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Intergovernmental Conference: White Paper

4.4 p.m.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey: My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement on the Intergovernmental Conference which is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs. The Statement is as follows:

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    Meanwhile we cannot ignore the urgent need to strengthen Europe's competitiveness and thereby generate new jobs. There will also be hard choices to make on a single currency and on the Union's future financing. These critically important matters do not fall within the scope of the Intergovernmental Conference, though the United Kingdom is developing clear and robust policies in each area.

    "The Maastricht Treaty came into force little more than two years ago. We agree with the conclusion of the study group which was set up to prepare for the IGC that,

    "the Conference should focus on necessary changes, without embarking on a complete revision of the Treaty".

British objectives such as a major reform of the common agricultural policy do not need treaty amendment and will be taken forward in other negotiations.

    "The IGC has yet to begin. In common with other member states, the Government are still considering their detailed approach. We may have further proposals to make as the negotiations proceed. The following represent our specific proposals for this Intergovernmental Conference.

    "First, subsidiarity is the key to ensuring that the Union concentrates single-mindedly on doing what needs to be done at a European level, and only that. The UK introduced this vital concept into the treaty at Maastricht. The principle has been developed at subsequent European Councils. It is having the effect we intended. But more clarity is needed in the treaty itself. We will therefore bring forward proposals at the IGC to entrench subsidiarity still further in the treaty.

    "Secondly, we are concerned at the way in which certain directives have been used or may be used for purposes that were never intended by the governments that agreed to them. For example, health and safety articles that may be used for social policy; or fiscal measures that may be added on to single market or environment proposals. Another example is in the common fisheries policy where the practice of 'quota-hopping' is preventing fishing communities from enjoying a secure benefit from national quotas, thereby undermining their entire purpose.

    "The Government do not believe that directives once enacted are irreversible and will press for treaty amendment if that proves to be the best way of ensuring that the original purpose of these directives is fully respected.

    "Thirdly, the President of the Commission, Jacques Santer has said that the Union should do 'less but better'. Britain agrees. The volume of new legislative proposals being put forward has been falling rapidly, with only 19 proposals for principal legislation expected in 1996. This compares to 61 in 1990. But there is also an urgent need to improve the quality of European legislation. We shall be pressing for a range of measures to achieve this, including much wider consultation of interested parties via the Commission

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    before proposals are put forward, and the automatic withdrawal of proposals which are not adopted by the Council within a given period.

    "Fourthly, Madam Speaker, national parliaments are the primary focus of democratic legitimacy in the Union. This House, like the Government, rightly attaches importance to the role of national parliaments in EU decision-making. We have taken careful note of views expressed in a number of helpful reports by committees of this House. We are examining a range of ideas, including a binding period for parliaments to scrutinise Community documents before decisions are taken in the Council, and a greater role for national parliaments in the justice and home affairs pillar. The European Parliament, by contrast, already has a major role in the European legislative process, including a number of new powers acquired at Maastricht, some of which have yet to be fully tested. The Government do not, therefore, see the case for new powers for the European Parliament at the expense of national parliaments or governments.

    "Fifthly, we believe that foreign and defence policy must remain the responsibility of national governments. The common foreign and security policy has, since its inception, achieved more than many had expected. It is in this country's national interest that members of the EU should speak and act together on the world stage where our objectives are the same. Our joint support for the Middle East peace process or for democratic institutions and market economies in central and eastern Europe are obvious examples. We shall be pressing for a more effective CFSP at the forthcoming conference. But, crucially, Britain believes that the CFSP must remain based on unanimity and be intergovernmental in character if it is to succeed. As the House knows, I put forward our ideas in a speech in Paris last week. Ultimately, the CFSP will only carry weight internationally if it represents a genuinely common policy, not a majority one.

