European Union

– in the House of Commons at 7:29 pm on 25th May 2005.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Gillian Merron.]

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East 7:44 pm, 25th May 2005

I am grateful to you, Mr. Speaker, for giving me the opportunity to raise the way in which Europe is communicated to the British public, and also ways in which greater public awareness of the EU can be achieved.

On 5 May, new Labour won an historic third term in office. An essential element of our international policy for the first two terms has been our place in Europe. Our manifesto commits us to continue to build on this strong relationship and to find new and imaginative ways of meeting the challenges of communicating the European message to the British public.

I am pleased to see the Treasury Minister in her place. I am glad to know that the new Minister for Europe is my right hon. Friend Mr. Alexander. As the House knows, there have been a number of Ministers for Europe over the past eight years. I was pleased to be one of them. I am glad to see my former boss, the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend Mr. Cook, in the Chamber this evening. As for the new Minister for Europe, he has two distinct advantages over all his predecessors. First, he is the youngest Minister for Europe, so he will be able to deal with a huge number of visits with greater stamina than his slightly older predecessors. Secondly, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has decided that he should attend Cabinet meetings. In my view, that is a recognition of the importance of the portfolio, not only in informing the Cabinet of what is happening, but in getting the British people to understand that Europe is a priority for this Government.

The very word "Europe" is at once exciting and challenging, but also deeply controversial, especially in Britain. I hope in the debate to explore a number of key issues that will help us in our quest to bring the positive benefits of our membership of the EU into the homes, high streets and, dare I say it?, even the hearts of the people of this country.

Domestic and international issues are more closely linked than ever before. The issues in which Britain is involved internationally have a direct impact on our domestic agenda. It is evident that many people have a perverse perception of the remits and duties of the EU. It is important that we take this opportunity to get the factual messages across. We had an example during Prime Minister's questions today when Mr. Turner raised the issue of the EU directive on pet cemeteries. However, there is a wider context. It is worth reminding ourselves yet again that Europe is the largest single market in the world, with more than 450 million consumers, and the free movement of people, goods, services and money. The vast majority of Britain's trade is with the other member states in Europe. The EU has helped us to remove trade barriers and has generated growth and more and better jobs.

The EU has improved the environment and it has raised the standards and rights of consumers. It has helped us to fight international crime and illegal immigration much more efficiently. The Union has also brought us peace and stability for our continent and has given Europe a stronger voice in the world.

British citizens need to be reminded of what the EU is doing for them and understand how necessary it is for Britain to continue to be a strong and vibrant member state. Margot Wallstrom, the Commissioner for Institutional Relations and Communication Strategy, has said:

"'Europe' is everywhere. It does have an impact on our every day lives. There are 450 million of us now and we are magnificently diverse. It has to involve the entire society. We need to build trans-European networks of humans."

This means bringing Brussels closer to Britain. This task has to be achieved on several levels, locally, nationally and internationally.

The Commission has recently launched a number of initiatives to raise awareness among EU citizens. One initiative is the so-called 1,000 debates on Europe, in which elected representatives from the local to European level are encouraged to invite their constituents to discuss the constitution. Britain has pledged to hold 20 such debates, one of which, so far, is planned to take place in the east midlands on 30 May. In a public debate for people living in Oady and Wigston, just outside my constituency, the public will hear arguments about the constitution, both for and against.

Spring day in Europe—I have not chosen the title—is another initiative to promote learning and debate about the EU in schools. The next generation—our children—will live in and relate to a completely different Europe from the Europe to which we have to relate. It is therefore vital that they be equipped with sufficient knowledge of Europe at a very early stage.

For those who choose to take advantage of the multiple possibilities that Europe offers, national boundaries will have a lesser significance. More than 750,000 Britons are already taking advantage of this right by living and working in other member states. In the near future we will, to a much greater extent, live and work in different regions of Europe, and it will be as ordinary to pick up the phone to ring Manchester as it will be to phone Portugal or Poland to speak to a friend or colleague.

Last weekend we saw one example of a great European event when all European countries come together to celebrate—the Eurovision song contest. Unfortunately, Britain did not do brilliantly this year, but neither did Spain, France or Italy. It is alleged that the smaller countries ganged up against the bigger ones. I am surprised that some sections of the media did not immediately call for our withdrawal from the EU because Britain did not win!

