European Council

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 1:08 pm on 24th March 2005.

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Photo of Michael Howard Michael Howard Leader of the Opposition, Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Conservative Party 1:08 pm, 24th March 2005

I start by thanking the Prime Minister for advance sight of his statement. We welcome some items in the communiqué, such as the commitment to sustainable development and the Kyoto protocol. However, will the Prime Minister explain why new figures published this week show that carbon dioxide emissions in Britain have risen since 1997?

The Council rightly emphasised the importance of development issues, but was there not a grievous failure to match words with deeds when it came to helping the world's poor and depressed? Should not the EU demonstrate its belief in the right values with its trade policy? Is not free and fair trade the best way to lift people out of poverty? Would not dropping EU tariffs on their goods be the ideal way to help people in those countries devastated by the tsunami? Is not it indefensible and immoral to impose punitive duties on struggling nations and suffering people? Is not it also imprudent, as well as unethical, to press ahead with plans to sell arms to China? Does the Prime Minister think that it was right for Javier Solana to say yesterday that the EU was moving towards a "political decision" to end the arms embargo? Should not the Prime Minister instead listen to the human rights groups, Britain's Defence Manufacturers Association, the four Select Committees that have studied this matter, and our allies in Japan and the US, all of whom are urging him to maintain the embargo?

If the Council is serious about human rights, can I ask the Prime Minister whether the situation in Darfur was discussed? He just said that 2005 must be Africa's year, but the tragedy in Sudan is getting daily more horrific. The UN now says that 180,000 people have died. Why is not the Prime Minister demanding a UN resolution that would impose arms and oil sanctions on the Sudanese Government, and give the African Union peacekeepers the mandate and support that they need to protect the civilian population?

This summit came at an appropriate time, being the last one before the election—if we are to believe what we are told, not least by the Deputy Prime Minister yesterday. It discussed a wide range of issues, and it encapsulated the Prime Minister's complete failure on Europe over the past eight years.

Why on earth is the British rebate being discussed? The justification for it is as strong now as it was when it was won. The EU's financial problems are not caused by the rebate but by policies such as the common agricultural policy that are in real need of further reform. So why is not the reform agenda being given pride of place?

The Prime Minister assures us that he will not give way on the rebate. He says that his mind is made up. However, as we have discovered again this morning, members of this Government have a curious tendency to change their minds, and their advice, when they come under pressure.

And it is not just Ministers who cave in at the last moment. The Prime Minister himself changed his position when he came under pressure at the Council. Before he went abroad, his Government were all in favour of the services directive. Only last month the Foreign Secretary said:

"Creating a true single market in" services

"would boost growth in the EU and improve the price, choice and quality of services on offer to businesses and consumers."

But when it came to standing up for the services directive against President Chirac's objections, the Prime Minister surrendered. He put the interests of the French President before those of British workers and consumers, so how can we trust his promises on the rebate? Last time the Prime Minister fell out with President Chirac, he gave him a fountain pen. Next time, if he is still there, will he give him the cheque book?

In 2000, the Prime Minister said that there had been a sea change in European thinking away from heavy-handed intervention and regulation towards a new approach based on enterprise, innovation and competition. The last President of the Commission, Mr. Prodi, described the agenda as a big failure and the current President said that the Lisbon goals were too ambitious. Is not the European Union doing what the Prime Minister does when he fails all his targets—abandoning them and calling it a relaunch? Is not that failure a tragedy for Europe's 19 million unemployed? Does not it show that making promises is not enough and that Governments that are not prepared to turn talk into action never achieve anything?

The Council discussed reform of the euro stability and growth pact which Europe says is needed because a European Union of 25 countries is characterised by considerable diversity. Does not that diversity mean that a one-size-fits-all interest rate does not work? Is not that precisely why membership of the single currency would harm jobs and prosperity in Britain?

The Prime Minister boasted that Britain's place in the recent World Economic Forum's study of international competitiveness has improved during the past year. What he did not say is that today we are 11th in that league, but in 1998 we were fourth. Does not that say all we need to know about the economic performance and record of this Government?

Does not the Prime Minister believe that a European Union of 25 countries, characterised by considerable diversity, should be reforming and modernising in other ways also? Is not that his biggest failure of all? Why is not he putting the case for a more diverse and flexible Europe, for a live-and-let-live Europe of co-operating nation states? Why is not he putting the case for powers to be returned to the nation states, such as those we now discover he surrendered on asylum? Even the Dutch Government are asking for powers to be returned on social policy. Was not Germany's Europe Minister right when he recently described the constitution as

"the birth certificate of the United States of Europe"?

Is not that precisely the wrong direction for a modern Europe, characterised by considerable diversity, to take? Was not the Prime Minister's former economic adviser right when he said that the constitution will

"entrench Europe's failings and drag Britain down too."

Will not there be a clear choice at the next election between a Labour Government handing over ever more power to Brussels and a Conservative Government who will bring powers back to member states and closer to the people, and work for a flexible and diverse Europe fit for the 21st century? Is not there now a unique opportunity to settle Britain's relationship with Europe in Britain's national interest? Is not it time for an end to the Government's failures on Europe?