Previous Section Index Home Page

Mr. Drew: I could not be so cynical. Points of view change as parties change, and I just hope that the argument will be had, as all too often it is shut down. The issue that will bring this to a head will be the argument about public expenditure cuts. Those of us who feel strongly that making such cuts is entirely the wrong way to go about restoring the British economy to strength will argue the case that it is our obsession with Europe, and ideas such as Maastricht and the setting of targets for borrowing requirements, that are handcuffing our future. That is what will lead the Labour party to rethink its approach to Europe. It will be impossible to stand on a platform that argues for drastic cuts in public spending. The only way to square the circle is to consider other ways to save money, and we could start by saving money on our contribution to the EU, as that is unnecessary, undesirable and counter-productive. We will have to rethink our position, and that will provide opportunities for other nations in Europe to rethink their position. I will predict the future: my party will take a new position
3 Dec 2009 : Column 1377
for those reasons, to which I say, "Jolly good, bring it on." Sadly, it may be after the next general election, but some of us will still be here to argue the case for a new approach. It is about time.

5.9 pm

Mr. Mark Harper (Forest of Dean) (Con): I want to make a brief contribution.

I would like to draw the Minister's attention to my earlier questions, two of which he failed to answer, but to which I hope he will return in his winding-up speech. The first was about why the Government chose not to fulfil their manifesto promise to give the British people a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. They, along with the other major parties in the House, promised to do that. He failed to answer that with his unfortunate humorous remarks.

Furthermore, will the Minister answer my question about the Prime Minister trumpeting the fact that Baroness Ashton is a Briton and that her promotion to High Representative will give Britain a voice in the European Council and Commission? To be fair, the Minister has not done that. In fact, he and the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) accurately pointed out that Baroness Ashton will of course represent the Commission, not Britain. He was honest enough to say that, but the Prime Minister has not been putting it in quite the same way. It would be helpful if the Minister cast his opinion on that when he winds up.

My main point-I have a couple of subsidiary ones-draws attention to something that another Member has referred to already. The title of the debate is "European Affairs", but in such debates we tend to launch immediately into EU matters, forgetting that there are other countries in Europe. We also then become very introspective and focus only on our future in Europe.

Conservative Members are often criticised by Labour Members-this is one of their favourite lines-for being little Englanders or, as I heard earlier in this debate, for not liking Europe because it has foreigners in it. My problem is that Europe is not foreign enough! It constitutes a very small part of the world's population and will increasingly represent a smaller share of the world's economy. My problem is that, if we spend too much time focusing on our economic performance relative to other members of the EU, we will lose sight of the fact that we must compete, win business and capture markets in the rest of the rapidly growing world. If our businesses and future prosperity are to be assured, we need to keep an eye on the rest of the world and not obsess about our position in the EU. That is something the Government often forget to do.

I see now from looking at my notes that it was the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) who mentioned foreigners, while talking about my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). As I said, my argument is that Europe is not foreign enough.

One reason why we should consider our position from a global perspective is that our interests are not always aligned and we are often in competition with other parts of the EU. One need only look at our trade arrangements. If we look at the countries to which we export our goods, we see that our single largest trading partner is the United States of America. If we look through the trading figures of our largest European
3 Dec 2009 : Column 1378
neighbours, we see that they trade with the United States to a much lesser degree and that much more of their trade is with other EU countries, so there is a significant difference there. Sometimes our interests are not aligned with our colleagues'.

Owing to our history and other relationships in the world, we have many other forums in which to argue our case-for example, the Commonwealth. The Heads of Government meeting took place recently, which the Government made much of and trumpeted. That is rare for them because they often pretend that the Commonwealth does not exist. However, that is one forum in which our place in the world can be argued. Given the size of the Commonwealth, the number of people it contains and its possible significance in dealing with climate change-it contains India-it might be a more significant place than the EU in which to argue some of these matters, and it is certainly as important as the EU.

When thinking about our interests and place in the world, we must not focus only on the EU; we must take a wider, more global view. The trends over the next few years are very interesting. The European Commission's research department has prepared an interesting document called "The World in 2025: Rising Asia and Socio-ecological Transition"-not a terribly catchy title, I admit. However, some of its statistics are very interesting:

The population will be much older than that elsewhere, as well.

The document also says:

although it points out that the United States will preserve its economic leadership. One or two colleagues referred to a united states of Europe and those who are trying to create a federal state, with a President of the European Council, a Foreign Minister and other pretensions to being a single country. However, if they are trying to model that on the United States of America, the bit they are missing is the United States' economic dynamism and fast economic growth. Even in 2025, the United States will still be the largest economy in the world and still have a high per capita income. That part of the United States' record is the one we want to emulate, rather than trying to turn the countries in the European Union into a united states of Europe.