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is eligible to represent the United Kingdom or Estonia, on account of his heritage.

Photo of Lembit Öpik Lembit Öpik Shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Affairs, Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Welsh Affairs

The hon. Gentleman must recognise that he has provoked me to defend Estonia, which had no gripe against the United Kingdom in the Eurovision song contest. Does he accept that the education that he describes offers an important opportunity to celebrate the diversity that already exists in the UK? He knows that one of his most loyal constituents, my mother, is Estonian but has always sought to be a good citizen in Britain. That is a great way to teach people about the similarities, rather than creating fear.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

I am delighted to agree with the hon. Gentleman and yet again pay tribute to his mother, who lives in Evington, in my constituency. I hope she voted the right way in the recent general election.

As the new Minister for Europe will know when he goes to the summit meetings, Europe is changing. There are no longer just two countries dominating the way in which Europe operates, either in music or in politics. Every other country feels equally involved.

On 25 February 2002 the Prime Minister and Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, wrote a joint letter to José María Aznar, the Prime Minister of Spain, which then held the EU presidency. They outlined a thorough reform agenda for the future of the EU, with essential changes that would make Europe more efficient. The letter included reform proposals for the European Council to improve EU decision making—for example, keeping the agenda focused, avoiding overloaded schedules, setting fixed deadlines and preparing for each European Council more carefully. Furthermore, it suggested improving transparency, strengthening the Council secretariat, shortening meeting times and avoiding every debate going literally round the table. Can the Minister tell me how many of the boxes in that detailed proposal have been ticked, and what the Government intend to do specifically to drive the EU reform agenda forward?

Over the past five years more than 6 million jobs have been created in the EU. The telecommunications market has been opened up for competition, and the gas and electricity markets have been liberalised, which has brought a bigger and much broader choice to consumers. A deregulated air market has brought cheaper air tickets and British consumers can now enjoy flights across Europe for less than it will cost them to get a train, bus or taxi to the airport. There are endless examples of positive reasons for Britain to stay in Europe and to take an even stronger lead.

To build on this success we must continue to support the Lisbon agenda. The EU's economic reform agenda to create in Europe

"the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-driven economy by 2010" is rightly our goal. As the House knows, my right hon. Friend Mr. Cook and I were both at Lisbon. The agenda is therefore close to our hearts.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer has, with his skilled craftsmanship of the economy, put Britain at the top of the league table in Europe as one of the best performing economies in the Union. But the Kok report showed how slowly the EU was performing, according to the Lisbon goals. I seek tonight a strong commitment from the Minister for Europe that the recommendations of the Kok report will be implemented in full during our presidency and that economic reform will be at the top of our agenda. That is certainly what the Chancellor implied in his vintage performance earlier this afternoon.

Last weekend the Foreign Ministers of all the member states met in Brussels to debate the EU budget. It has been suggested that the EU budget should increase by a massive 35 per cent. and that Britain should terminate its rebate. The Foreign Secretary has said:

"The rebate is justified because it is sensible and fair—but the central issue is not the rebate but the overall level of spending."

The Chancellor has been equally clear. Will the Minister also make it clear tonight that we shall not give in on the rebate? Britain does not get much out of either the cohesion funds or the common agricultural policy, and we must protect our national interest by keeping the rebate.

It would be odd to have a debate of this sort without mentioning the constitutional treaty of the EU. The treaty was signed on 29 October 2004 and the referendum Bill was presented to Parliament only yesterday by the Foreign Secretary. The treaty reinforces Britain's place at the centre of Europe and is the first ever single document to set out exactly what the EU can and cannot do.

The constitution will make substantial changes to the structure of Europe. It is a comprehensive piece of legislation and it will make Europe less complicated, more transparent, more democratic, more efficient and more legitimate in order to deal with an EU of 25. It was in fact only an extension of the Maastricht treaty signed by the Conservatives in 1992.

