I remind the House that there is a time limit on Back-Bench speeches, which is subject to review.
I beg to move,
That this House
has considered the matter of the European Council.
I would like to take this opportunity briefly to mention to this self-selecting group of Members in the Chamber who are taking an interest in EU Council debates that the Backbench Business Committee now has such debates within its remit. In future, therefore, when Members want to have such a debate before the EU Council meets, they should come to the Backbench Business Committee. I will leave it at that.
I apologise: I ought to have explained that the time limit on Back-Bench speeches is eight minutes.
I am grateful to the Backbench Business Committee and its Chairman for arranging this debate. I am sorry that the Government did not take note of the unanimous view of the European Scrutiny Committee that such a debate should be held in Government time. However, we now have this opportunity to air our views before the Prime Minister goes to the summit. He is to be congratulated on his use of the veto, which I am bound to say I was glad about because I had suggested its use in my pamphlet “It’s the EU, Stupid”, and in other discussions.
The proposal for fiscal union vitally affects our national interests and our democracy; it is not just about the single market and the City, essential though those matters are. As I said to the Foreign Secretary the other day, once we have crossed the Rubicon we cannot cross it again, and it is imperative that there should be no backsliding at the summit on
What is the root cause of the European crisis? It is not merely a eurozone crisis; it is a crisis of the European Union as a whole. Europe is being destroyed on the altar of ideology. The existing treaties, which cover 70% of our legislation here in the UK, have failed and are the root cause of the crisis in Europe.
In the light of the hon. Gentleman’s attack on the role of the Liberal Democrats in all this, would he accept that the Deputy Prime Minister’s hosting of the recent summit of European Liberal leaders—including two Prime Ministers, six
Deputy Prime Ministers and five European Commissioners —to try to bring together a bilateral plan to support jobs, growth and prosperity across Europe was a positive step?
We are all in favour of growth, but unfortunately the European treaties themselves work against that aim because of the degree of overregulation, and many other matters that I shall come to in a moment.
The lack of growth is contaminating the UK economy. Elsewhere in Europe it is creating civil disorder, with youth unemployment of up to 45% in Greece and Spain, and 30% in Italy. The present European Union is completely undemocratic, and the existing treaties should be sent to a convention so that all the member states could have the opportunity to face one another and decide what kind of Europe they want. In the past, when referendums have been held in France, Holland, Ireland and Denmark, the no vote has been overturned by bribing and threatening the electorate. That kind of behaviour, combined with economic and political crisis, creates a fertile breeding ground for the far right, as I predicted as far back as 1990.
There is no growth in Europe, except in Germany. We cannot grow from a stagnant Europe, and the coalition cannot achieve its main objective of reducing the deficit and achieving growth so long as this paralysis continues. The remedy of the Eurocrats—and, indeed, the leaders of European Government and the Liberal Democrat leadership in this country—is a fatal obstruction to our present and future economic success.
The approach adopted by the Prime Minister today at Davos reflects the view that I expressed in my pamphlet “It’s the EU, Stupid” and the growth paper that has been circulated to all Members of Parliament and the Lords and others, as well as in my remarks to the Minister of State, Cabinet Office, which is that we need to refocus our trade towards the rest of the world and not rely on the fact that we have 40% to 50% of our trade with the EU to provide the mainspring of our economic future.
Indeed. In 2009 there was a trade deficit of £14 billion in goods and services, but since then it has risen to £51 million. Those figures speak for themselves.
Cuts in public expenditure cannot solve the problem on their own. We need enterprise for small and medium-sized businesses and drastic cuts in overregulation. We need enterprise, not strangulation. Indeed, we must insist on our ability to enter into trade relationships on our own terms, in our own national interests, and not be confined to a single trade policy dictated by the European Commission.
I was deeply alarmed to read in today’s City A . M .that Angela Merkel at Davos is encouraging more integration. She is quoted as saying:
“We have to become used to the European Commission becoming more and more like a government.”
She urges more and more Europe, but that Europe would be both undemocratic and increasingly dominated by Germany itself, as I have repeatedly stated for 20 years, and as The Economist concedes in this week’s edition. It states, following France’s downgrading, that
“Berlin is alone in the cockpit”.
That is not healthy for Germany or the UK, and certainly not for Europe. It now seems certain that President Sarkozy is on the way out, and Italy and Greece have technocratic Prime Ministers. Democracy is dwindling and diminishing. The Franco-German partnership is now a hollow reminder of German strength and French weakness. This is all the more reason why the UK must insist on leading Europe out of this crisis with Euro-realist policies and an insistence on government by consent. Sadly, Germany believes in government by rule, and is now even proposing the European Commission as the anchor of European government.