The Commission's report makes it clear that

As I have said, we have relations with our Commonwealth partners, and particularly close relations with India. We should be ensuring that British firms and businesses are in there winning orders from Indian consumers and businesses, to ensure that we get our fair share. As the report says, India may be

by 2025, ahead of Italy and only a little behind France. We need to ensure that we get our fair share of that business, but I am concerned that we will miss out.

3 Dec 2009 : Column 1379

In my earlier remarks I touched on the settlement of the top jobs at the European summit the other week. I have already mentioned what the European High Representative is going to get paid, but the President of the European Council will earn £320,000, making him the highest paid leader, if that is the word-he is slightly more of a chairman than a chief. He will earn more than any leader of a western country, with a huge staff and a significant number of press officers to get the message out there, and will have a £5 million reserve fund to dip into as his job develops.

Interestingly, the hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) suggested that it was welcome that Mr. Van Rompuy had been elected as the President of the European Council because he will just be taking instructions from everybody else. However, that is not what French President Nicholas Sarkozy said. He said he had known Mr. Van Rompuy for many years, adding:

That is quite worrying when we think, to take just one example, about what the hon. Gentleman said about Mr. Van Rompuy's views about Turkey. As one or two others have said, we are strongly in favour, as are the Government, rightly, of Turkish accession to the European Union, both from a strategic and military perspective-Turkey is a strong and close NATO ally-and, as the Minister correctly said, from the point of view of energy security.

Mr. Evans: On my hon. Friend's point about how much Commissioners and those in the new positions earn, does he agree that, as one of the largest net contributors to the European Union, we should be directly involved, rather than allowing such obscene salary levels to be set? Does he also agree that it would have a positive effect on all the costs of those bureaucracies if they had the same transparency that we have here in the United Kingdom, and which I welcome? If we knew exactly how their expenses were spent, that would have a positive effect on grinding them down.

Mr. Harper: My hon. Friend makes a good point. If the British people knew more about how the European Commission works and how much some of those people get paid, and about the extent of their unaccountability, that could only be healthy. The more information that gets published, the better, so some kind of freedom of information process for the Commission would be welcome.

Another aspect I wish to raise is the European Commission's involvement in policy making in our country. There are many areas in which it has a formal decision-making process. One issue that recently came to light, and which I am not very happy about, is that the European Commission has started giving opinions on, and interfering in debates in this House about, the passage of legislation, when frankly it ought to mind its own business. On 20 November, the Commission issued a press release referring to the reasoned opinion it had sent to the United Kingdom for, in its opinion,

The press release said:

3 Dec 2009 : Column 1380

despite the fact that that was just an opinion, not a ruling of the European Court of Justice. It continued:

Frankly, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I do not think it appropriate for the European Commission to pick out particular pieces of legislation before this House, which are subject to our parliamentary scrutiny, to express any opinions on them or to interfere in the democratic process. That is quite inappropriate.

The lack of transparency concerning relations with the EU was also picked up on. In the debate on the Equality Bill, the Solicitor-General told Parliament that the Bill would not change the law relating to the exemption for religious organisations in respect of particular types of job. That is very interesting, because we have now obtained a reasoned opinion from the European Commission, which was not originally made available by the Government Equalities Office to organisations that requested it on the ground that it was confidential. Paragraph 19 of reasoned opinion No. 226 states:

It seems clear to me from the European Commission's interpretation that the Government are indeed changing the law in this respect-I shall not go into it in great detail because we did that when we debated the Equality Bill-but that is not what British Ministers are telling hon. Members. It worries me that Ministers are providing answers to the House that are not compatible with what they are telling the European Commission. I have written to the Solicitor-General, who, having had that incompatibility drawn to her attention, will I hope either correct the record in the House or make sure that a letter quickly wings its way to the European Commission to put it straight. We cannot have the European Commission being misled about the British Government's views, or this House being given information that is not strictly accurate.

My next point is about exportable benefits. The Minister for Europe will know that certain benefits are payable to citizens who move and live elsewhere in the EU or in the European economic area. He will also know that in December 2007, the European Court of Justice ruled that for the purposes of European Law, three benefits-the care component of the disability living allowance, attendance allowance and carer's allowance-were incorrectly classified as special non-contributory benefits. The judgment said that they were exportable in certain circumstances within the European economic area and Switzerland.

That may sound an awfully long time ago-nearly two years-but unfortunately it took the Government until 24 February this year to notify Parliament that they had finally considered the full terms of the judgment and were going to put it into effect. I mention that because according to the last count, there are some 1,000 British citizens living in other EEA states and Switzerland who, because they are claiming attendance allowance or disability living allowance, are by definition either elderly, disabled or both, yet they are still waiting to receive the money to which they are entitled.

