the Hampton Court informal summit had already entered the European Union lexicon. I understand, however, that in French the Hampton Court agenda is known as “L’Europe des Projets”. Whatever the language, the tune is the same. It points to detailed, concrete work on matters such as improving European universities, increasing support for research and development, and finding a common European energy policy. We want the European Council to make a strong and clear statement in its
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conclusions that maintains the agenda’s momentum and profile and reaffirms the commitment of the whole of Europe to follow it.

Mr. Mark Todd (South Derbyshire) (Lab): My right hon. Friend has not touched on the important collective role that the European Union plays in negotiations in the World Trade Organisation. Does she believe, like me, that Europe’s position in that body is not facilitated by the protectionist stance that has emerged in some EU states and by our historical commitment to agricultural protectionism and intervention?

Margaret Beckett: Both within Europe and outside, there are worrying signs of the growth of protectionism. I entirely share my hon. Friend’s view that that is harmful to the UK and to the world community, so it must be resisted in agriculture and in other fields. He may know that on Monday, the General Affairs and External Relations Council considered a report by the Trade Commissioner, who said that the world community accepts that there is scope for each group to move its position. They must do so if we are to achieve a Doha round agreement. He clearly does not despair of the prospects for such an agreement, and we all hope that he is right.

The Commission’s communication, “A Citizens’ Agenda”, which was published in May, suggests that it, too, has understood the message that building an effective Europe is key to Europe’s future. Europe is effective when it can make decisions that make it easier for the EU to tackle problems that have an impact on people’s lives. The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) asked me about the field of justice and home affairs.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I should like to leave a thought about the period of reflection with the Foreign Secretary. We have all seen the poster that says, “Sometimes I sits and thinks and sometimes I just sits.” I am not entirely sure what the British Government are doing, but there comes a time when one just looks stupid doing so.

Margaret Beckett: Many people are indeed sitting and thinking. Our French colleagues have made suggestions and proposals about how we should proceed, but my hon. Friend will accept that there are disparate views in the European Union on the subject.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): I am not accusing my right hon. Friend of sitting on the issue, which is difficult and complex. If we accept that there is still a period of reflection —[ Interruption. ] I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson) is needed in the agriculture debate. Given that the EU has 25 members, and may have 27 members next year, we can move forward in some areas without the need for legislation, as that would help the transparency and efficiency of the EU. If we work with our colleagues on, for example, science and the proposed university, we could advance the agenda without the need for a constitution.

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Margaret Beckett: As he often does, my hon. Friend has put his finger on the issue. People are considering whether steps can be taken on the basis of the existing treaties without the need for the legal basis of a new treaty to make Europe more effective.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): I am grateful that the matter has been raised. Is the Minister saying that the constitution has not been approved, but European leaders and the Government intend to implement bits of it anyway under existing rules? Does that not give the lie to the statement that was constantly made when the constitution was under consideration—that only by accepting everything in the constitution could we make progress on anything?

Margaret Beckett: Perhaps my hon. Friend followed those debates more closely than I did before I took up my responsibilities but, with respect, I do not remember anyone making that point. There is a world of difference between trying to find a way to take forward bits of the constitution in the original package and considering measures that do not rely on a new treaty and legal basis. Inevitably, because the constitution drew together different strands and ideas that were discussed at the time, some issues in the constitutional treaty do not require a new legal basis, so it would be open to the European Union to consider them on the basis of existing treaties. A decision has not been made or even discussed about whether or not Europe should embark on the process. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) asked, quite reasonably, whether any thinking is taking place. It is, but we are not at the stage of making proposals, let alone decisions.

Chris Bryant (Rhondda) (Lab): May I welcome the Foreign Secretary to this collection of Euro-obsessives who regularly gather together, doling out anoraks before we begin? I am sure that she will be enlightened by the end of the day. On a serious note, there are some areas in which treaty change is necessary. If Croatia joined the European Union, for instance, the voting strengths of council members would have to be redrawn, and the number of MEPs would have to be changed. That would require treaty change, but could it be achieved through accession treaties?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend invites me stray into territory which, with respect, I do not intend to tread today. We are rather a long way from the accession of Croatia and the legal issues that that raises. The subject is not likely to arise in that form at this week’s European Council.

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