    "Sixthly, the IGC will also be considering the arrangements for European defence co-operation. The Government set out their approach in a full memorandum last year. That memorandum has been attached to the White Paper which is being issued today. We believe it would be useful to improve defence co-operation in Europe by closer co-operation between the European Union and the Western European Union. We do not, however, believe in the integration of these two bodies or the subordination of the WEU to the European Union. NATO must remain the bedrock of Western security. The European Union, four of whose member states are neutrals, and who are neither in NATO nor the WEU, cannot expect to take decisions on defence policy or on the use of military forces.

    "Seventhly, co-operation in justice and home affairs will be of particular importance in the IGC because terrorism, organised crime, illegal immigration and drug trafficking are among the greatest challenges facing modern society. They require a co-ordinated, multi-national response.

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    Substantial progress has been achieved in the last few years in this area and Britain has proposals for improving this co-operation. But, as with CFSP, the Government believe that these issues must remain intergovernmental and subject to unanimity if they are to carry the support of the peoples of Europe. These are matters of high political sensitivity involving questions of national sovereignty.

    "Eighthly, the European Court of Justice is another area where we shall be pressing for improvements at the IGC. Britain is committed to a strong and independent Court without which it would be impossible to ensure even application of Community law or to prevent abuse of power by the Community institutions. But the functioning of the Court can, and in the Government's view must, be improved. There is very great concern that the ECJ's interpretations sometimes seem to go beyond what governments intended when laws were framed.

    "The Government are working up a number of proposals to enable the Court to address these concerns better. These include: strengthening the ability of the Court to limit retrospective application of its judgments; introducing the principle that a member state should only be liable for damages in cases of serious and manifest breach of its obligations; applying national time limits to all cases based on EC laws except where the member state's failure to implement a directive is in serious and manifest breach of its obligations; and internal appeals procedure; streamlined procedures for the rapid amendment of EC legislation which has been interpreted in a way which was never intended by the Council; an accelerated procedure for time-sensitive cases; and a treaty provision clarifying the application of subsidiarity in the interpretation of EC laws. The Government will shortly be issuing a memorandum setting out their proposals in detail.

    "Ninthly, certain changes to the Council voting system will be necessary if the Union is to continue to function democratically in an enlarged Union. At present, the system of weighted votes is biased against the larger member states. There is growing acceptance across Europe that a way must be found to address this imbalance. Possible alternatives include changing the number of votes of larger countries so that population is better reflected. What is clear is that the system must not allow countries representing a significant percentage of the EU's population or the major net contributors as a group to be out-voted.

    "Tenthly, as the Union enlarges to as many as 27 members it will be necessary to change the current policy whereby every member state, however small, has a commissioner and is responsible for a six-month presidency. Such a structure would quickly become unworkable in an enlarged Union.

    "As the White Paper makes clear, there are a number of other specific areas where the Government see scope for improvements to the treaty at this IGC, including animal welfare and possible changes to the common fisheries policy as announced by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture last

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    week. There are many areas where the countries of the Union could and should co-operate more closely in their own national interests and in the interest of Europe as a whole. But at a time when there is concern about Europe trying to do too much, we do not believe that the rules on qualified majority voting in the treaty should be changed to make it easier to override national concerns in areas of particular sensitivity. That is why we will oppose the extension of majority voting at the IGC.

    "Nor do we favour further harmonisation or the extension of Community competence in the area of employment. The need to create jobs is one of the highest priorities facing the European Union. But jobs cannot be wished into being simply by legislating for them. It is businesses that make jobs. That is why the Prime Minister negotiated Britain's Social Chapter opt-out at Maastricht. I can tell the House that our opt-out is here to stay.

    "The Government approach this IGC with confidence and determination. The national interest of this country is the starting point for our approach since for all free nations the national interest can be defined as the collective expression of the democratic process. In many areas, our national interest coincides with that of our European partners and in those areas working with our partners enables our collective effort better to achieve our ends. We shall argue constructively for treaty changes to improve the operation of the Union. We want to strengthen the treaty so that Europe can face and overcome the challenges ahead and, in particular, so that we can prepare for further enlargement. As I have said, the conference is only one forum where we shall press for our vision of Europe. There are others and we shall argue robustly in all of them. Britain will be at the heart of the debate about the future of the European Union because it is our future and we can best shape our national destiny by working with our closest neighbours to make a strong and effective partnership of nations."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

4.22 p.m.

