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2.27 pm

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Geoffrey Hoon): I beg to move,

I should like to introduce this debate on the European Commission communication, but before I do so, I thank the European Scrutiny Committee for providing the Government with such an excellent opportunity to elaborate our position on the Commission paper and the other documents tagged to this debate. I also congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) on his election to the Chair of the European Scrutiny Committee. I know from previous Committee sittings that he is an extremely effective and knowledgeable member of the Committee, and I wish him well in his new role.

As I underlined during the European Standing Committee debate on “Plan D for Democracy, Dialogue and Debate” in May, the Government attach great importance to communicating with Parliament and the citizens whom we serve on European issues. Hon. Members on both sides of the House will no doubt recognise that we all have a role in promoting awareness and engaging the wider public in the discussion of such issues. In the case of policies linked to the European Union, dispelling the plethora of myths and misconceptions, which are unfortunately too prominent in our public debate, is a particular challenge.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): No matter what the document says—I agree with the Minister that it is a good document—will he undertake to the House that he will continue to go out to the public up and down the country and explain the benefits of our membership of the European Union? That approach goes over the heads of the editors of some of our tabloid newspapers, who want to rubbish everything that happens in the European Union.

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Mr. Hoon: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his intervention. I had a particularly useful and interesting visit to his city, Leicester, where I found a positive response from the people who had spontaneously arrived to discuss European issues. I was grateful to him and to other Leicester Members for arranging that meeting.

Mr. William Cash (Stone) (Con): Bearing in mind the fact that the right hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) participated in the forum to investigate both sides of the argument on the European issue, we now find that a pamphlet has been published by the Paris think tank Notre Europe, financed in part by the Commission’s directorate-general for culture and education. Why should Mr. Andrew Duff and his friends, who believe that there should be a new European constitution, have their publication financed? Should not those on the Eurosceptic side who apply to the European Commission for finance to put forward the Euro-realist view—which, after all, is winning—also get money?

Mr. Hoon: When I used the word “spontaneous”, I knew that I risked combustion from the Opposition Benches. Given the hon. Gentleman’s persistent interest in the subject over more years than both of us would care to remember, if he submitted a pamphlet on culture and education in the European Union to the relevant department, I am sure that it would be considered, along with others, for publication. I look forward to receiving a draft copy from him.

Mr. Cash: The pamphlet had nothing to do with culture and education; it had to do with the European constitution, and wanting to put in place the very thing that the Government have completely mucked up.

Mr. Hoon: I think that I have dealt with the hon. Gentleman’s point.

As the Commission’s “Plan D” rightly stresses, citizens are much more interested in the practical policies affecting their daily lives than in arcane institutional questions. The Government therefore broadly welcome the ideas and proposals contained in the Commission’s “A Citizens’ Agenda”, published in May, which sets out its strategic thinking on taking forward the future of Europe debate. The Hampton Court agenda, one of the many successes of our recent EU presidency, provided the inspiration for much of the substance of the Commission’s “A Citizens’ Agenda” and the subsequent decision at the June European Council to concentrate on what was described as a Europe of results.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Given that the last opinion poll on the constitution showed that 86 per cent. of the British people would vote against it and only 14 per cent. were in favour, would not a substantial change of policy direction in Europe be necessary before the British people could even contemplate being more enthusiastic about Europe?

Mr. Hoon: Obviously, the results in France and the Netherlands are what concern the European Union’s leaders. I shall not speculate on what might have happened had a referendum been held in this country.
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We have two results, and those are the results that concentrate the minds of European leaders, because they must be dealt with as part of the debate about the future of Europe.

I look forward to the official Opposition trying to distinguish their position from that of the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash). Recently, there has perhaps been a greater connection between the two than historically—we will no doubt find out whether that is still the case in a moment. This Government, however, believe in real engagement with the European Union, and in leading the way with key partners on the European agenda.

More specifically, “A Citizens’ Agenda” sets out a view of Europe’s immediate priorities. The European Union should focus on delivering results on issues that matter to citizens, and on the economic reforms needed to make the EU competitive in today’s global economy. We need to intensify our efforts to deliver practical benefits across areas as diverse as energy, EU competitiveness and the environment. Much as the Opposition would somehow like us to believe that one of their priorities is environmental protection and the fight against climate change, their approach is obviously at odds with their attitudes towards the European Union. Being pro-environment and pro-European are two sides of the same coin. No one can seriously advocate the effective protection of our environment without seriously supporting powers for the European Union to do so. That is the challenge that the Conservative party has so far avoided. It has no credible policy on either issue, and its real position is shown by its continued determination to withdraw from the biggest political grouping in the European Parliament, whose commitment to environmental protection, unlike that of Conservative MEPs, is unequivocal.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Will the Minister tell the House which new competences he would like the EU to have on environmental matters?