We are waiting in anticipation to see whether the French and the Dutch will vote yes on Sunday 29 May and Wednesday 1 June respectively. There is an urgent need for a positive campaign on the subject involving the whole spectrum of British society. To date, Spain, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia have ratified the treaty. After France and the Netherlands, Luxembourg will vote on 10 July, and Denmark on the 27 September. Ireland, Poland, Portugal, UK and the Czech Republic will all hold referendums, and Germany, Austria, Cyprus, Belgium, Estonia, Malta and Sweden will not hold referendums, but there will be a vote in Parliament. In the event that the French or the Dutch should reject the constitutional treaty, it is important that we know what the Government's position is. If either of those countries, both founding members of the EU, says no, we should abandon the referendum. As the Prime Minister said in the House this lunchtime, if there is a no vote, the matter will go back to the Council of Ministers, which will consider the position. A quick announcement from the Government will mean that there will be no period of uncertainty or hesitation. Clarity on this issue is vital.

Since 1997, the Government have worked tirelessly to put Britain back at the heart of Europe. Before that we were marginalised. During this time extraordinary successes have been reached. One of the most significant has been the enlargement of the EU just over one year ago when 10 new member states joined the Union. This success will continue with Romania and Bulgaria joining in 2007, and accession negotiations beginning with Turkey during the UK presidency in the second half of 2005. Negotiations with Croatia are on hold, and I shall be glad to hear from the Minister how they are progressing. When countries show willingness to reform and bring their economic and human rights standards in line with the rest of the EU, there should be no barriers to their joining.

Enlargement has been a great success. Britain has been a champion of enlargement, led by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston. I can remember, as the House will remember, just before enlargement those on the Conservative Benches telling us that there would be a crisis with the arrival of so many eastern Europeans, but that did not happen. There was no collapse of the benefit system, and 69,000 Polish people have come to the UK and they all contribute to our economy and to that of Europe.

As the House knows, the second half of 2005 will be the most important time for Britain as we hold the presidencies of the EU and the G8. I congratulate the Foreign Office on its very gracious and effective presidency logo made up of flying swans in a V-shape, and I trust that the Foreign Office is content with the presidency programme and, unlike the swan, is not just serene on the top while paddling desperately below. I am sure that it will not be, as I know that much of the work was prepared by my hon. Friend Mr. MacShane when he was Minister for Europe, and I know that he will have ensured that everything was in place for the new Minister.

There is one point that I want to stress, and on which I will end, and that concerns diversity. I urge the Govt to boost the diversity agenda in Europe given that Britain is in the fortunate position of being able to lead by example on this issue. Ethnic diversity and cultural integration have come much further in the UK than in many other member states, and Britain should lead this important debate.

During my visit to the Netherlands last year, which was organised superbly by our Ambassador Sir Colin Budd and his staff at the British Embassy, I met a number of people who were concerned about how the agenda has developed in the Netherlands. We need to ensure that we adopt a position of leadership on this issue. I want the Government to give a commitment to ensuring that during our presidency, we will have events and activities to promote diversity.

Those are just some of the themes that make up the complex, irresistibly controversial blend that is Europe. The next six months give Britain the opportunity to set the agenda for Europe not only for the rest of the year, but for years ahead. With this Prime Minster, Foreign Secretary and Minister for Europe, and in this our presidency year, we really do have the chance to provide leadership not just for Europe, but through Europe, for the rest of the world. I wish the Minister for Europe well in the forthcoming six months.

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (Europe) 8:00 pm, 25th May 2005

I thank my hon. Friend Keith Vaz for bringing this important issue to the attention of the House this evening, particularly at a time when the European Union's future is being vigorously debated not only in this country, but right across Europe. As those of us present will all recognise, my hon. Friend has been an assiduous and tireless campaigner on behalf of reform in the EU not only to make it work better, but to make it more open and accessible to all its citizens. He is joined in his experience and expertise by my predecessor, my hon. Friend Mr. MacShane, and I want to take this opportunity to place on the record my gratitude for his work during his time in the Foreign Office.

I am acutely conscious that what we may lack in numbers this evening, we make up for in quality. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend Mr. Cook, who also has an outstanding record in supporting the case for reform in the EU. It is of course commonplace to acknowledge that Britain's relationship with the EU has been one of the most strongly debated issues in this Chamber. As the new Europe takes shape, it is vital that the debate on Britain's place within it should extend outside this House and across the country.

