Previous Section Index Home Page

12 Jun 2008 : Column 162WH—continued

12 Jun 2008 : Column 163WH

In the coming year, within the strategy, there is a work programme to make progress with accession negotiations with Croatia and Turkey, which is absolutely right. Bringing in states from the western Balkans is important. The Liberal Democrats have always supported the idea of Turkey becoming a full member of the European Union. It would be historic if a secular Muslim state joined and was welcomed into the European Union. It would be fantastic. It would be great for trade and good for getting Turkey up to the human rights standards that the EU seeks to promote, but it would be far more than that. We often forget the historic messages that the EU sends. My party and I are proud to stand up as strong supporters of the EU. I believe that the European Union is one of the greatest steps forward in the history of humankind. That goes against what one would read in the press, and it is an unfashionable view, but I think that all those states gathering around tables to talk to one another, solve problems and co-operate, with the rule of law and a degree of democratic accountability, following due process transparently, is fantastic. Bringing a secular Muslim state such as Turkey into that kind of club would be historic, so it would be fantastic if work was done in 2009 to pursue that goal.

The strategy addresses the important foreign policy issue of making progress and working on a new framework agreement with Russia. We are all aware of some of the worrying developments in Russia. The problem for the EU is that we have not been able to agree on our approach because of divergences between some of the big member states—between Germany and France and Germany and the UK. It might be that we are unable to achieve a common approach, but it would help if we could develop an approach that we consider to be in Britain’s interest and that we can persuade other people to take up. If Russia is able to pick different member states off, it is powerful; if Russia faces a united EU, strengthened by a common agreement to which states have signed up through a proper process, it becomes much weaker. Together we have a much stronger voice, and we will not allow the bully-boy approach that Putin adopted—we have yet to see whether Medvedev adopts the same approach—to succeed. That is important for Britain and Europe.

The final part of the long work programme under the title “Europe as a World Partner” is on the implementation of the Doha development agreement. The Foreign Secretary touched on that last night when he gave a speech at Lancaster house—we were celebrating Her Majesty’s birthday. The US presidential elections will be out of the way in November, and one of the new President’s first tasks, with the new Congress, will be to engage on the matter. There will be problems because, whether or not the Democrats win the White House, they are likely to strengthen their control over Congress. I do not know whether that will mean that there will be a majority in both Houses for the Doha agreement. The last time I talked to American politicians and policy makers about the agreement, they said that Washington is not all that interested because there is not a lot in it for the US. They say, “You guys in Europe talk about a development round, but it doesn’t really do very much for us”. Hopefully, there will be a new atmosphere in American politics, and they might take a more enlightened approach.
12 Jun 2008 : Column 164WH
If so, the European Union should be ready to push it forward and achieve something.

The document states:

I think I know what the Commission means by that, but I am not sure. In any case, we, as a member state, ought to push for it. No trade agreement contains everything one wishes for, but one can get 75 per cent. of it—that is the way of trade politics. I would welcome progress on that.

I repeat that I have concerns about the process, but the fact that I have been able to speak for so long and refer to the document suggests that it has some value. However, that value is compartmentalised. The European Commission is doing this and wants to make progress on that, which is all good. We can discuss it and put our points of view, but it does not amount to a strategy. If that is what the Commission is seeking to do, it needs to think again. Having said that, I am looking forward to the Minister’s response to my detailed questions.

4.17 pm

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): May I offer the apologies of my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), who would normally speak in a European debate from the Conservative Front Bench? As the Minister knows, he is attending the wedding this afternoon of a member of his staff, and I am sure that the whole House wishes the happy couple every success in their marriage.

I share some of the analysis of the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey) of the document. I could not make up my mind whether it was a strategy document or a work programme. It is something of a cross between a White Paper and a Queen’s Speech, but it lacked the precision of the latter and associated documents because it does not tell us in detail exactly which measures of European legislation the Commission intends to introduce in 2009. The strategic analysis and presentation lacks coherence—it is a bag of all-sorts.

Having said that, I am able to welcome a fair amount of the document, including the continuing commitment of the Commission to enlargement, and I strongly endorse its determination to press ahead with the negotiations with Turkey. The Conservatives have always supported Turkey’s accession to the European Union. For the broader reasons alluded to by the hon. Gentleman, it will be in Europe’s greater geopolitical interests for Turkey’s membership to become reality.

It is good that the Commission mentioned in its document the need to enhance relationships with the countries of north Africa. I am glad to see that the right hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) has returned to the Chamber, because he made some important points on the way in which the interests of European and north African countries are interconnected. It is important for us to foster those relationships. He also gave a friendly but appropriate warning to the British Government and to Britain as a country that British business is sometimes slow off the mark in getting to grips with the opportunities available in north Africa. When I have talked to representatives of those countries,
12 Jun 2008 : Column 165WH
they have been keen to encourage investment, trade and cultural and educational relationships with the United Kingdom.