3 Dec 2009 : Column 1381

The Government have dragged their feet on this issue for a considerable time. Given that many of these people are elderly, by the time the Government get round to meeting their legal obligations, some of them may well have died and missed out on what is theirs by right. Many of them have paid tax in this country for many years and are entitled to these benefits. It would be helpful if the Minister told us how far advanced the Government are in paying out to those 1,000 or so outstanding cases, and whether they are going to fulfil their obligations under European treaties more swiftly.

Let me finally reiterate an important point. I always get worried in European debates-I sat through all the debates on the Lisbon treaty-because of how introspective we sometimes become, focusing on the European Union to the exclusion of the rest of the world. I believe passionately that Britain's history is global. We have 5 million British citizens living and working in countries around the world. We probably have more of a global economic interest than any other country. We need an outward-looking, engaged foreign policy involving a range of forums. We must not make the mistake of focusing solely on the European Union.

I believe we have learnt the lesson that, if we are fortunate enough to become the Government, we can play our part in the European Union; but we should not do so to the exclusion of our proper role in all the other forums in the world, such as the Commonwealth and the United Nations Security Council, where we have a permanent seat. That is a lesson the Government would do well to learn.

5.25 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): It is a great pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Forest of Dean (Mr. Harper), who yet again has shown himself to be a serious politician who introduces to debates subjects that have not been raised earlier.

We have been lucky enough to have on our Front Benches today some of the most important politicians in this Parliament: the rising stars of this Parliament. We have, of course, the dynamic duo on the Conservative Front Bench, and on the Labour Front Bench we have the Minister for Europe, who, I understand, now likes to be called Cardinal Richelieu. If I am one of the three musketeers, he is the evil one. On the Liberal Democrat Front Bench we have the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson). I do not think that she will have a chance to speak today, but I am sure that she would always defend to the hilt whatever Liberal Democrat policy on Europe happened to be on that particular day.

Let me now make a serious point, as one who is pro-European but anti-EU. We have spoken today of the number of service personnel in Afghanistan. I have a personal interest in that. It seems wrong that some of our European partners are not committed enough to the war in Afghanistan-although others are committing their troops alongside ours and those of the Americans, and they are suffering frightful casualties. It is, I believe, also the Government's position that some of our colleagues in the European Union are not doing enough. I do not know how the Government will deal with the problem. I know that they are at the heart of Europe, and I know that they have a great deal of power in Europe, but they do not seem to be entirely successful in that particular regard.

3 Dec 2009 : Column 1382

Let me return to the stars on the Front Benches. There is a clear divide between them. On the Government Front Bench sits someone who really believes in the European Union, and really believes in a federal state. No-I should say "one state", a European state. I apologise for calling it a federal state. What the Minister believes in is one state called Europe. On our side is someone else who believes equally strongly in a Europe of nation states-someone who opposes the Lisbon treaty, and who actually speaks for the British people. That leads me rather nicely to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who has been consistent on Europe and has spoken for the British people. [Laughter.] Labour Members laugh because they do not understand what consistency means.

Let us go back a little in history. Why not? No one is listening today. There is no one up in the Galleries, and even the Whip has put down his pen. We can be honest, and the Government can be honest, about the situation. The only reason why they were elected at the 2005 general election is that they did two clever things. Their spin department-their polls-told them that the people wanted a say on Europe. The other thing that their polls told them was that people were scared stiff of Gordon Brown. So what we got was a promise that Tony Blair would serve a full term. Labour went back on that-there was no consistency there-and of course, when it came to the promise of a referendum on a European constitution, they went back on that as well. That is why they are in so much trouble. This is not about the actual issue; it is about lack of faith-about their lack of consistency. We just cannot believe them any longer.

By way of contrast, let us turn to the new leader of the Conservative party. When I was considering who to vote for in the leadership election, I asked one of the candidates, who is now the leader of the party, "Are we going to pull out of the European People's party, as we can't have Conservatives sitting in the European Parliament who are federalists?" He replied, "Yes, we will." People said that would not happen, but he has delivered on it. He also said we would have a referendum on the Lisbon treaty if it had not been ratified first. He was absolutely truthful about that, too.

Anyone who believes that the leader of my party-or, for that matter, the shadow Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)-did not want to have that referendum is living in cloud cuckoo land. The first thing our new Foreign Secretary would have done would have been to go to Europe and get the articles of ratification back, and we would have had that referendum within six weeks. The fact is, of course, that that cannot now happen. Our policy for the current circumstance of the Lisbon treaty having been ratified was that we would not let matters rest, and within 24 hours we knew where we were going, which was to have this new, exciting, forward-looking Conservative party policy, which will win us so many votes.

Next Section Index Home Page