Mr. Hoon: The issue is clear. We support the existing competences of the European Union, which the hon. Gentleman cannot say about his party, given its determination to change fundamentally the European Union without saying how it is going to do that. We know a little more clearly whom it will do it with, however—one party from the Czech Republic is on offer so far. As I have indicated, the Conservative party talks about environmental protection, but the truth is that it lacks support anywhere for achieving its aims. Perhaps the British people will therefore examine carefully its claims to want to protect our environment, and ask how it plans to do so.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud) (Lab/Co-op): I do not want to cast any aspersions on the private grief of the Conservative party. The most pro-environment policy to take forward, however, would be the complete abolition of the common agricultural policy. In our limited way, we are trying to grapple with that, and are now likely to be fined because of the problems with the Rural Payments Agency. So far, however, the vast majority of European states have made no attempt
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whatever to change from direct subsidy to their farmers to some form of sensible environmental policy. What are we doing to help to change their minds?

Mr. Hoon: I am sorry that my hon. Friend takes that point of view, but he is not strictly accurate. The percentage of total spending by the European Union in that regard has decreased from 70 per cent. to a little more than 40 per cent., which is a significant change. Moreover, as was agreed at the end of the British presidency, there will be a further and fundamental review of how the EU spends its money, concentrating in particular on whether it has the right priorities. If my hon. Friend sets out his views with the usual clarity and force, as I anticipate that he will, they will clearly be taken into account, not only in this but other countries.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): When the Minister discusses the need for reform of agriculture, has he noted the way in which many of the new accession states have managed to blend into existing European agricultural patterns? For example, Slovenian farmers have been claiming for many more animals than actually existed on their farms. While they are truly integrating themselves, that is not necessarily the best fashion in which to reduce the budget.

Mr. Hoon: I am sure that my hon. Friend is not relying on occasional anecdotal evidence that he has drawn from odd sources around. The way in which the debate on future financing took place and concluded shows that new member states, which have the most to gain from ensuring that the European Union prioritises competitiveness, research and development and delivering both the Lisbon and Hampton Court agendas in its spending, gave strong support to the British view of future financing.

Mr. Philip Hollobone (Kettering) (Con): It is appropriate that this debate follows the one on the Fraud Bill, as the Commission’s accounts have yet to be signed off, and one of the paragraphs in the documentation provided as helpful background to the debate states:

I suspect that the Minister was able to vote in the last referendum of the British people on European Union membership in 1975. I am afraid that I am too young to have done so. One now has to be at least 49 years of age to have taken part in that referendum. Is not it time to give the British people another referendum on that matter?

Mr. Hoon: If that was a none-too-subtle way of identifying my age, I confess that I did vote, and I voted on the winning side. What is important, though, is for us to have a discussion about the European Union. Do I detect from the hon. Gentleman’s views a hint that he and other members of the Conservative party would like the United Kingdom to leave the European Union? I see that there is approval for that idea on the
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Conservative Benches, where there is obviously a strong strain of opinion influencing the way in which Front Benchers behave.

Mr. Brady: What about those on the Labour Benches?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friends are clearly offering constructive advice and support, as they consistently do—do they not?

I was talking about the constitutional treaty. I should emphasise that there is currently no consensus on the precise way forward. Since the French and Dutch “no” votes, the Government have consistently made it clear that this is not a matter for one member state alone; it is for the 25 member states together to make decisions about the treaty’s future. The June European Council agreed that the German presidency should present a report to the European Council in 2007, based on extensive consultations with member states. As a result, I have had a number of conversations with other EU partners on finding the right way forward. It is therefore important for me to indicate to Parliament how our own thinking on the subject is developing, and I intend to take an early opportunity to set out the underlying principles of our approach.

Mr. David S. Borrow (South Ribble) (Lab): I hope that my comments will be considered helpful. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when it comes to a European Union of 27 states, the status quo in terms of the EU’s internal arrangements is not acceptable or practical, and that certain changes will be necessary to make it work effectively? Does he agree that all parties in the House, and all parts of all parties, will have to grasp the nettle at some point?

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend makes a good and practical point. As the European Union has enlarged, it has become necessary for its decision-making processes to be efficient and effective. It would otherwise not be possible for it to make important decisions in the interests of its people.

Kelvin Hopkins: Surely what my hon. Friend the Member for South Ribble (Mr. Borrow) has said about the future of a Europe with 27 members makes the case for a looser arrangement of independent democratic states, co-operating voluntarily for mutual benefit when that is appropriate, rather than a centralised European state.

