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European Council

Part of Oral Answers to Questions — Work and Pensions – in the House of Commons at 3:30 pm on 24th October 2011.

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Photo of Ed Miliband Ed Miliband Leader of Her Majesty's Official Opposition, Leader of the Labour Party 3:30 pm, 24th October 2011

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement. On Libya, I join him in expressing deep and abiding gratitude to members of the British armed forces. Over the past seven months, once again, our servicemen and women have been a credit to our nation, exercising our responsibility to the Libyan people and to uphold the will of the United Nations. That is why I have supported the Government in their actions, and I commend the Prime Minister on the role that he has played in taking the right and principled decisions on the issue.

There are difficult days ahead, and it is for the Libyan people to determine their future, but I agree with the Prime Minister that, alongside the responsibility to protect, which we exercised, is the responsibility to help rebuild—in particular, to help provide the expertise that the new Libya will require.

Let me now turn to Europe, and here my opening remarks reflect some of the things that the Prime Minister said. We are clear, and have been consistently, that getting out of the European Union is not in our national interest. Cutting ourselves off from our biggest export market makes no sense for Britain, and the overwhelming majority of British businesses, however unhappy they are with aspects of the EU, know that, too.

What is more, at this moment of all moments, the uncertainty that would ensue from Britain turning inwards over the next two years to debate an in/out referendum is something our country cannot afford. The best answer to the concerns of the British people about the European Union is to reform the way it works, not to leave it. We should make the completion of the single market, common agricultural policy reform, budget reform and reform of state aids the issue. That is why we will vote against the motion tonight.

This is the context for the European Council that the Prime Minister went to this weekend: growth stalled in Britain since the autumn; growth now stalling in Europe; unemployment rising; and the threat of a new banking crisis. That is why yesterday’s summit was so important.

I listened carefully to the Prime Minister’s statement, and it sounds like he now believes that Britain should play an active role in solving this crisis, but the truth is that month after month the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have chosen to grandstand on the sidelines, not to help sort out the issue. The Chancellor even refused to go to the initial meetings that he was invited to on the issue. They have shown no will to try to find the solutions.

Let me ask where the Prime Minister now stands. On banking, does he believe that the amount of recapitalisation being discussed is sufficient to ensure financial stability throughout the European banking system, particularly in the light of the International Monetary Fund’s larger estimates of capital required? On Greece, does he believe that the lessons of previously announced Greek bail-outs are being learned and will provide a genuinely sustainable solution? On growth, does he now understand that Europe will not get to grips with its debt problems until it get to grips with a crisis of growth and the immediate lack of demand in the European economy?

I suppose we should be pleased that the Government have moved from the Chancellor being empty-chaired at the meetings to the Prime Minister at least wanting to get into them, but he will have to do better than yesterday, because he was surprisingly coy about his one real achievement at the summit. In a few short hours, he managed to write the euro version of “How to Lose Friends & Alienate People”. He went into the summit lecturing the Germans; he came out of it being shouted at by the French. Apparently, President Sarkozy, until recently his new best friend, had had enough of the posturing, the hectoring, the know-it-all ways. Mr President, yesterday you spoke not just for France but for Britain as well.

The Prime Minister was in Brussels, but his mind was elsewhere. The Tory party on Europe is suffering another nervous breakdown, with a Prime Minister making frantic phone calls home, Parliamentary Private Secretaries threatening to resign, and it is not just the Stone Roses on a comeback tour, because Mr Redwood is back among us, touring the television studios.

All the Prime Minister’s present difficulties are of his own making. What did he say in 2006? He said that instead of talking about the things that most people care about, we were banging on about Europe. However, he spent the last five years telling his Back Benchers that he may not be banging on about Europe but that, deep down, he is really one of them. He was warned that he might start by dabbling with Euroscepticism, but that it was a slippery slope. That is exactly what happened.

Does the Prime Minister regret getting out of the European People’s Party in favour of the right-wing fringe—[ Interruption. ] He says no, but I do not know whether he was aware that there was a dinner for EPP leaders on Saturday night. The German Chancellor was there, the French President was there, and the President of the Commission was there—mainstream centre right Europe—but the Prime Minister was not invited. He is the person who kept telling us that he was a Eurosceptic, who at the election promised renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU. His party is paying the price because it believed what he told them. The country is paying the price because we are losing influence.

Yesterday, the Prime Minister was at it again, and we heard it again today. He is locked in a row with his Back Benchers, and what do we see? We see the resurrection of the old classic to get out of the social chapter, and withdraw employment rights. The coalition agreement is clear. That option is off the table. The Deputy Prime Minister is nodding from a sedentary position. That option—the third option in the Prime Minister’s statement—is off the table, and the Foreign Secretary confirmed that again this morning. Let the Prime Minister answer this question. At the December summit, what position will he take? Will he be for renegotiation or against? The coalition agreement says that that option is off the table. He said in his statement that it is on the table. The position is totally unclear.

This goes to the heart of the Prime Minister’s ability to fight in Europe on behalf of this country. Like his predecessors, he is caught between the party interest and the national interest. We see a rerun of the old movie—an out-of-touch Tory party tearing itself apart over Europe—and all the time the British people are left to worry about their jobs and livelihoods. The Prime Minister should stop negotiating with his Back Benchers, and start fighting for the national interest.