I welcome the Commission’s words about Doha, but like the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton, I think that its completion should be a priority; it should not be conditional on circumstances. The EU should be pressing for it urgently. I also welcome the Commission’s words about strengthening the work of the Transatlantic Economic Council. At a time when economic difficulties around the world are strengthening the voices of protectionism, it is vital that the European Commission and the major players in the European Union maintain their commitment to free markets and free trade. Bringing down the barriers that divide us from the members of the North American Free Trade Agreement is an important initiative that can be taken in the right direction.

In general, it is my belief that the Barroso Commission has been more sympathetic to the needs of business and enterprise than its predecessors. It has adopted a friendlier overall attitude to small and medium-sized enterprises in particular, which is to be welcomed. I liked what the document said about the need for emphasis on the quality rather than the quantity of European legislation, and it was refreshing to read a Commission document that talked about needing a year to see to the proper implementation of previously announced initiatives, rather than wishing to press ahead with a whole new raft of directives and regulations, as though that were some test of the effectiveness of the Commission or the EU more generally.

However, I hope that the Minister and his colleagues in other Departments will keep a close eye on what those initiatives actually mean in practice. Do the simplification rolling programme and the action programme to reduce administrative burdens deliver the reductions in business costs that the manufacturing and service industries in the United Kingdom so desperately need as they fight the ever fiercer challenge of global economic competition?

We must bear it in mind that there are pressures in the opposite direction. I mentioned how language about trade around the world seems to be becoming more protectionist. I certainly hope, if the Democratic candidate wins the US presidential election, that some of the protectionist language that we heard on the campaign trail will not translate into US policy, because that would be harmful to this country’s interests and the interests of those seeking growth and prosperity throughout the world.

We must consider what is happening in Europe. If the Lisbon treaty comes into force, it will contain that significant shift in language that has relegated free markets and free trade, one of the defining features of the European Union, to a lesser role. We debated that in the Chamber in connection with the treaty. The French hailed it as a great victory for their approach to economic matters and a defeat for the forces of the Anglo-Saxon world.

We should be a bit concerned about some of the positions adopted by our own Government. Only yesterday, the Financial Times reported that the British Government had entered a “non aggression pact” under which this country

12 Jun 2008 : Column 166WH

When the Minister responds, I hope that he might be prepared to spell out the terms of that reported deal. To what extent has the United Kingdom resiled from the oft-expressed ambition of liberalising the European energy markets to at least the same extent as in our own country? What does he believe will be the impact on British business and British consumers of such a change in our negotiating position? We know, for example, that so far it has not proved possible to get some continental gas suppliers to sell gas to United Kingdom distributors for the same lower price that they are prepared to offer distributors on the continent. Are our Government satisfied with that state of affairs? If not, what initiatives do they plan within the EU to end that anomaly in what is supposed to be a single market?

I hope, too, that the Minister might say a word about the concessions that the Government recently agreed on the agency workers directive. He will know that the role of agency and temporary staff is of greater significance in the British economy, especially to small and medium-sized businesses, than in the other major economies of western Europe. Have the Government assessed, in particular, the impact on SMEs of the measure that they are now prepared to endorse? Have they thought through the possible impact of such a directive at a time when the British economy is going through a severe downturn?

I was troubled by the words on page 4 of the strategy document about financial services:

What does that mean? There is certainly a case—

Mr. Jim Murphy: Transparency.

Mr. Lidington: Well, I am certainly not going to stand here and argue that there is no case for revising systems of regulation and supervision, but it seems vital that the United Kingdom, whatever party is in government, stand up firmly for the principle that light regulation is what tends to breed successful financial service industries. What has benefited the City of London has been the ability to innovate in an on the whole successful system of self-regulation since the days of the big bang. If the European Union, no doubt for well-intended reasons, goes down a path of ever-tighter regulation and stricter government—or supranational government—supervision, the people who will cheer are those who want to establish financial centres in Switzerland or anywhere else outside EU boundaries.

Mr. Davey: The hon. Gentleman makes a strong point. Was he as concerned as I was to read that Chancellor Merkel seems to be on an offensive, suggesting that the Anglo-Saxon model of approach to regulation has had its day? The sentence that he read out may echo the idea that down the line, there could be a European-wide financial services authority. That would be extremely worrying.

Mr. Lidington: I dread the thought of a pan-European FSA, not least because the City of London has been of huge benefit to the British economy, in terms of investment and employment, over the past couple of decades. It is vital that we do nothing that prejudices the success of the City as a generator of income and jobs for British people.