There has been much agitated activity in seeking to resolve the Greek bankruptcy, but there has been no result. A few days ago I came across a five-page article written in 1998 setting out exactly why Greece should not be allowed into the European Union, which was of course ignored. Every member state is responsible for this failure of judgment and must bear the consequences. It is a pity that those such as George Soros who are now wringing their hands in Davos did not listen to the Euro-realist arguments instead of condemning and mocking them.
On the draft agreement, we must bear in mind that the issues now being presented to the British electorate and the European Union are more political than legal. There are still fundamental legal problems in the latest draft of the agreement between the 26. There must be no misunderstanding: this deal is flawed in seeking to incorporate the European Commission and the European Court of Justice, which are institutions of the EU, into a non-EU treaty.
Furthermore, what is the basis in the treaty on the functioning of the European Union for the proposed powers, including infringement powers, to be conferred on the European Commission under article 8 of the agreement? Prima facie, that is unlawful, given the prohibition on infringement proceedings under article 126(10) of the treaty. There are serious doubts about the use of article 273 in relation to issues of jurisdiction. There is also the issue of enhanced co-operation under article 10, which bypasses the treaty requirement that enhanced co-operation should be used only as a last resort; the agreement proposes its use “whenever appropriate and necessary”. This could cause serious damage to British national interests in relation to the internal market.
My Committee, the European Scrutiny Committee, will be investigating all these matters with the assistance of evidence from witnesses from all sides of the equation. There is a further problem of whether the treaty to establish the European stability mechanism can come into force before the amendment to the Lisbon treaty, so that member states could allow such a treaty, given that the United Kingdom has not yet ratified it. I would be grateful if the Minister would answer these questions when he responds to the debate; I hope that he is listening to what I am saying. We urgently need to know whether the Government have received the fifth, and presumably final, draft. If not, will he tell us when they will, and when it will be sent to the European Scrutiny Committee?
With regard to article 13, will the UK Parliament be involved in the proposed inter-parliamentary conference? If so, will the European Scrutiny Committee be invited to attend? At present no one knows how that arrangement will work in practice—there are serious question marks over the agreement—but we know that it will be determined by German demands and conditions. I do not blame Germany for its pride and defence of its own national interests, but I do not believe that we the UK should pay one penny to provide funds for an EU bail-out which, if it were done within the European Union itself, would be blatantly unlawful.
“we violated all the rules”.
It is ironic that she should now be in charge of a further attempt to bypass the rules. That is outrageous, and I am glad that America has quite rightly said that it believes that Europe should sort out its own mess. However, that will be achieved through policies for genuine growth, and not through bail-outs with fictitious money and a refusal to face up to Euro-reality.
We now live in peaceful democratic times, and we must therefore insist on our Westminster democracy as the basis for protecting our national interest. Let us therefore get down to the business of letting the British people have their say, and of saving the United Kingdom from impending disaster and the European Union from itself. We must turn our eyes to the sunlit uplands of enterprise and international trade, earn our way in the world by our own efforts and re-create the foundations of true independence of action and prosperity for our own country.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. I apologise for interrupting the debate, but my attention has been drawn to media reports about the future of RAF Northolt, which is next to my constituency. Apparently, there might be Government plans to develop RAF Northolt as an alternative to the Boris island airport, or as a satellite terminal for Heathrow. That is potentially of huge concern to my constituents, and I wonder whether you have received a statement from the Government setting out their real thinking.
I have received no indication from the Government of their intentions on this matter, but I have a hunch that the hon. Gentleman will pursue the issue doggedly and tenaciously.
The decision by the Prime Minister to walk away from potential agreement at the European Council in December is a disaster for our country and for its long-term influence in the European Union. No previous Conservative Prime Minister, whether John Major or Baroness Thatcher, had taken such an approach, and we are about to see the consequences of the current Prime Minister’s decision in the developments going on in the European Union this week. ECOFIN met this week to consider the fourth draft of the agreement—on which the House of Commons Library has produced a helpful note—for the proposed inter-governmental arrangement on the future of the eurozone. That fourth draft agreement made some progress at this week’s meeting, but two issues were left for the bigger meeting that will take place in the next few days: further discussion about qualified majority voting and debt and deficit criteria; and the attendance of non-eurozone member states at the summit.