As Europe expands and the world shrinks through globalisation, we need to ensure that the EU is equipped to continue to deliver security and prosperity to its citizens, and to meet the challenges of a globalising world. That is what the new constitutional treaty sets out to do, and it is what the debate—across Europe at this time—is about. There are sharply divided views, as the French and Dutch referendum campaigns are showing. I would argue, however, that Britain's security and prosperity are inextricably linked to Europe. It is thus clearly in our national interest to do all that we can to ensure that the EU continues to deliver prosperity to us and to all the citizens of Europe.

In a speech in the City last Friday, I said that if Britain is to take the right decision on the future of Europe and on Britain's central role in shaping that future, we must have an informed debate based on facts, not myth. I was delighted to hear those sentiments echoed in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East this evening, and I welcome the opportunity provided by this evening's debate to set out the practical benefits to Britain of our membership of the EU, and our objectives for our forthcoming presidency.

The UK's economic growth is closely linked to our EU membership and to the trading opportunities afforded by the single market. In 2002, EU gross domestic product was 1.8 per cent.—or £110 billion more than it would have been without the single market. That represents a benefit of £20 billion to the UK economy alone. Almost 60 per cent. of our trade is with Europe. Some 3 million jobs in the UK are linked—directly or indirectly—to the export of goods and services to the EU, and some 750,000 British-based companies trade across the EU. The removal of internal frontier controls has saved EU businesses billions of euros. The abolition of customs duties alone saves British businesses an estimated £135 million a year. Without delays at frontiers, delivery times are much shorter, so manufacturers can save money and reduce prices for European consumers.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East said, competition within the single market has almost halved the cost of phone calls and air fares. EU membership benefits both businesses and citizens alike.

Rigorous EU standards mean that goods and services manufactured and traded within the EU are of the highest quality and afford the most safety to consumers. The air we breathe and the water we drink are infinitely cleaner and healthier thanks to tough environmental standards; industrial emissions of toxic substances, such as lead and mercury, have declined significantly; dangerous pesticides and chemicals have been banned; and better waste water and sewage treatment have cleaned up rivers and lakes. Nearly all the UK's beaches and rivers now meet high EU standards.

It is easy to take those benefits for granted now, and because they are good news stories we rarely hear about them in the newspapers. However, they matter to us all, so we must raise the level of awareness here in the UK that it is thanks to our EU membership that we can enjoy such a high quality of life.

Security in our homes and on our streets is central to quality of life in communities represented by hon. Members on both sides of this House. Co-operation among EU police forces and criminal justice authorities, through Europol and Eurojust, means that we can tackle international crime, drug smuggling and illegal immigration much more effectively than simply proceeding on the basis of our own national police force.

In 2005, some 32 years after our accession to the European Economic Community, the EU faces a new and very different world, and the EU, which now contains 25 member states and 450 million consumers and citizens, is a different organisation. The EU needs to adapt and change to meet the challenges of a hugely expanded Union and an increasingly competitive global marketplace. It needs to be more open and, frankly, less rigid.

In 2000, EU leaders committed themselves to an ambitious 10-year programme of far-reaching economic reform to make the EU the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010. I pay tribute to the former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston, and to my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East for their work in advancing the so-called Lisbon strategy. The UK has led the way in pushing forward the Lisbon agenda. As my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East said and the Kok report pointed out, however, 2005 marks the halfway point in the strategy. Some progress has been made, but it is clear that much more needs to be done to meet the targets identified in Lisbon in 2000.

We must and will take forward the Lisbon agenda. My right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston knows the importance of that agenda, which will be a key priority for the UK during our forthcoming EU presidency. We welcome the support of President Barroso, who has already shown a strong lead on economic reform during his time as President of the European Commission. The focus on employment is right, because the EU needs more flexible labour markets. We must ensure that every proposal for new legislation is subject to a rigorous assessment of its impact on jobs, competitiveness and the wider case for growth within Europe.

We need to strike a balance between protecting workers, ensuring routes into the labour market for vulnerable workers and maintaining sufficient flexibility for business. We will focus on improving the assessment of new legislative proposals to ensure that such proposals encourage and do not stifle growth, on simplifying existing EU rules and on promoting the greater use of alternatives to regulation.

