Previous Section Index Home Page

Another aspect that we are concerned about is the new European External Action Service, which will become an acronym of some kind and we will not remember
3 Dec 2009 : Column 1328
what it means two months from now. Again, that was required on the basis of a Council decision, and it needs to be properly scrutinised. There are major uncertainties about the External Action Service. Will it be a Commission entity, or will it sit somewhere indeterminate between Council references and Commission references? We have to get that cleared up. What will its external delegations do? Presumably they will promulgate the new common security and defence policy, but under which supervision method, at European level and at national Parliament level?

There has always been a mystery about this. A previous Defence Secretary and Europe Minister has defended the right of the Government not to give our Committee access to these papers on the ground that what is happening in foreign policy and defence is far too sensitive for Parliament to know about, which is of course ridiculous. Perhaps I am paraphrasing what the former Minister said, but I am certainly quite clear about what he meant. [Interruption.] Add the two ministerial positions together to work out which former Minister it was-that person held both. I am not into personalities, I am much more into the substance of what is said.

Will the new European External Action Service missions be responsible for delivering EU aid, and how will that cut across the role of the Department for International Development and the interest of national Parliaments? All that must be brought to us for proper scrutiny before the Council's decision is reached, and I hope that the Government will take those matters on board in the forthcoming negotiations and discussions about what we should do to our Standing Orders.

There is also the problem of derogations from the eight-week period for parliamentary scrutiny. The Lisbon treaty extended that from six weeks, but it was then agreed that if there were exceptional circumstances, Parliaments would not be given those eight weeks. Those exceptional circumstances will not be available to us to debate, because the decision will be taken in the Council. It will decide, "This is an exceptional matter. We are not going to give the Parliaments the eight weeks we promised to scrutinise this process". That is very dangerous, and I should like an assurance from the Minister and the Government that they will not allow that to happen and will veto any proposal to take away this Parliament's power to have eight weeks to scrutinise anything coming from the Council.

Chris Bryant: I cannot give an absolute assurance on that, but I shall refer in my winding-up speech to some of the matters my hon. Friend is raising. May I suggest one way in which the European Scrutiny Committee can be very helpful? As he says, many member states do not carry out the parliamentary scrutiny that his Committee and Lord Roper's Committee do, which is one reason why they do not believe there is any necessity to adhere to the eight-week provision. Anything he could do to persuade other Parliaments to take up the scrutiny role that he has would help to ensure that that period is adhered to as faithfully as possible.

Michael Connarty: Indeed, and I end by paying tribute to the Minister, who has told us in evidence that he has tried to persuade the presidency of the Council and other member states that unanimity, and only unanimity, should be required for a decision to make an exception
3 Dec 2009 : Column 1329
to the eight-week rule. He stands in good light on that matter. I pay tribute to him for standing up for the right of national Parliaments, and I hope there will be an opportunity for the Council to amend its new rules of procedure before long. That is what we are calling for, because they should require unanimous agreement and thereby safeguard the scrutiny process. Good scrutiny makes for good laws and increased Government credibility.

Several hon. Members rose -

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Before I call the next hon. Member, I say to the House that Mr. Speaker has put a 15-minute limit on all Back-Bench speeches. Unfortunately, for some reason it is not on the annunciator, but it will be soon. That will apply from the next Back-Bench speech.

2.3 pm

Mr. Edward Davey (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD): First, I apologise to the House for the fact that I will not be here for the winding-up speeches.

I hope that this will not be the last European affairs debate before the election, because it is important that we debate European issues as much as possible. I agree with the hon. Member for Linlithgow and East Falkirk (Michael Connarty) that we need to improve the scrutiny of European matters in the House, so I welcome these debates. I actually believe that we should have a special Question Time for European affairs, which can get lost in Foreign and Commonwealth Office questions. Nowadays European affairs do not relate simply to the FCO, so it is important that we have more frequent chances to question Ministers on them on the Floor of the House.

This is a significant moment for the European Union, with the Lisbon treaty coming into force. It enables the EU to put institutional wranglings behind it and deal with issues of substance. This month we will see that it is able to lead at the Copenhagen summit. The Minister touched on that in some detail, and I strongly agree with his remarks. The Lisbon treaty and the developments in the EU over a period of years have enabled it to show strong leadership, which we hope will enable at least a political agreement to be reached at Copenhagen. Leadership in the global economy is also important, and the EU can provide both by agreeing among the 27 member states and through some of those member states going to meetings such as the G20. It is now more able to show the leadership that the world needs.

This is also a significant time for European policy within British politics. One party, the Conservative party, will probably have the most anti-European general election manifesto of any party since the Labour party in 1983, when it wanted to pull out of the EU: it could not get more anti-European than that. It appears that there will be a debate at the coming election about the future of Britain in Europe, not least because of the position that the Conservative party has taken.

I wish to deal first with the European dimension and the issues of substance at the European Council in recent times.