I will make some progress first.
As a result of the European Union Act 2011, the Prime Minister has boxed himself into a position in which there must be no potential for a referendum in this country. As he was trying to assuage his 81 Europhobic Back Benchers, he took the easy option of making a political decision rather than one in the national interest, which would have been to remain in the negotiations and to carry on trying to influence the outcome. As a result, when discussions conclude on the arrangements, if they are based on the fourth draft agreement—I quote the House of Commons Library Paper—
“the Heads of State or Government of contracting parties whose currency is not the euro who have ratified this Treaty and have declared their intention to be bound by some of its provisions” would be invited
“to a meeting of the Euro Summit”.
However, those who did not agree to the intention to be bound by the provisions and were not participating would have no automatic right to attend. The Library paper states:
“This would appear to exclude the UK as a non-Euro, but crucially also a non-contracting State.”
There is a potential, therefore, for us no longer to be in the room, even as an observer, because of our misguided decision in December to walk away from the process.
I suspect that when the eurozone finally resolves the crisis, whether this week, which is doubtful, or on 1 and
Does the hon. Gentleman not understand that one has to pay to play? If we were in the room, the other countries would expect us to divvy up, as they are short of money.
More than half our trade is with the European Union. Our companies, and the future of the City of London and its relationship with the eurozone economy, are greatly affected by what happens in Europe. Those who want to move out to the middle of the Atlantic or who believe that somehow we can reinvigorate the Commonwealth and go back to imperial preference, are not living in the real world for the British economy. Our national interest is to have prosperity and success. As the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made clear, it is in Britain’s national interest for the eurozone to succeed and for the current crisis to be resolved. Clearly, Conservative Members do not agree with the Chancellor’ words. They wish to see the eurozone fail—[Hon. Members: “Rubbish!”] Well, Mr Leigh seemed to say that. If he disagrees, he can intervene again. They want to see the eurozone fail because they believe that somehow that will be in the national interest of this country. It will not.
I have no time left.
It is time that the country looked to its long-term national interests, as opposed to the short-term party interests of this dysfunctional coalition. Those long-term national interests are in working consistently and positively in Europe, and recognising that we have potential allies in Europe. However, our misguided negotiating tactics have forced those potential allies away from us. This is the most self-defeating, insane strategy. It is not in our long-term national interests, and it is a shame for our country.
Following the remarks of Mike Gapes, it should be stated clearly that we can never have a negotiating position, in any area of life, let alone in a European Council meeting, if we are never prepared to say no and walk away from the table. Otherwise, people will believe that we will always capitulate, and that nothing we say is worth listening to. That must be one lesson that we take from the European Council in December.
Whatever view hon. Members hold about that Council and the decisions that were taken, we cannot doubt that the European Union is at a fundamental crossroads at which it must confront a number of serious issues that affect all European Union citizens. As the financial crisis has made plain, the European Union—its treaties and economic and monetary union—has not made Europe stronger; indeed, its weaknesses have been made all the more clear. Currency union has not made countries such as Greece, Portugal and Spain competitive with countries such as Germany. In some ways, it has exacerbated their weaknesses. Currency union has made it easier for countries such as Germany to export at low cost across the countries of Europe and has held back the march of competitiveness that should have come in some of the weaker countries.
The mechanisms of stability and convergence created at Maastricht to try to bring economies closer together have, over the years, been undermined by member states and have not been followed. If they had, perhaps the crisis would not have been as great as it is. We are where we are, however, and the challenge for Europe is now a test of nerve— whether it will plough on in the same old way or whether it is serious about embracing change and leading in a fundamentally new direction towards a Europe that is more competitive and open, which embraces the world rather than seeking to pull in on itself.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if European Union member states had their own currencies and could adjust them to the appropriate parities for their economies, they would all be more able to reflate and we could have better growth and prosperity for everyone?
The hon. Gentleman makes a good point and I am sure that citizens in Greece, Portugal, Italy and Spain will be asking in whose interest the survival of the euro is as it stands. They will be able to see that it is in the interests of the Germans and some of the stronger economies, as they have an artificially low currency that makes it easier for them to export across Europe. I am sure that is one reason why the German economy has continued to do well. Those citizens will also ask, however, what is in it for them and whether they—and Europe—would be better off in the long run if countries with weaker economies and bigger problems with debt were able to reach a much more sustainable level for their currency.
In actual fact, in countries such as Spain and Greece there is no such campaign to leave the euro—any campaign, such as it is, is very minor. The vast majority of people accept that the euro is there to stay and they want to make it work.
