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Given that, it was wrong for the European Union, supported by the Government, to begin discussions with Russia on a new EU partnership agreement. It would be doubly wrong for the EU to agree the terms of a new partnership agreement with Russia while that country is in flagrant breach of the ceasefire agreement that the EU itself negotiated. I would be grateful if the Under-Secretary reassured the House this evening by saying that the Government will not allow the signature of any such agreement while Russia remains in breach of its ceasefire commitments. [Interruption.] I know that the Under-Secretary is new to the Front Bench, but when his opposite number asks him a specific question for his winding-up speech, it is considered
courteous for him to listen, not least because if he does he might be able to provide a reply for the benefit of the House.
Having welcomed the hon. Gentleman to his new post, let me turn to Bosnia. In the last debate on Europe, we set out a number of the challenges faced by the international community there. Since then, unfortunately, there has been minimal progress; Bosnia and Herzegovinas dysfunctional central institutions are still racked by nationalist rhetoric. The Office of the High Representative is still under threat of closure, and the EU is still planning to remove its peacekeepers. Despite that period of drift, we have seen some signs of a renewed commitment to Bosnia in the new United States Administration, in particular from Vice-President Joe Biden. We hope that that leads to a greater recognition on the part of the US and the EU of the dangers that are still present in Bosnia, and we hope that both the US and the EU will act to address them.
The European elections showed a rejection of socialist parties, policies and Governments across Europe, but in Britain the peoples rejection of the Labour party was particularly decisive. The Labour party did worse than its socialist brethren in France or Spain. It got just over half the number of MEPs that the Italian socialists returned and a similar result compared with the German SPD, despite that partys having its worst election result since the second world war. In the new European Parliament, the British Labour delegation will rank as only the sixth largest party in the Socialist group, only just ahead of the Romanian socialists, who have 10 seats.
The decisive rejection of socialism in Europe flies in the face of those in Britain who seek to use the financial crisis to justify a re-emergence of big government. Nor was the result in Britain simply a protest against a weak and unpopular Government, weak and unpopular though they undoubtedly are. In France and Germany, centre-right Governments managed to increase their votes, despite serving as incumbent Governments during a period of recession.
The result in Britain was astonishingly bad for Labour. It was pointed out earlier that the Labour party did not compromise with the electorate; in return, the electorate certainly did not compromise with the Labour party. For instance, Labour came second in Wales for the first time since 1918. One startling fact is that in the Rhondda valley, Labour got only a third of the vote, down from 68 per cent. at the last electionand on that point, I give way to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.
Mike Gapes: The hon. Gentleman mentioned the good results for the conservative parties in France and Germany. Given that he is using that argument to make his case, why is his party rejecting those parties?
We are not rejecting them [ Interruption. ] We are not; I shall answer the question directly. Some months agoover a year ago, I thinkwe established working groups between our party and the German CDU-CSU that have looked in detail at issues such as
the environment, maintaining European competitiveness, and combating terrorism. More recently, we have established a similar system of working groups with the French UMP. That does not sound like rejection to me.
Let me turn to our new grouping in the European Parliament. One of the results of the European elections is that a reinvigorated Conservative delegation of MEPs is determined to put the case, which we believe is shared by a majority of the British peopleand we did win the European electionsfor a flexible, open and free-trading European Union. In order to do this, the Conservative delegation will, along with the ODS party in the Czech Republic and the Law and Justice party in Poland, form a new centre-right grouping to campaign for a new type of Europe. That work is ongoing, but we aim to announce the membership of the group well before the delegations are legally constituted on 14 July.
Given that the Liberal spokesman attacked our policy on that, it is interesting to look at some of the Liberals allies in the ALDEAlliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europegrouping in the European Parliament. Is he, for instance, proud of the fact that his party was allied with the Swedish party, Feminist Initiative, whose policies include the abolition of marriage because it regards that as detrimental to women, and special additional taxation on men, simply because they are men? Is he proud of that? I should advise him to declare an interest before he answers the question. Is he not going to answer? In that case, I will press on.
