[Un-allotted Half Day] — European Union

Part of Opposition Day – in the House of Commons at 9:38 pm on 13th December 2011.

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Photo of Henry Bellingham Henry Bellingham The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs 9:38 pm, 13th December 2011

No, I will not.

Let me say something about the UK’s influence in Europe. The decision not to proceed with a treaty at 27 has no impact on our status in the European Union. Our role in the EU is safeguarded by the existing treaties. Britain remains a full member of the EU. Our membership is vital to our national interest. We are a great trading nation, and we need the single market for trade, investment and jobs. Contrary to what was said by the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East, we will remain active and influential in the EU. The European Council does not in any way diminish our role. As was pointed out by Martin Horwood in a wise and sensible speech, this week there will be meetings of the Councils on Transport, Telecommunications and Energy, and Agriculture and Fisheries, and we will be present as full active members in each of those Council meetings.

I am trying to respond to speeches made by a large number of Members on both sides of the House. As was pointed out by my hon. Friend Chris Heaton-Harris and the hon. Members for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell), for South Antrim (Dr McCrea), and for Upper Bann (David Simpson), the decision not to be part of the treaty that will be agreed by the eurozone and others does not in any way reduce our influence. The EU is not a monolithic block, and it already contains flexible arrangements.

As the right hon. Member for Belfast North observed, the United Kingdom is not part of the single currency or the Schengen no-borders agreement, but that has not prevented us from leading the way in the EU on a range of issues, from an activist foreign policy to the completion of the single market. As my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe pointed out, our position is incredibly important in terms of not just the single market but foreign direct investment, 50% of which comes from the EU. As he also pointed out, much foreign direct investment from other parts of the world, such as the BRIC nations—Brazil, Russia, India and China—is due to our membership of the EU.

My hon. Friends the Members for Stone (Mr Cash) and for Stroud referred to the EU institutions. We want the new treaty to work in stabilising the euro. That is in our national interest, because our economy is closely tied to that of our EU partners. I understand why the eurozone member states would want to use the institutions to help to ensure fiscal discipline. We will look constructively at proposals to use the EU intuitions with an open mind, but this is new territory which raises important issues.

The right hon. Member for Belfast North was spot on when he said that nothing must be done through the back door. We must ensure that institutions built for 27 continue to operate fairly for all member states, including the UK, and in particular we must ensure that the role played by the EU institutions in safeguarding the single market is not affected. I assure my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud that we will continue to intensify bilateral relations with many different EU countries. Let me assure the hon. Members for Foyle (Mark Durkan) and for South Down (Ms Ritchie) that we will not take the isolationist route.

On the repatriation of powers and the balance of competences, the Government are committed, under the coalition agreement, to examining “the balance” of competences between Britain and the EU. There is a case for doing that—as Mr Donaldson pointed out, it is a very strong one. The work on the review has begun and is in its early stages. In taking it forward, we will look at how to engage with our EU partners on individual competences. A change in the balance of competences would require the agreement of all 27 member states on the basis of negotiation and agreement.

I wish to say a few quick words about the working time directive, because it is important at a time of economic uncertainty that we remain focused on job creation and growth. That will require all of Europe to improve its competitive position, including in respect of labour markets. A key part of that will be limiting the barriers to flexibility in the working time directive. The Government are committed in the coalition agreement to limiting

“the application of the Working Time Directive in the United Kingdom.”

Our priority is that the working time directive keeps a secure economy-wide opt-out; working people should be able to work the hours that they choose. We will also be looking to secure more flexibility in the areas of on-call time and compensatory rest.

I pay tribute, once again, to our friends in the Democratic Unionist party, because this very good debate has come at a crucial time for Europe and, throughout, the contributions of DUP Members have been incredibly consistent, solid and reliable. What can we say about the Opposition? I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Goole (Andrew Percy) that we have heard nothing but carping and criticism. The hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East did not tell us whether Labour would have signed the treaty. She said nothing at all in response to two interventions, including one from my hon. Friend Dr Murrison, asking why Labour gave up Britain’s £7 billion EU rebate when the now shadow Foreign Secretary was Minister for Europe? She also made no attempt to answer the question about why Labour signed the UK up to a euro bail-out mechanism after the general election—on 8 and 9 May 2010, before the coalition agreement was completed. She also failed completely to answer the questions put to her about her leader, who first—