To return to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier point about the stability and growth pact, the only way that it could have worked would have been if the European Union had had power to enforce audit on countries and to enforce the rules. That is an argument for more Europe, not for less.
The problem with the stability rules has been that when there should have been interventions or challenges the opportunity has been ducked. That has allowed countries to fudge the rules, has made a shambles of the stability pact and has undoubtedly led to the crisis we face now. It demonstrates something that many hon. Members have known for a very long time: this was primarily a political project and the objective was to get as many countries in as possible and to keep them in whatever the cost, even if the cost was to the member states.
The other point made by Chris Bryant was about the concern in member states about whether staying in the euro is good for them or not. Since the December Council we have seen a greater understanding of what staying in the euro will mean. In effect, as my hon. Friend Mr Cash said in his speech, it will mean that the European Commission will decide on budgets for member states, on debt levels and on spending and will enforce measures through the European Court to correct those states if they do not comply. The price of continued membership of the eurozone will then look increasingly high. I believe that might lead some countries to question whether to stay in—or, perhaps, the markets will make that decision for them. No doubt the events of the next few months will give us a good idea of how that will play out.
The challenge is for Europe not to continue as a fortress Europe, but, instead, to be a market Europe that looks to open itself up to the world. That is the best thing for its competitiveness and prosperity and for the future of all its citizens.
This month, the European Council published “The European Council in 2011” , which looks back at the previous year. The President of the Council, Mr Van Rompuy, said that
“we can draw confidence from the political will we mustered in the past year”.
I am glad that one person in Europe draws confidence from the political will mustered by the European Council, because I think most people see a failure of leadership and a great deal of concern about the effectiveness of that body to lead in the future.
In the same chapter of the book, which is entitled “The road ahead”, Mr Van Rompuy goes on to say:
“The key for the future is to harness the forces of change.”
I believe that is right: Europe needs to harness the forces of change. That requires a change of direction, however, rather than acceleration down the old worn path, which is where it is heading.
The document also states that the level of economic integration—in effect, the creation of a common economic policy—will remain high on the agenda for the European Council this year. It states:
“‘Member States shall regard their economic policies as a matter of common concern’. In 2012, we will further examine a deepening of our economic union, a subject on which I will report to the March European Council.”
It goes on to say:
“We must demonstrate that the euro is more than a currency: an irreversible project, a common destiny.”
That underlines the concerns that many of us have had for some time that the leaders of the European Council and leaders in Europe have been blinded by the political objectives behind the euro to whether it is truly sustainable for those countries.
Hon. Members have already remarked that trade is an important part of our membership of the European Union and that half of our trade is with the EU. That is true, but UK trade figures for the past 10 years show that the growth comes from trade not with the member states of the European Union but with the emerging consumer markets around the world, in Brazil, Russia, China and India. That is common in countries such as Germany, too, because as the world economy grows and there are more consumers, we need to be in the market competing for their goods and services.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that important contribution. It follows my point that the future of our trade and growth will increasingly lie beyond the borders of the EU and not solely within it. That should not make us any less European; we must simply recognise that the world economy is growing, that it is growing outside the EU and that those economies are increasingly competitive. They have more consumers with more money in their pockets and more demand for the products we can sell. Our challenge, and that for Europe, is to make ourselves open to those markets. Rather than having European rules and regulations, particularly on social and environmental law, that seek to add costs and make us less competitive, we should review them and consider whether they are truly fit for the modern world in which we live. That would give us the chance to compete in this more competitive and growing global economy.
That is the crisis that Europe faces as it reaches its crossroads. Its rules and regulations have created a union that is less competitive than it should be and more weighed down with debt. Currency union has not supported the weaker countries but has emboldened and added weight to the strength of those already strong economies, such as Germany. Those fundamental issues must be addressed as Europe faces its crisis. I believe that they are the issues that the Council must tackle. It will require a more flexible and open Europe in which, I believe, the UK can act as a fellow traveller, setting the course of direction. We must be very clear that if Europe will not move and will not change, we cannot afford to be held back by it.
It is a pleasure to follow the speech of Damian Collins, which was measured and considered. He will forgive me if I do not embrace his term “fellow traveller” as Britain’s destiny in the coming years, as those of us who know our history do not really like that language.
I was rather worried when the hon. Gentleman said that “the markets will make that decision for them”, “them” being the people. I rather hope that at some stage we might have some recognition from the Conservative party that markets should be the servants of the people, not their masters.
