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Westminster Hall

Thursday 2 July 2009

[Mr. Eric Illsley in the Chair]

European Commission Annual Policy Strategy

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.—(Mr. Watts.)

2.30 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Chris Bryant): It is a pleasure to sit under your chairmanship, Mr. Illsley, and to make some introductory remarks on the European Commission’s annual policy strategy for 2010. Many hon. Members—well, not all that many, as we seem to be a diminishing band; we few, we happy few—have an opportunity this afternoon to consider the document. It has been to the European Scrutiny Committee, which produced a short report on it. The Committee did not feel that it was necessary to produce a longer one, largely for the obvious reason that the Commission’s paper is in some sense an interim one. It does not advance any new strategies, for the simple reason that there will be a new Commission later in the year.

Mr. Brooks Newmark (Braintree) (Con) rose—

Chris Bryant: Already I have sparked the hon. Gentleman to rise to his feet.

Mr. Newmark: I was just curious to ask the Minister, given that we are talking about reports both long and short, whether he has yet had the opportunity to read the Lisbon treaty in full.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman should do his research before he asks such questions. Yes, I have read the Lisbon treaty in full. In fact, I have read it in full several times.

Mr. Newmark: As long as it is on the record.

Chris Bryant: It has been on the record before. I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman has read the Lisbon treaty.

Mr. Newmark: Back to front.

Chris Bryant: Yes, that is pretty much a statement of Tory policy.

The main thing that I can do this afternoon is to respond to any specific questions or concerns that hon. Members might have, so I will outline what we believe are some of the most important things that the European Commission and European Union will need to consider over the coming years. The most important, as I think all hon. Members would agree, is the economic situation faced by all countries in Europe. I know from my constituency that the things that people are concerned
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about are whether they will have jobs, homes and financial security for the future, rather than institutional matters facing the EU.

We believe, therefore, that the Commission’s first priority must be economic stimulus and ensuring that the European recovery plan, which has already been put in place, is effective and carried through, and that there are appropriate financial sector regulation and supervisions so that the kind of problem that we have seen across Europe in the past 18 months cannot happen again.

Mr. Graham Stuart (Beverley and Holderness) (Con): Will the Minister clarify something for me? There seems to be some confusion. The Government said that they did not wish Europe to take any more powers of regulation over the City of London, and that they would resist that. Then, seeming to have allowed Europe to take further powers, they came back and argued that it was necessary for the common good. Which of those two is the Government’s position?

Chris Bryant: It is good to see the hon. Gentleman in his place this afternoon; it is always good to see him in his place. We have always argued that it is important to have the right level of regulation across Europe, so that people with deposits in banks in one country where the host country is different have exactly the same protection as anyone else. However, we have also said that whatever arbitration system is used should not be able to impinge on the necessary fiscal powers of the individual country. Incidentally, I think that the results of the European Council show that our position has been confirmed strongly. Another matter will arise later in the year in relation to hedge funds, and we want to ensure that we get the right proposals.

There is another issue, of course. The European Commission needs to be able to act swiftly on state aid issues when problems arise. That is another important part of the stimulus needed during the process ahead. Of course, the Lisbon strategy, which will soon be 10 years old and which we believe is an important part of ensuring that Britons have an opportunity for prosperity and enhanced future prosperity by sharing in an ever-widening market across Europe, will have to be renewed and reconsidered by the new Commission.

The second priority is strengthening the single market. In particular, we believe that it is vital that we do everything that we can to enhance the competitiveness of European economies. We all know the strength of growing economies in India, China and, for that matter, Latin America. The more that we can do to ensure that Europe adds value and has economies that work together to enhance value, the more likely we are to be able to enhance our competitiveness as well.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): The Minister stresses the importance of competitiveness. We agree. The UK maintaining its opt-out from the working time directive is a key part of that. Will he explain to the House why, in the run-up to last Christmas and the crunch vote in the European Parliament, the majority of Labour MEPs, including the MEP who is now the Labour leader in the European Parliament, voted to abolish the UK opt-out against this country’s interests?