Mr. Hoon: I do not accept my hon. Friend’s description of the operation of the European Union. As a very distinguished former Conservative Prime Minister said when speaking of the Conservative Government’s application to join the EU in the early 1960s, what is on offer is a pooling and sharing of sovereignty. We recognise that the benefits of that pooling and sharing outweigh the loss of sovereignty in significant areas.

I know that my hon. Friend is concerned about and committed to environmental protection. His “looser arrangement” of member states would not be able to deliver the kind of environmental protection that we require in the 21st century, because we would not have
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the legal ability to enforce decisions of that kind in all 27 member states, or indeed among prospective members of the Union. That is the fundamental problem that the Conservative party is refusing to address, with its transparent pretence that it is concerned about our environment, when it is failing to deliver the means whereby our environment can be protected.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Hoon: I appear to have provoked a storm of protest. I give way to the hon. Gentleman at the back.

Philip Davies (Shipley) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. He has been very generous.

Things appear to have moved on since the stuff that people were trotting out 10 years ago. Is the Minister not aware of the findings of an ICM poll of 1,000 chief executives in this country? They showed that 52 per cent. think that the EU is a failing organisation, 54 per cent. think that the disadvantages of over-regulation outweigh any benefit to be had from a single market, and 60 per cent. want our arrangements with the EU to relate only to free trade. Does the Minister not agree that things have moved on considerably, and that people now think it is a bad thing to be in the EU, not a good thing?

Mr. Hoon: I did see the results of that poll, and I have seen the results of a number of other polls which do not entirely bear out those results. I know that the hon. Gentleman has a particular view of the European Union, and it is not terribly surprising that he probably picked out the poll result that accorded with his own—I am tempted to say “prejudices”, but that may be a little harsh.

There is a wide range of views. The view that I think is clear is that of the Confederation of British Industry, which recognises that the United Kingdom is an integral and important part of the EU and equally recognises, as I hope the hon. Gentleman will as well, that it is in the vital interests of British business for us to continue to be a successful part of the world’s largest single market of some 460 million consumers. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head, but I hope he can explain to British businesses that are trading successfully in that single market how they would operate if we were outside it.

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): Surely the Minister is not arguing that environmental protection stops just with the European Union. Surely if we are talking about environmental protection, it must apply to the whole of the European continent, so how come it stops at the borders of the EU?

Mr. Hoon: I was not suggesting that for a moment, but if 27 member states can from 1 January next year agree on environmental legislation to protect the environment, that would not only represent a substantial proportion of the population and geographical area of the continent of Europe, but allow us to approach international negotiations much more effectively than would otherwise be the case. The hon. Member for Wellingborough (Mr. Bone)
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continues to shake his head, but he needs to reflect carefully on the views of other political parties elsewhere in the EU—with the exception of a handful of right-wing ideologues and a handful of people who appear, for the moment at any rate, to want to join the Conservatives in 2009, but even they are having considerable doubts about the right-wing drift of the hon. Gentleman’s party.

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): Given that we are discussing the effectiveness of the EU at environmental protection, will the Minister explain why, under current proposals for the EU carbon trading system, the Germans are allowed by the British Government to allocate more carbon to their industries than they actually produce now?

Mr. Hoon: We have never suggested that the existing system provides an ideal solution. We want it improved and developed, because it suggests a way forward in reducing carbon emissions. Unfortunately, the Conservative party has rejected that system without coming forward with any alternative practical proposals, which puts it in very considerable difficulty. The Conservatives cannot say that the system that is now beginning to have some effect is not worthwhile without putting forward some practical alternatives that can be seen to deliver reductions in carbon emissions. The scheme is a start: it needs improving, but it is nevertheless in place now, so we need to develop and improve it.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): I want to return to an earlier point about the effectiveness of decision making in the EU now that it comprises 27 member states and is growing. What is the British Government’s attitude to the increasing inequality between large and small states, particularly when there are now so many small ones? What does the Minister think of the nonsense of having one commissioner for every country? As the EU expands, a Commission with 30-plus commissioners simply will not be able to operate effectively. What we should be arguing for is a commission of no more than 12, for example.

Mr. Hoon: My hon. Friend tempts me to begin negotiations well before they need to start. She will be aware of a provision in the Nice treaty that goes a small way to delivering what she wants, in that after 1 January next year the number of commissioners will, in the event of further enlargement, be reduced below the number of member states. However, it has to be discussed further before implementation.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Hoon: I had better make some progress, as other hon. Members want to take the opportunity to contribute to the debate.

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