Mr. Francois: The hon. Gentleman mentioned manifestos. I am sure that he will be aware that on Tuesday, a previous leader of his party, the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies
3 Dec 2009 : Column 1330
Campbell) announced on The Daily Politics that the Liberal Democrats had abandoned their policy of an in-out referendum on the EU. That was backed up, when chased by the BBC, by a party spokesman, who is quoted as saying that it was now a "completely different political landscape", and that as a "pro-European party" they wanted to concentrate on making the Lisbon treaty work. Can the hon. Gentleman confirm whether the Liberal Democrats have abandoned the in-out referendum?

Mr. Davey: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for that intervention, although he did not let me in when I wanted to intervene on him. I shall speak about that matter in some detail, but I will tell him in advance that the BBC website was inaccurate on two counts, and I am happy to allay his fears that our position has changed. I give him advance notice that I shall want to find out how he defines "cast-iron".

Mr. Francois: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davey: No, the hon. Gentleman can come in later when I deal with that issue.

The Minister was right to talk about the matters for discussion in Europe being jobs and growth. We also need to discuss climate change, external relations and co-ordination on crime. The implementation of Lisbon, though, will inevitably dominate over the next few months, and we have seen some of the initial decisions on it. We strongly welcome the appointment of Baroness Cathy Ashton, who is well qualified for her post. I would say to the Government, though, that the Foreign Secretary was ill advised to talk about wanting to see a European President who could stop the traffic in Beijing, Moscow, Washington and so on. That is not what he told the House when he was trying to get the Lisbon legislation through, when the Government talked about the roles of European President and High Representative as being chairmanship roles. It was wrong of him to be so inconsistent when it came to the appointments to those posts. I have to say that he was completely unsuccessful with respect to the former Prime Minister-and like the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois), we are delighted that he was.

The European External Action Service is incredibly important, and as I said in an intervention, while I have no doubt that Cathy Ashton will ensure that she represents the whole EU, the fact that she comes from Britain, with our experience and expertise, is most welcome in the setting up of such as system.

Chris Bryant: I just want to congratulate the hon. Gentleman and his group on securing so many Commissioners. Despite there not being 10 liberal Governments in Europe, they managed to secure 10 liberal Commissioners.

Mr. Davey: I am grateful. That is in strong contrast to the group in the European Parliament that the Conservative party is in; I think that is the point that the Minister wanted me to make in response to his intervention.

I turn to economic issues, and particularly financial services, which have been of interest in the past few days. There has been concern in the press, which the hon. Member for Rayleigh rightly mentioned, about the French Commissioner Michel Barnier being appointed
3 Dec 2009 : Column 1331
to the directorate-general of the internal market. Colleagues in the House and outside are right to raise concerns, but my only request is that they do not overdo them. First, the top civil servant in that directorate-general who will advise Michel Barnier is a Brit, Jonathan Faull, so there will be a British representative at the table when things are discussed.

As one Conservative Member rightly pointed out, the chairman of the internal market committee in the European Parliament is Malcolm Harbour. I concur with others who have said that he is a very good Member of the European Parliament and that he represents British interests extremely well, albeit from a Conservative position. I believe that co-decision making-no doubt the Tories opposed that when it was proposed, but it is in place-will enable the committee to have a real say and to prevent the introduction of measures that are against the City's interests. I would also point to a Liberal Democrat MEP, Sharon Bowles, who is chair of the economic and monetary affairs committee, which also deals with matters that affect the City. She is extremely strong. She is extremely well respected in the City and across Europe for standing up not only for British interests, but for a sensible single market in financial services.

Mr. Malcolm Moss (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): The hon. Gentleman mentioned Mr. Faull, who indeed has experience. He has worked for the Commission for about 30 years-but does he know anything about the workings of the City of London or financial matters?

Mr. Davey: The House will not be surprised to know that I do not know the full CV of the civil servant Jonathan Faull, but the issue-at least, this seems to concern other Conservative Members-is surely whether the British interest will be heard. Clearly, Jonathan Faull is a British civil servant.

The other reason why I think people are getting a little bit overheated over Michel Barnier is that one person does not decide the laws in Europe. The Commission itself contains checks and balances; Commissioners have to agree before directives are put forward. The directives then have to go through the Council and the Parliament. With the co-decision process and with Brits chairing the two key parliamentary committees, I think we can be relatively reassured. If people are in any doubt about the power of the Parliament, I refer them to the draft directive on hedge funds-the alternative investment fund managers directive-which has understandably caused a lot of consternation.

The draft directive went to the European Parliament, and the economic and monetary affairs committee, which is chaired by a Liberal Democrat MEP, commissioned, and in recent weeks published, a damning report on it, saying that the impact assessment that the Commission put forward was unacceptable. My colleague Sharon Bowles is leading the fight to ensure that the directive is not passed in its current form. That is the way we do business in this House, and the way people in the European Parliament do business-giving proper scrutiny to draft legislation. I again implore people not simply to listen to some of the British press when they are screeching, but to look at the actual facts. There are checks and balances, and they are working.