12 Jun 2008 : Column 167WH

I would question, too, whether some of the initiatives listed by the Commission are worth it at all. I really question why we need a European institute of technology. We can agree that technology is a good thing, that innovation is to be welcomed, and that we should support contact and the dissemination of ideas between different enterprises and academic institutions. However, Europe is richly endowed with universities and institutes with track records of technological innovation and a history of publishing and sharing their ideas. Will anything be gained by having an additional institution funded by Europe’s taxpayers that cannot be gained, to the same extent or greater, by leaving universities and other institutes to act on their own? Will a central European institute of technology be more dynamic and innovative than Europe’s existing diverse institutions?

I welcome the Commission’s continuing commitment to action on climate change, but although I have no problem with supporting its objectives, we must acknowledge that the main instrument of policy—the EU emissions trading scheme—is itself flawed. I have always supported emissions trading as a way of introducing a market mechanism to reinforce desirable, environmentally friendly behaviour on the part of companies, but the record of the European ETS is surely that too many credits were issued at the start and that, as a result, we do not yet have a real price for carbon in Europe with which to make that scheme effective and to introduce a dynamic that drives companies to reduce their use of carbon over the years. If the Government share that assessment of what is wrong with the ETS, what are they planning to do about it? Will they campaign in the Council of Ministers and try to assemble allies in the EU to secure improvements to the scheme? Will the revisions to the ETS mentioned in the document actually remedy the flaws to which I have referred, or do we need further work before we have an instrument fit for purpose?

The common immigration policy makes up a fair bit of the Commission’s strategy document, and I would be intrigued to know whether the Government have made up their minds on whether they plan to use their opt-ins, if the Lisbon treaty comes into effect. I would also be grateful for clarification of what some of the Commission’s proposed measures would entail. For example, page 16 of the document makes reference to directives for specific sectors of industry in relation to the entry and stay of legal migrants. I presume that that would apply to people who, in the British context, are admitted to the UK under work permit or seasonal worker schemes of one sort or another. What concerns me is that we could end up with a European directive designed for a sector, when the significance and labour needs of that sector might significantly differ from one member state to another. How can we design a directive on economic migrants that will work in Greece, Estonia, the UK, Portugal and Malta, and which will make sense in the particular business circumstances in each of those very different economies?

The Commission is clearly very concerned in the document about the need to connect the institutions of the European Union more closely to the lives and everyday priorities of the citizens of European countries. That theme comes through quite powerfully in the sections of the policy strategy entitled “Putting the
12 Jun 2008 : Column 168WH
Citizen First” and “Communicating Europe”. I agree with the objective, but I am not at all sure whether it is working in practice. I noted, when the European Parliament had its initial debate on President Barroso’s policy strategy, that several Members made reference, in the context of the section on putting the citizen first, to the need to sort out cross-border entitlements on health treatment. MEPs were calling for the Commission to make that a high priority for its programme of work for the year. What is the Government analysis of the likelihood of such a measure coming forward? What would be the impact on the NHS of much greater freedom for people to seek medical treatment across national borders within the EU? Do the Government endorse that principle?

On page 6 of the document, in the section entitled, “Putting the Citizen First”, the Commission states:

That could be okay, and something that people could welcome, but it raises the question: what does it mean when we get down to the detailed practice? Will we open up our newspapers and find that they are full of indignant owners of bed-and-breakfast establishments complaining that, owing to European legislation, people want to stop them letting the family dog into the kitchen if they are to continue to have guests, and are telling them to choose between barring Rover from part of the family home and giving up their small, family bed-and-breakfast business?

All of us in this place know that sometimes, that sort of over-regulation stems from Brussels, but sometimes it is down to Whitehall gold-plating or to the way in which the local enforcement authority interprets the words sent down to them. Without looking into the issue in greater detail than I have had time to do today, I do not know which it is in this case. In this country, however, when we debate regulations that impinge upon everyday life, we should take every opportunity to argue that: first, we must base our proposals on a common-sense evaluation of an actual, rather than a theoretical, risk; secondly, we must be sensible to the distinction between large enterprises employing large numbers of people, and small businesses run by families, almost as an adjunct to the family way of life; and thirdly, we must understand how people in very different countries actually live their lives day by day. Regulations must seem sensible to people when going about their daily routines.

The section on “Communicating Europe” states that 2009 will be a very important year for Europe. I supported what Mr. Barroso said before the European Parliament, which was that it will give us the chance to celebrate 20 years since the fall of the Berlin wall, and the reunification of a continent that had been so horribly divided since 1914. That really is something for everyone to take pride in in 2009, whichever side we take over the Lisbon treaty.

If we want to communicate about Europe and if we are to engage the public seriously in debates about Europe, European leaders must stop treating the peoples of Europe as tiresome extras. Page 8 of the document talks about the Commission seeking

Next Section Index Home Page