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The Council also discussed food and energy price inflation, and agreed further steps to monitor worldwide inflationary pressures. We agreed that the current global
financial turbulence was not a reason to postpone fundamental economic reforms that are essential to building a more competitive European economy. We agreed that we should now press ahead with the liberalisation of markets and with new investment in knowledge and innovation. That includes further liberalisation in the energy, post and telecoms markets, which could generate up to 360,000 new jobs.
We discussed the need also for an economic reform strategy that looks beyond Lisbona comprehensive strategy to improve the business environment, strengthen relations with China and India, put our creative and knowledge industries at the forefront of the world economy, and make European universities leading global players, in particular through increasing their contacts with business. So the next stage of the Lisbon agenda will include a review of human capital and skills in Europe, and a renewed focus on competition policy in the single market.
The second major issue discussed by the Council was climate change, and it is essential that we achieve our ambitions of a comprehensive post-2012 agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and of Europe leading the world in a low-carbon economy.
In December, the united European front at the climate change negotiations in Bali played an important part in the historic breakthrough that agreed the need to make large cuts in emissions and achieve a new climate deal within two years. Only a common European approacha Europe with Britain not at the margins but at the centre, leading the worldcan ensure a global low-carbon economy founded on our proposal of a global carbon market.
Building on this commitment, the Council agreed an ambitious schedule for adopting a package of measures to cut emissions by 20 per cent. by 2020 or by 30 per cent. as part of an international agreement. The Council also agreed with the UK on the need for an effective EU emissions trading scheme to provide the incentives to drive carbon reductions in the most cost-effective way and for a cap on emissions set centrally, with a clear emissions reductions trajectory to give investors the predictability that they now need.
The Council also considered a report from the EU high representative on the security implications of climate change and, at our request, agreed to submit recommendations on follow-up actionincluding intensifying co-operation with countries outside Europeby the end of the year.
Meeting the EUs climate change targets requires not just action to reduce carbon emissions from energy suppliers and industry, but incentives to change individual behaviour. The Council will now invite the Commission, in bringing forward its legislative proposals on VAT rates, due in the summer, and working with member states, to examine areas where economic instruments, including VAT rates, can play a role in increasing the use of energy-efficient goods and energy-saving materials, from, as the UK has proposed, insulation and household materials to energy-efficient electrical goods, where VAT is cut.
The Council also agreed on the importance of achieving a fully functioning and joined-up internal energy market, as an essential condition for the secure, sustainable and competitive supply of energy across
Europe. We also committed to an energy agreement by June this year. It is clear that energy security is strengthened by a policy that takes a collective approach to third-country producers, notably Russia.
Europe can also play a part in ensuring stability beyond its borders. The Council agreed to build on existing co-operation to establish a Union for the Mediterranean, to promote security and stability in the wider region and to provide a framework for co-operation between the EU27 and other Mediterranean coastal states on political and security issues, as well as economic, social and cultural affairs. That new union will be launched during the French presidency in July this year.
We also agreed that international development issues and the achievement of the millennium development goals, as well as Europes continuing leadership as the biggest contributor of aid in the world, will be the subject of a major discussion at the European Council in June.
The outcome of the Council and the preparations that are being made for June affirm the conclusions of the debate that we have had in the House over the past nine weeks: they demonstrate that, with the completion of the Lisbon treaty, we now have an opportunity to move beyond institutional issues to create a more outward-looking, flexible and global Europe, and to address the challenges that matter most to the citizens of Europe.
With three quarters of a million businesses, 3.5 million jobs and 60 per cent. of British trade dependent on our relationship with Europe, we should do nothing to put the stability of that relationship at risk. It is only by working constructively and remaining fully engaged with our European partners that we properly address the challenges ahead.
As we prepare for the European Council in June and the French presidency later this year, our aim is that European countries working together can lead the way on climate change, on security, on international development and on the response to global financial turbulence. I will be discussing with President Sarkozy when he visits Britain next week how we can take all these challenges forward during the French presidency. I commend this statement to the House.
Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con):
I welcome the focus of this Council: global competitiveness, global poverty and global climate change. This is the right agenda. On climate change, the first thing that Governments should do is get their own house in order. The draft communiqué included specific targets to reduce energy use in Government buildings, offices and cars. Will the Prime Minister explain why those specific targets were removed from the final text agreed at the weekend? Looking at our own record here in the UK, does the Prime Minister accept that 14 Government Departments are less energy-efficient than they were eight years ago, and that 15 Government Departments have actually increased their carbon emissions during that time [ Interruption. ] He asks what this has got to do with Europe. I think we should be leading by example. In a similar context, will he confirm that, despite the fine words in the Budget about plastic bags,
the Government have bought 1.2 million Whitehall-branded single-use plastic bags in the past two years?