My next subject is the Governments lack of interest in Europe. They now seek to forget about the European elections, but they seemed to forget about Europe itself some time ago. One of the details to emerge from the Governments chaos last week is that the former Minister for Europe said:
I am not willing to attend Cabinet in a peripheral capacity any longer.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, reminded the House, the right hon. Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint) told Radio 4s Womans Hour that she had not had a single conversation with the Prime Minister about European policy in her year as Europe Minister.
We therefore have the truth of the Prime Ministers vision for Europe in his Cabinet. It is, in one word, peripheral. Despite the Governments appointing 11 Europe Ministers since 1997, including the previous Minister, who remarkably admitted that she had never even bothered to read the Lisbon treaty, we now have no Minister for Europe in the House of Commonsa Minister for Europe who also does not attend the Cabinet as of right.
For a while, it even looked as though we were to have no Minister for Europe at all. Due to the shambolic nature of the Governments reshuffle, nobody had bothered to double-check whether Lady Kinnock was able to be a Member of the European Parliament and a Minister in this Parliament at the same time. Perhaps when the Under-Secretary winds up the debate, he will confirm whether Lady Kinnock is now formally a Minister of the Crown, and when she will formally take up her duties in the House of Lords. Parliament deserves a clear answer on that matter.
Mr. Davidson: The hon. Gentleman indicated that he was in favour of clear answers. May I seek a clear answer from him about whether the Conservatives can be trusted on Europe? In the event that there is a Conservative Government, if the Lisbon treaty has been ratified by the 27 member states, will they hold a referendumyes or no? People who voted for the UK Independence party and a number of other parties will want to know that before the general election. Yes or nowill there be a referendum?
Mr. Francois: My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks, was asked almost exactly the same question at the start of the debate, and he said that we had not ruled that in or out. I know that the hon. Gentleman is a patient man, and he will have to be patient yet.
I wish to press the Minister on the working time directive before I conclude. The directive, from which Britain has an opt-out, could affect 3 million people in this country, not least all those who work in the national health service. The opt-out is often referred to as the UK opt-out, despite the fact that some 15 countries around the EU now utilise it. In the crunch vote in the European Parliament in the run-up to Christmas, the majority of Labour MEPs voted to abolish the UK opt-out, even though their own Government ordered them to do differently. They were led in that rebellion by their then Chief Whip, Glenys Willmott, who now leads the Labour MEPs in the European Parliament.
Can the Minister assure us that if the matter is returned to in the new European Parliament, all Labours MEPs will vote to defend the UK opt-out from the working time directive, so that people in this country can choose how many hours in the week they wish to work and not have that dictated to them? Conservative MEPs, led on that issue by Philip Bushill-Matthews, to whom I pay tribute for his work, valiantly defended that opt-out. I should like to know that Labour MEPs would do the same.
The Prime Minister will go to the European Council, where he will have difficult discussions about financial proposals that could adversely affect the City of London, and in respect of which Britain does not appear to have been very proactive in defending the British interest. We are very concerned about those proposals and should like to know what the Government intend to do about them.
At that summit, the Prime Minister will probably also collude in an attempt to provide so-called guarantees so that the Irish people may be persuaded to vote twice in a referendum, whereas the people of this country have not even been allowed to vote once. We do not believe that that is a robust defence of the British interest. In fact, we believe that it is contrary to it.
Labour claims to be at the heart of Europe, but it is precisely the opposite. Its Cabinet rarely debates it, and its Europe Minister is richly ignored by the Prime Minister. Now it is still seeking to deny the people a referendum on a treaty that materially affects their future. We say, Bring on the general election. We say, Let this argument be put, and we say, Let the people decide.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Chris Bryant): It is a great delight to follow the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois). I gather that he particularly enjoys a few Pot Noodles and, indeed, Peperami from time to time. I think that The Daily Telegraph described him as a bit of an animal. I look forward to wrestling with him on European issues in the coming months.
Chris Bryant: As much as the hon. Gentleman entices me, and as much as he and I can disagree about European matters, I hope, none the less, that we can work together on some matters in the national interest.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), whom I have known for a long time, since we were at university together, referred to my right hon. Friend the Member for Don Valley (Caroline Flint). He was rather critical; he appeared to suggest that I would not provide the same degree of window dressing. I must tell him that some of my best friends are window dressers, however, and I am hopeful that he and I can work together.