We will also work to strengthen the single market and to make progress on a single market for services. The services sector represents 60 per cent. of EU GDP, and extending the internal market to the services sector will be enormously important to business and consumers alike.

In the financial services sector, our focus will be on completing the financial services action plan in a way that protects and promotes UK and EU competitiveness.

Security will be another key priority for our EU presidency. In a world in which criminals and terrorists operate across national borders, justice and security for British citizens increasingly requires enhanced EU co-operation between police forces and judicial authorities. In the next six months, the UK presidency will take forward EU measures to improve the exchange of law enforcement information and ongoing work to conclude re-admission agreements with countries outside the EU. We will also work to agree a new long-term agenda for the Union's counter-terrorism efforts.

It is an ambitious agenda, but it is not that of the UK alone. It is the agenda of the whole Union, defined by all the member states working with the Commission and the democratically elected European Parliament, in all our interests. We hope that we can take it forward effectively and deliver real, practical results for the people of Europe. We will do so as we take forward and ensure a better understanding among the people of Britain and a better awareness of what the European Union achieves for its people: that is to say, greater prosperity and security. Through reasoned debate and a clear demonstration of the facts, we will show why the new constitutional treaty is the right treaty for Britain and the right treaty for Europe.

On the rebate, I can assure my hon. Friend that I have discussed that in recent days with my right hon. Friends the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Foreign Secretary. Indeed, I was present with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary in Brussels at the General Affairs and External Relations Council on Monday. Suffice to say that I fully stand by the strong statements that have been made by both my right hon. Friends in relation to the rebate.

The constitutional treaty as drafted confirms Britain's position of strength in Europe and delivers our vision of a flexible, wider EU. It will make the new Europe of 25 nations work more effectively, as we heard this evening, with simpler decision making and greater accountability. It will be more open and, we would argue, more democratic. For the first time, as Members will know, the treaty will allow national Parliaments to have a direct say in most draft EU laws. New legislative proposals from the European Commission will be sent to national Parliaments for comments. Where there are concerns on subsidiarity, Parliaments can send the proposals back. If one third of national parliaments believe that the issue should be for national, not European, law, the Commission must withdraw the proposal.

The treaty creates a full-time President of the European Council, appointed by and accountable to national Governments. The President will set the EU's agenda and represent the views of national Governments. The treaty will make the EU more efficient. For example, the size of the Commission will be reduced by one third by 2014.

Voting will be simpler and fairer. The UK's voting power will increase because the size of the population now counts. The treaty provides for majority voting where we want it most: for the single market, for reform of the common agricultural policy, and for security issues, including action against international crime and terrorism. But on questions of tax, social security, foreign policy, defence and financing of the Union, at UK insistence decisions can be taken only by unanimity.

Photo of Keith Vaz Keith Vaz Labour, Leicester East

That is an excellent exposition of the importance of the treaty, but could my right hon. Friend address himself to the issue of what will happen to Britain's position if France or the Netherlands votes no? Will we go ahead with our referendum, or will we scrap it and take the matter back to the Council of Ministers?

Photo of Douglas Alexander Douglas Alexander Minister of State (Europe)

I stand by the comments that the Prime Minister has made. He has made it clear that our process of ratification involves a referendum, so if there is a constitutional treaty to ratify, it will be done by the British people by means of the referendum set out in the Bill that I am glad to say we introduced into this place yesterday.

On the involvement of the European Council, given the terms of the treaty and what would be expected, in the first instance it is important to place on record the fact that none of us can judge at this stage what will be the outcome of the referendum in France or the Netherlands. It would therefore be unwise to hypothesise and better to wait only a few remaining days until the position is clearer across the European Union.

I welcome the opportunity that the constitutional treaty provides for engaging in a fundamental argument with those here in this Chamber and in the country who see Britain's future as standing outwith the European Union. There is a strong case to be made on the basis of prosperity and security, as I have tried to outline this evening, and Britain's future lies within a reforming European Union. On that basis, the constitutional treaty provides exactly the sort of framework for which we, and Members present in the House, have been working and striving—for exactly the kind of reforming Europe that we want to see. As I made clear in my remarks—

The motion having been made after Seven o'clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. Deputy Speaker adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at fourteen minutes past Eight o'clock.