The Prime Minister is right to say that the success of the emissions trading scheme is vital. Will he acknowledge, however, that the Lisbon treaty is completely irrelevant to making that happen? There are six words on climate change in the treaty and, as the House of Lords Committee pointed out last week, they have no legal significance. Is it not the case that we do not need a new constitution or a new treaty to deal with climate change at EU level?
Everyone will welcome the Prime Ministers intention to use indirect taxes, including VAT, as incentives for green behaviour. That is something that we have put forward in our own quality of life policy group report. The Commission said that it had doubts about whether the proposal was workable. One EU diplomat said that the agreed wording was
a polite way of saying no,
a way of saving face.
On the economy, Ministers discussed the recent turbulence in the financial markets. Clearly, proper co-ordination by central banks is going to be essential. Will the Prime Minister guarantee that his approach of putting the Financial Services Authority, rather than the Bank of England, in the lead to rescue British banks in distress will not make the process more difficult?
The final communiqué from Brussels warns Governments across Europe about the dangers of high deficits. Will the Prime Minister confirm that Spains budget is in balance, and that Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark and Sweden all have budget surpluses, while Britain has the largest budget deficit in western Europe? Does he now regret the fact that we are the one country that failed to prepare for the downturn by putting money aside in the good years?
The other main issue for Europe to focus on is global poverty and the urgent need to make rapid progress on the Doha round. Will the Prime Minister tell us why the EU seems to be showing so little urgency in getting the deal moving again? The commissioner in charge of those negotiations is Peter Mandelson. Whatever any of us may think of him, I have always had very helpful briefing from him on trade and, I have to say, on other issues, too [ Laughter. ] The Leader of the House should not laugh; she might put herself in jeopardy. What matters is that there should be a clear decision on whether he is going to serve another term. It cannot be in anyones interests for the commissioners future to be the subject of endless speculation. Will the Prime Minister tell us today whether Peter Mandelson is going to go on doing his job, or whether that decision is to be the subject of further dithering?
While Ministers were in Brussels, there was violence [ Interruption. ] Look, I thought the boot boy had been told to calm down. I read in a Sunday newspaper that he was actually the soon-to-get-the-boot boy. Soon, he might have to go and sit in another part of the House. I see that the Prime Minister is
laughing. I think your careeryou will be on the same conveyor belt as the Leader of the House.
While Ministers were meeting in Brussels, there was violence on the streets of Tibet. An EU statement on Tibet has been issued today, which I am sure the whole House will welcome. Britain rightly works closely with China and we very much welcome the way it has opened up its economy, but is it not vital that the Chinese Government understand that with the greater role they play in the world comes greater responsibility? Does the Prime Minister agree that the strong relationship we all want with China requires us to be candid and frank, even on issues where we disagree?
The Prime Minister: I will deal with each point, but is it not remarkable when 3.5 million jobs are dependent on our membership of the European Union and when European co-operation on the environment was crucial to what happened at Bali that the right hon. Gentleman can say so little about the advantages of co-operation in Europe, and that he should spend his time attacking the European Union rather than seeing the benefits in it?
The right hon. Gentleman says that the environment is nothing to do with the European reform treaty, but it is the first time we have set down as a strategic objective that the environment is an important issue and it is there in the treaty. All the other parties in Europe believe it is important that the environment be at the centre of Europes work and if I may say so, if we are to lead the world on the environment, we will need to co-operate with our European partners.
The right hon. Gentleman also raised the question of how we as a country are cutting emissions. We are one of the few countries meeting our Kyoto targets and we will continue to do so. One of the reasons why we are meeting them is that we implemented early on in our Government the climate change levy, which the Conservatives continue to oppose.
I find it very strange for the right hon. Gentleman to be raising issues that compare us with the rest of Europe in terms of economic progress. We have lower inflation than the rest of Europe and we have a history of stability and growth. He will find, during the course of this year, that the American deficit will be higher than the British one because people are taking the right action to deal with the global financial turbulence. I am sorry that the right hon. Gentleman has so little to say in support of the action that the European Union and, indeed, all international authorities are taking on the economic issues confronting them. If the Conservatives want to be a serious party, perhaps they could actually address the serious issues of economic progress.
As far as the issues about Tibet are concerned, the right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right that, although it was not discussed at the European Council, all of us are concerned about what is happening there. We have made our views known to the Chinese authority: we believe that there should be restraint and an end to violence; and we believe that there should be a dialogue between the different authorities, which should happen soon. It is very important to recognise that at this time the whole world is looking to China to see what the reaction will be.