The point I was making was that the markets will make the decision for the European Council members and for the Governments and that if they do not act, they will be forced out.
I am very happy to hear the hon. Gentleman gloss over his speech, but that is the point I was making.
I am all for exporting to the BRICs, but their growth rates are slowing. India is talking about a return to “Hindu economic growth” and China might go as low as 8% or 7%, which is a real worry for the Chinese authorities. The same is the case in Brazil—[ Interruption. ] Hon. Members say that that is not bad and, of course, I would love a 7% growth rate for my own country, and I shall come to that. However, rapidly developing countries throughout history have had very high growth rates when peasants and others move from the fields and core industries are developed, but the plain fact is that we export more to Ireland than to all the BRICs combined. Belgium exports more to India than we do. The absurd notion that Brazil, India or Russia, run by kleptocrats, are an alternative to the mature, balanced, middle-class consumer economies of the European Union is not right.
Does not the hon. Gentleman understand that the markets that feed and clothe him are the people? The markets we are talking about today are his pension savings, his other savings and those of millions of other people who are trying to protect themselves from the euro disaster.
I do not really want to get into a debate about the markets as I am also pro-market, but the markets are also Mr Hester, the hedge fund billionaires and the donors to the Conservative party who make a fortune out of speculation and who have so increased inequalities in the past 30 years that we now have a generalised social crisis that might cause severe dislocation.
I do not share the cataclysmic views that some have about what the Prime Minister did on
It also worries me to hear reports that one of the new intake on the Government Benches, whom I shall not name, said in a conference over the weekend that it would have been impossible to have been selected as a Conservative candidate in recent years—or, indeed, to be a Conservative MP—without showing the most strident Euroscepticism. [ Interruption. ] Well, if there is an exception that proves the rule and if the hon. Member for South
Swindon (Mr Buckland) is about to make a pro-European speech I shall welcome that. None the less, that is the impression in this country.
I have given way to two Europhobes, and I think three would be too many. It is a real worry when one party, the governing party of our country, is so monolithic—without internal debate, internal division or much internal discussion. [ Interruption. ] I look forward to hearing the speech of Mr Gray when he makes it.
Then we have the fundamental problem that this Government and the ruling elites of the European Union are at one. Mr Sarkozy, Mrs Merkel, Mr Van Rompuy, Mr Barroso, Mr Rajoy, Mr Berlusconi and Mr Monti are all applying the 1930s austerity recession approach of making the poor pay and protecting the rich, which is the official policy of Her Majesty’s Government. I do not understand why there is any debate or division at all because for the first time those the other major European Union capitals and the Brussels institutions are on the same wavelength as Her Majesty’s Government. That is why there has to be some policy for growth, as people are pointing out again and again. Mrs Lagarde and Mr Soros have pointed that out and Mr Obama is seeking to achieve it.
Government Members are correct to suggest that not only the European project but the entire western, democratic, liberal, rule-of-law, market economy project is under threat because of a generalised crisis based on inequality and the giving of too much power to money and too little power to people. The answer to that must be forms of solidarity. In 1942, at the height of the war, before we had won El Alamein or turned any corner, Winston Churchill sent a Cabinet memorandum to his colleagues saying, “Hard as it may be to say at this time, I think we should start considering the possibility of a council of Europe for after the war. We need to move towards a united states of Europe where all may travel and trade freely. I think we should conduct studies about how to have economic unity.” How extraordinary that at the height of the war—that was not the Zurich speech—Winston Churchill had that vision for what we have half-achieved, perhaps, in my lifetime and certainly in recent years.
That is also why Mrs Thatcher, our then Prime Minister, after pushing through the Single European Act—the biggest transfer of sovereignty ever in British history—supported the arrival of Jacques Delors as President of the Commission. In 1984, our contribution to the EC budget was £656 million, but by 1990 she had increased it to £2.54 billion, quadrupling Britain’s solidarity budget to the then European Community. When tasked about that in the House of Commons, she said that of course we should help our poor friends in Portugal and Greece and also implicitly in Ireland and Spain. She was absolutely right. That is why we set up the International Monetary Fund after the war—precisely to deal with imbalances, crises, sudden recessions and, yes, Government incompetences that produce the kind of problems that Greece and some other countries are facing. It is quite preposterous to say that Britain will renege on its obligations to the IMF. I was happy to vote with the Government on this in the last Division and I certainly hope that Opposition Front Benchers are not going to play the Eurosceptic card on the IMF question if the matter comes back to the House.