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Chris Bryant: It is obviously for individual MEPs to make their own arguments. We believe strongly in the opt-out. We are convinced that we have argued the right case, and that we have argued successfully. The hon. Gentleman is right that competitiveness is vital for Europe, but that plays in many different ways. For instance, Europe has been able to compete more effectively around the world because it took a united position on mobile telephony. Europe enforced standards many years before the United States of America and consequently had a much more vibrant mobile telephone industry. I sometimes think that those who adopt a fundamentalist ideological position against European integration and the single market actually do down further competitiveness.

Mr. Graham Stuart rose—

Mr. Francois rose—

Chris Bryant: I will give way to the hon. Member for Beverley and Holderness (Mr. Stuart), who rose before his hon. Friend.

Mr. Stuart: No one on the Conservative Benches will be guilty today of any fundamentalist argument against common-sense agreements by nation states. However, the Minister mentioned that Labour MEPs were free to oppose Government policy as they saw fit. If that is a habit of theirs, is he therefore relieved that so few were returned at the European elections, and that at 16 per cent. of the vote, the public shared his doubts about the efficacy of returning Labour MEPs to the European Parliament?

Chris Bryant: Oh, tush, tush. The hon. Gentleman is trying to make partisan points, when—

Mr. Stuart: Sixteen per cent.

Chris Bryant: The facts of the elections are well-known. I was in Wales and was disappointed that Lisa Stevens was not elected. I know her well; she campaigns very hard and would have made an excellent MEP. However, she is not mentioned in the European Commission’s paper, which we are debating. If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I will leave the matter of the election for another day.

The hon. Gentleman said something interesting. He said that he thinks that agreements among member states should be made only on the basis of common sense. That was precisely the difficulty with mobile telephony. Each member state wanted its own standards. If that had occurred, as happened in the United States of America, where each state and each company wanted a different set of standards, one would not be able to text from a mobile phone in one country to a mobile phone in another. It is precisely because the EU took a position that we were able to address the matter.

Similarly, changes were made to roaming charges this week. That would not have happened just because of the market, or because of individual member states having a go at each other.

Mr. Stuart: Will the Minister give way?

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Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): Will the Minister give way?

Chris Bryant: The hon. Lady is far more appealing.

Jo Swinson: I am delighted by the Minister’s compliment. Does he agree that it is ridiculous that Vodafone is running a major advertising campaign saying that it has abolished all roaming charges this summer, when actually it is not to the companies’ credit at all, as they could have done so ages ago? It is one of the achievements of the European Union.

Chris Bryant: Absolutely. It is always good to have converts. We rejoice when—I have forgotten the biblical quotation, so many years ago is it. When one sinner repenteth, we rejoice.

Mr. Francois: Will the Minister give way?

Chris Bryant: I am sorry, I had forgotten about the hon. Gentleman. He had slipped my mind.

Mr. Francois: I am grateful for the opportunity to remind the Minister. He is right that the paper talks about competitiveness. I want to pick him up on the point that he made about the working time directive. He said that MEPs often have their own views. The rebellion I mentioned appeared to have been led by Labour’s Chief Whip in the European Parliament. When the new European Parliament forms on 14 July, can we expect Labour’s new Chief Whip to lead rebellions regularly against Government policy? We would just like a steer.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Gentleman will doubtless make his case later, if he can catch your eye, Mr. Illsley—as I feel confident he will, given the hordes that are with us this afternoon.

Mr. Graham Stuart: The Labour hordes.

Chris Bryant: There are not hordes of Conservative Members either, to be honest. It is clear that Labour Members are happy with Government policy and the European Commission, so they do not feel the need to have a go at it.

I am sure that the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) will raise how opt-outs operate and the working time directive in his speech. I look forward to answering his points later.

On party political groupings in the European Parliament and how they operate, several Conservative MEPs have been deeply critical of the leader of the Conservative party. I think it was a Conservative MEP who described the people his party has signed up with in the European Parliament as a group of fascists and ne’er-do-wells. Once upon a time, I almost swore I would never use the phrase, “We don’t need any lectures from the people opposite”. I am now forswearing my swearing.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con) rose—

Mr. Francois rose—

Chris Bryant: I am afraid the hon. Gentleman’s hon. Friend beat him to it.