3 Dec 2009 : Column 1332

I shall conclude my remarks on that issue by talking about Michel Barnier. I do not think it does the British interest any service if we dismiss someone who actually has quite a good track record, just because he is French; that really would be extremely narrow-minded. I think that we ought to be getting used to French politicians, particularly President Sarkozy, grandstanding, and we should look at the reality of what happens afterwards, which amounts to much less than the rhetoric that sometimes comes out of the Elysée palace. I am not saying that we should not be on our guard, but there are checks and balances in the system that prevent one person from railroading legislation that would undermine our interests.

Mr. Harper: Perhaps I could refer back to a point I raised earlier. To be fair, the hon. Gentleman has been very clear on the role of the nationality of the individuals involved, as was the Minister. However, the hon. Gentleman has now mentioned national leaders grandstanding. The Prime Minister said that Baroness Ashton's appointment as High Representative would give Britain a powerful voice within the Council and the Commission and ensure that Britain's voice was heard. Both the hon. Gentleman and the Minister have confirmed in this debate that the appointment will do no such thing, because Baroness Ashton represents not Britain, but the Commission and the Council; she speaks not for Britain, but for them. The hon. Gentleman and the Minister have been honest about that, but the Prime Minister has not.

Mr. Davey: I do not think I am here to defend statements by the Prime Minister, and I am certainly not going to do so. My slight retort to the hon. Gentleman is that although Commissioners, the High Representative and the president of the Council represent the European Union-that is their job as part of the community, and that esprit is supposed still to apply-and although they come from certain traditions and political cultures, those are helpful in the way they are likely to their jobs.

I should like briefly to touch on some external relations points, which both the Minister and the hon. Member for Rayleigh rightly mentioned, and on which I think that there is cross-party agreement-those concerning Bosnia, Iran and Cyprus. I strongly agree with the hon. Gentleman about Bosnia. The Liberal Democrats are increasingly concerned about what is happening in Bosnia, and although we understand the Government's approach, we are not quite convinced that it is strong enough. The constitutional attempts, through Butmir, are not bearing much fruit. I think that is partly because the office of the High Representative there is going to be dismantled. Politicians in Republika Srpska, particularly in Dodik, think that they are going to get away with championing new Serb nationalism, acting as a latter-day Milosevic. We have to send a very clear signal that the European Union will not allow that to happen. It is important that Members on both sides of the House get the EU to steel itself to objecting to that. We may need to look again at the idea of the abolition of the Office of the High Representative because of the lack of progress.

What the Minister said about Iran was interesting. It seems as if the British Government are now preparing to argue within the European Union that now is the time for sanctions. If that is the case, it is a serious new
3 Dec 2009 : Column 1333
development. I am not suggesting that it might be the wrong step, given the announcement by President Ahmadinejad that Iran wants to build 10 new nuclear processing facilities-that is alarming-but some of the experts, including even people connected to the International Atomic Energy Agency, have suggested that Iran has no ability to build those facilities and that the announcement was totally rhetorical. Therefore, in dealing with Iran, we have to know the difference between reality and rhetoric. That is extremely important.

I hope there is still some room and some track left for taking the diplomatic engagement route. As I said during the Queen's Speech debate, the negotiations on where uranium needs to be enriched and processed for the test reactor in Tehran could still bear fruit. If, despite everything, we can still bring Iran to the negotiating table, it would be a better route. I accept that we are running out of road, but it may well be that one last attempt before sanctions are tried is the right approach.

I do not have much to add to what the Minister and the hon. Member for Rayleigh said about Cyprus. All parties wish Presidents Christofias and Talat all the best, and I strongly hope that the British Government and the EU are doing all they can to enable, in the rather narrow window of opportunity that may be left to us, a historic agreement to be reached.

As for the British dimension of European affairs and how it affects policy, I am afraid the Government increasingly have a rather mixed record. I accept that they have done some fantastic things. Unlike the Conservatives, the Liberal Democrats were pleased when they got rid of the British opt-out from the social chapter, and they have been successful in changing their relationships with other European Governments, but I do not think they have managed to change the terms of trade of the debate in this country. I do not level this comment at the Minister, but some of his colleagues have been unwilling to engage in the real debate and put the pro-European case. In two of his most recent speeches, the Foreign Secretary has begun to do that, but he made some silly remarks about stopping the traffic in connection with the President of the European Council. The poor handling of the appointment of the High Representative, about which the hon. Member for Rayleigh spent some time talking, did not do us much credit either. The Government have not exactly covered themselves in glory.

The Conservatives have asked about our position on the referendum, and I can tell the hon. Member for Rayleigh that the headline on the BBC website is not accurate. If he looks at the comments made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), they do not bear out that headline. The spokesman, whom the hon. Gentleman quoted out of context, made it clear that our position remains the same. I hope that that reassures him.

I do not know whether the hon. Gentleman needs help defining "cast-iron". Certainly, the dictionaries that I have consulted suggest that it is a guarantee that can be trusted completely, and is rigid, strong and unyielding. It is not subject to change or exception. I am afraid that the "cast-iron guarantee" given by the Conservative leader has ignored those definitions.

Mr. Goodwill: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Davey: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman wants to try to help his leader.

Next Section Index Home Page