The right hon. Gentleman also raised the issue of trade and may I say that we, too, have been pushing the rest of the world because we believe it important to use this window of opportunity to get a trade deal? That is why we are working as we are with the European Trade Commissioner and why it is essential to move other countries forward to see if we can get a deal.
One of the people who was at the European Council during the course of the weekend was the Czech Prime Minister. Until recently, he was the Conservative partys only supporter in Europe. What he is saying now, however, is that failure to support the reform treaty will leave the Czechoslovakian people isolated in Europe. That is exactly what would happen to this country if we ever listened to Conservative advice.
Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD): I am grateful to the Prime Minister for his statement. As European summits go, the conclusions were workmanlike; largely welcome, but fairly unremarkable. I wonder whether that is in part because of the issues that were omitted. Notwithstanding the Prime Ministers words about Tibet today, will he explain why there was no discussion among EU Heads of State last week on Tibet? Does he not think that it is precisely the actions of the Chinese authorities in Tibet that should be the subject of discussion between European leaders?
I know that the Prime Minister is extraordinarily reluctant to do anything, it seems, to annoy the authorities in Beijing, but will he none the less confirm today that he will follow the lead of President George Bush and of Chancellor Angela Merkel and meet the Dalai Lama on his forthcoming visit to London to express solidarity with the Tibetan people? [Interruption.] As the Prime Minister knows, I have written to him about that on two occasions and still not had a clear answer [Interruption.]
Mr. Clegg: I congratulate the Prime Minister on inserting, at the last minute, a reference in the conclusions to his laudable aim of reducing VAT rates on environmentally friendly goods, but why did he apparently go about that in such a bizarre fashion? Why did he spring it on his colleaguesif reports are to be believedat the last minute through a letter with President Sarkozy? Is that really the best way to show leadership and do business in the EU? My worry is that the manner in which the proposal was spun in the press had as much to do with obscuring the Governments woeful record on the environment, compared with that of other EU countries.
We are now 25th25thout of the 27 EU member states on the use of renewables, and more than 25 per cent. of our carbon emissions come from our housing stock, compared with 5 per cent. in Sweden, which is a much colder country. We have a recycling rate well behind that of France, Germany, Spain and other countries. The go-ahead is being given to Kingsnorth power stationthe first in a new generation of coal-fired power stationswithout any effort being made to use carbon capture technology, and the go-ahead is being given to a third runway at Heathrow. The list goes on.
Does the Prime Minister not accept that he can make all the noise he wants about his VAT proposal, but our green credentials in the EU will never be strong unless real action is taken across a much broader range of issues? For instance, will he commit today to giving support to a new draft directive on the geological storage of carbon, which is being drafted in the European Parliament and which would oblige all member states to accelerate the use of carbon capture technology at all the coal-burning power stations?
I strongly agree with the Prime Minister that there is a pressing need to move towards a fully integrated and competitive energy market in the single market. In particular, the EU needs the powers to take action against monopoly energy providers in markets such as France and Germany. Does he agree that the new Lisbon treaty would give the EU precisely those powers further to liberalise the EU energy market, and that that is just another example of the benefits that the treaty would bring the British economy, which the Conservative party is so keen to deny the British people?
I warmly welcome the Prime Ministers remarks about co-ordinated action at European level to ensure stability and greater transparency in the financial markets. The reverberations around the global markets today, caused by the news that the US investment bank Bear Stearns is to be taken over at just 2 per cent. of its share value compared with 12 months ago, show how timely the EUs Council statements are.
It is critical, at a time when liquidity remains so tight for the worlds banks, that steps are now taken to ensure that this does not create an environment where credit is being withdrawn for millions of ordinary people. That is why we must also now pioneer reforms to the system of lending to ensure that we do not find ourselves in a similar position in years to come.
Does the Prime Minister agree that while it is critical that the capital requirements directive be reviewed if we are to prevent a further boom-and-bust cycle in the credit markets, we must be prepared to use levers to control supply as well as demand for credit?
The Prime Minister: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. First, may I correct him on VAT? I first raised the issue months ago with our European colleagues; I have been following it up ever since. I am grateful that we now have an agreement to look in detail at whether VAT reductions on matters such as household materials and electrical goods can be beneficial both in encouraging people to use energy-efficient products and in stimulating a market where Europe can benefit in the future. So, he is wrong to say that this was raised only on the day of the Council. We have been pressing our European colleagues on the matter for some time.
I agree with the right hon. Gentleman on the importance that we attach to environmental issues. Again, I have to correct him. Carbon capture and storage is something that we have been pushing right across the EU. There will be 12 demonstration plants, and one of them, we believe, will be in the UK, but we want the European Commission to make it possible for there to be greater incentives so that people will develop carbon capture and storage at a quicker rate.
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