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Mr. Ellwood: I give way to my hon. Friend.

Chris Bryant: The hon. Member for Bournemouth, East does not have the power to do that.

Mr. Francois: The Minister used the phrase “fascists and ne’er-do-wells”. Which MEP said that?

Chris Bryant: I will come back to the hon. Gentleman on that. I told him which MEP it was in the last debate we had.

Mr. Francois: The Minister should be able to remember then.

Chris Bryant: I assure the hon. Gentleman that I will remember in the fullness of time, and certainly by the end of this debate.

Mr. Ellwood rose—

Mr. Francois rose—

Chris Bryant: I will not give way to the hon. Member for Rayleigh again. I will give way to the hon. Member for Bournemouth, East, and he does not have the power to give way to his hon. Friend.

Mr. Ellwood: On the numbers present in the Chamber, Labour Back Benchers are outnumbered by the Doorkeepers. That shows the level of interest in this important issue among Labour Members.

The Minister has made some interesting criticisms of the Conservative approach to the European Union, which hinge on our attitude to the Lisbon treaty. I wondered how long it would be until he mentioned the party groupings. Can he really stand there and say that he represents the views of the United Kingdom by denying Britain the chance for a referendum on such an important treaty?

Chris Bryant: That intervention zoomed all over the place.

Mr. Eric Illsley (in the Chair): Order. We are not going to turn this into a debate on the Lisbon treaty or its ratification.

Chris Bryant: Thank you, Mr. Illsley.

Mr. Francois: On a point of order, Mr. Illsley. I have learned in this game not to challenge the ruling of the Chairman. However, the annual policy strategy contains multiple references to Lisbon and what might happen if it comes into force. We understand your ruling that we do not want this to be a debate completely about the ratification of the Lisbon treaty. Equally, there may be some references to it because it is referred to on several occasions in the core document.

Mr. Eric Illsley (in the Chair): The hon. Gentleman has answered his own point of order and has made my point. Of course there are references to the Lisbon treaty. I simply do not want this to turn into a debate
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completely about the Lisbon treaty. Hon. Members will have to refer to it, but not at the expense of everything else.

Mr. Francois: That is very fair, Mr. Illsley.

Chris Bryant: I am glad that you have the hon. Gentleman’s approval for the fairness of your ruling, Mr. Illsley.

I would be happy to debate the Lisbon treaty all afternoon. However, I was trying to lay out the Government’s priorities for the Commission. I do not think that voters in this country, ordinary members of the public or people across Europe want the European Commission to be obsessed with institutional change for the next five years. They are far more interested in things that can deliver change in their own lives. One example of that, which I have already referred to, is mobile telephony and the abolition of roaming charges. One would never reach a resolution on such issues by adopting only a market-driven solution or through a policy driven by what individual states can negotiate one with another.

Another classic example that will be of vital significance to European competitiveness is the liberalisation of energy policy. It would not be possible to achieve that if it depended on a unanimous vote of every European country.

Mr. Ellwood rose—

Chris Bryant: Of course I am happy to give way to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Ellwood: The Minister looks at the clock as if to say that we are running out of time. With the absence of speakers on his side, we will have plenty of time to debate these issues.

My question is straightforward. Is the Minister saying that without the Lisbon treaty and further integration, agreements such as those on telephony could not have been achieved? Such agreements have been achieved without those things. He referred to the United States and said it was important that the various states are able to work together. That is our point on the Conservative Benches. We are not the united states of Europe. Every state in the United States pledges allegiance to one President and one flag. They have united rules and laws that bind them together. We are not at that stage yet. Conservative Members are trying hard to prevent this country from wandering down that road.

Chris Bryant: My point was that the regulation of key industries in the United States tends to depend on two ideas, one of which is that the market will provide, rather than any state-driven solution. That sometimes fails, as shown by the classic example of mobile telephony. The state refused to act on that in the United States, meaning that American mobile phone companies could not sell their products across the whole of the United States because people would not be able to speak from mobile phone to mobile phone. Similarly, they could not talk to other parts of the world because the state was not prepared to take on the enforced standards taken through in the European Union. That is one half of the argument.

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