Lord Richard: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for repeating the Statement made in another place. It was somewhat lengthy and I assure the House that I shall take nowhere near as long as the Minister. In that connection, we must do something about our procedures. I do not have quite the same volume of complaints, either in terms of sound or content, this afternoon as I did over Scott. However, the White Paper is detailed and to receive it, as one does on these occasions, relatively shortly before one has to rise to deal with the detail is a difficult task. As in all such matters, as the House knows, the devil is in the details, not in the Statement that is made upon them.

I start by expressing sympathy for the Minister in making the Statement. I suppose that one should express sympathy with the Government in totality because the impression that they are trying to give under all the verbiage is: "Here is a government committed to a

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policy of ever-closer co-operation with our partners in Europe. But we're terribly sorry, we can't actually say so because we have problems within our own party and because of the divisions within the Conservative Party". Therefore, on the big issues the White Paper is silent.

On the little issues--or littler anyway--the White Paper has quite a lot to say, particularly on the veto. There is not a word on EMU, not a word on monetary union. Of course, that is an issue on which we might have trouble behind us. I also looked in vain for a mention of the word "referendum" throughout the paper, but there is nothing on it. Perhaps we will have trouble with the people sitting behind us if we mention that.

It is a predictable and somewhat pallid document. I sympathise with the Government's difficulties--good Europeans as some of them are--in dealing with their recalcitrant Back-Benchers. It is a document in which the Prime Minister, in the foreword, produces a ringing statement that,

    "we should throw ourselves into the debate ... with confidence and determination".
He then produces a document in which the vision, when we come down to it, seems to resolve itself into animal welfare and what to do about the procedures of the European Court. That does not entirely ring true and it did not so far as I was concerned.

The problem is not new; it will not go away. If we wish to co-operate with our partners, we have to accept some of the disciplines and constraints that arise from that relationship. That is precisely what the Government cannot admit at present. In his foreword, the Prime Minister said that there is:

    "a strong sense of shared purpose and common enterprise".
One cannot achieve a shared purpose except by being openly prepared to share a common purpose. One cannot achieve a common enterprise except by being prepared to identify what the common enterprise is and say how one will co-operate with one's partners in pursuing those enterprises. In some ways, the most interesting part of the document is what it does not contain rather than what it does.

Perhaps I may turn to the Court, with which a considerable section of the White Paper deals. Will the Minister confirm that there are no proposals for altering the jurisdiction or competence of the European Court of Justice? There is a lot about procedures and matters of detail, and I shall be asking about that later. However, the central issue is whether the European Court shall continue to have the powers that it has been given in the treaty. As I understand it, there are no proposals or suggestions from the Government that that should be changed.

One point in the White Paper about the European Court slightly intrigued me. It asks for:

    "streamlined procedures, for the rapid amendment of EC legislation which has been interpreted in a way which was never intended by the Council".
Who is to decide what the Council intended or did not intend unless there is a far greater degree of openness in the procedures of the Council? Are the Government in favour of opening up the Council to such disclosure?

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I may be wrong but I received the impression that it was not something that the Government were prepared to contemplate.

The White Paper mentioned the reform of the common agricultural policy. There are no proposals in the document about how the Government will set about reforming it. It would be interesting at some stage to hear about it. There is little in the document on unemployment, one of the major factors facing the countries of the European Union at the moment. There is a ritual attack upon the Social Chapter but no reference to the referendum or the EMU.

It is a White Paper of a government who are running scared of a considerable part of their own supporters. In my view, it is a blinkered document with little vision. The Government are extremely good at erecting windmills and then spending a great deal of time and effort tilting at them. There is a lot of windmill about the White Paper. Finally, the White Paper now having been produced, on our side we would expect an opportunity for an early debate on the details.

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