We have heard some excellent speeches today. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) said elsewhere a few days ago that she has been trying to give up such debates. For me, it is good to get back to them, having not been involved in them for a while. I see that the personnel has not changed at all.
There were interesting contributions from my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston, the hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton (Mr. Davey), who speaks for the Liberal Democrats, my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Mr. Bailey), the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), my hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the hon. Members for Spelthorne (Mr. Wilshire) and for North Dorset (Mr. Walter), who both spoke about similar issues, my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, South-West (Mr. Davidson), whom I beat in the swimming competition again this year, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, North and Leith (Mark Lazarowicz) and, of course, the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash), who is not in his place. I am sorry: he is just returninghe was hiding behind the Speakers Chair.
Interesting contributions were also made by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East (Mr. Ellwood), my hon. Friends the Members for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew), and
the hon. Member for Isle of Wight (Mr. Turner). As the hon. Member for Rayleigh said, we all welcome the hon. Member for Isle of Wight back to the House.
Many hon. Members raised important matters about the economy. Conservative Members suggested that three things needed to be said about it. First, they claimed that the UK is a hermetically sealed unit, like every other country in Europe, and that the economic crisis in the international arena was a crisis made in the UK. Secondly, they tried to argue that the UK has bigger problems than anywhere else in Europe. Thirdly, they said that answers to the economic problems can be found only individually, country by country.
However, several Labour Members pointed out that the truth is different. We heard that many countries in Europe have suffered to a similar extent and in similar style. Indeed, the UK economy contracted by 1.9 per cent. in GDP terms in the first quarter of 2009a considerably smaller decline than in Germany, Italy, the eurozone and the whole of the European Union. My hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North made that point.
the best in Europe at the moment.
managed to stabilise the banking system.
The aggressive actions by the authorities have been successful in containing the crisis and averting a systematic breakdown.
At the December European Council, all 27 member states signed the European economic recovery plan, committing to providing a fiscal stimulus worth €200 billion. In fact, that has been more than met, with a current fiscal effort worth more than €400 billion, which represents 3.3 per cent. of the EUs GDP. That rather puts paid to the argument that some Conservative Members were making.
The hon. Member for Kingston and Surbiton then argued, All right, thats fine, but what are we going to do to move forward the single market? He is absolutely right. I am sure that he will be aware that last week the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills published a major policy document setting out the agenda for the Commission and advocating single market advances in digital telecommunicationswe heard some of what we want to do in this country from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport todayin life sciences, particularly biotechnology and pharmaceuticals, which are two industries in which the UK leads, and in services in general. We will certainly be lobbying the next Commission to take forward that agenda.
Several hon. Members raised issues in relation to the financial supervision proposals that have come forward. First, the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks agreed that the European systemic risk board was necessary. He will know that it was agreed at the ECOFIN meeting on 9 June that its president should not automatically be the chairman of the European Central Bank, but should be voted for by all 27 national central banks. We wholeheartedly agree with that, which is something that several hon. Members raised, including my hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West.
Chris Bryant: On micro-prudential regulation, we believe it is important that no decisions taken by the new bodies should impinge on the fiscal responsibilities of the member states, which are obviously key responsibilities that should reside with them.
On hedge funds, or the alternative investment vehicles directive, which the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks mentioned, he should knowindeed, I am sure that he does knowthat this is not one of the matters to be discussed now. Rather, proper details will come forward under the Swedish presidency. He is absolutely right that it is vital that we get the detail right, but it would be wrong to move at a pace that would make it impossible for us to achieve that.
Let me move from the economy to the referendum in Ireland and the necessary legal guarantees that the Council said in its December meeting it was intent on ensuring could be given to Ireland. The necessary legal guarantees will be given on three points. First, nothing in the treaty of Lisbon makes changes of any kind for any member state to the extent or operation of the Unions competences in relation to taxation. Secondly, the treaty of Lisbon does not prejudice the security and defence policy of member states, including Irelands traditional policy of neutrality and the obligations of most other member states. Thirdly, the provisions of the Irish constitution in relation to the right to life and to education and the family are in no way affected by either the fact that the treaty of Lisbon attributes legal status to the EU charter of fundamental rights or by the justice and home affairs provisions of the same treaty.
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