Finally, what do we have today? We have the surreal sight of a British Prime Minister in Davos not enjoying himself on the slopes but lecturing other European leaders on what they should do. What example is he citing—£1 trillion-worth of debt, recession economics, mounting unemployment or mounting poverty? There are mounting concerns all over the world, as the Chinese told the Chancellor of the Exchequer when he was in Beijing recently, about whether Britain is serious about marginalising itself in Europe and not helping to support Europeans with problems through the IMF. If it is, China cannot be interested in Britain because it is not interested in an isolated, protectionist Britain.
We are taking huge risks with our economy and our nation by promoting these new, protectionist, isolationist politics. It is bad enough that we have to live with 1930s, Treasury-driven economics, but it will be a disaster if Britain continues to have the reputation it has sadly earned internationally as a country that wants to turn its back on Europe and that seriously believes its future could lie only in competing with Belgium for exports to India. This is a turning point for our nation. We either break out of this isolationist, protectionist logjam and work in solidarity with the countries of Europe that are growing and creating jobs and that have much better public finances than we have, or we pretend, in our own little sinking ship, that everything is for the best and this is the best of all possible worlds.
Order. We are in a very serious position with a lot of Members wishing to speak. I am going to have reduce the time limit to five minutes, and even with that limit not all Members will get in if people intervene.
First, I congratulate the Backbench Business Committee on selecting this topic for debate, although on this occasion I agree with Mr Cash that it might have been better to debate this issue in Government time as it is critical for this country.
While I am on the theme of congratulations, let me congratulate Sharon Bowles, MEP, on her recent re-election as chair of the economic and monetary affairs committee of the European Parliament. She was once voted one of the top 10 economic regulators in the world and she has presided over innovations such as the attempt to introduce regulation on bankers’ bonuses that would prevent someone like Fred the Shred from ever again walking away with a huge bonus from a failing bank. For that alone she deserves congratulation and I am pleased to see her retaining her place as one of the most influential Liberal Democrats in Europe.
I repeat my earlier congratulations to the Deputy Prime Minister on convening the European Liberal leaders forum on issues relating specifically to this debate in London on
It is good to see Britain at the table for the summit. Clearly, there is the main summit, which is supposed to be focusing on prosperity and growth, but there is also the rather important sideshow of the 26 making further progress towards the fiscal compact, which is critical for Britain, and I am very pleased that the Government have made sure that Britain is an active participant in the process, albeit with observer status. I know that Ministers have been active behind the scenes getting Britain involved in the process and making sure, for instance, that the fiscal compact treaty does not spill over into areas outside its proper remit, such as the construction of the single market. As Liberal Democrats have pointed out, that is one of the risks of our relatively isolated situation in Europe.
I shall not be drawn into that. Critically, it is for the eurozone countries to address the crisis in the eurozone. The right hon. Gentleman highlights the important point that just by drawing up a treaty the eurozone countries do not solve some of the rather fundamental problems in the eurozone. In fact, the situation in Greece is becoming increasingly serious and it needs to be urgently addressed—that is even more the case now than in recent months.
The importance of the main business of the summit must not be neglected. Britain’s re-engagement in European affairs is critical and it must be pushed forward. There have already been some successes. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills helped to create the like-minded growth group, which has pushed forward ideas such as lifting onerous accounting rules from the smallest businesses in this country. I think the group has helped to create a shift in Commission attitudes on the smallest businesses to the point where it has committed to review all existing EU legislation to look for other opportunities to lift onerous regulation from such businesses and to screen new legislation to see whether, wherever possible, the smallest businesses can be excluded. That is exactly the kind of agenda we should be pushing in Europe.
I want to make an intervention that the hon. Gentleman and I can both agree with. Does he agree with the point I have been making consistently at business questions that this debate is so important that in future we should have it in Government time, for a whole afternoon, with the Foreign Secretary or the Prime Minister here so that we can ask them detailed questions?
I think that is right, although the point I am making is that the jobs and prosperity agenda should be the focus of such debates. If possible, we should get away from the obsession with structures and treaties. The British Government should be pushing the jobs and prosperity agenda at the summit. I have suggested some areas for deregulation and the European Liberal leaders forum drew up a long list of legislation that should be reviewed for possible reform. It included the working time regulations, the temporary agency workers directive, the control of vibration at work regulations, fixed-term employees regulations, part-time workers regulations, control of noise at work regulations, road transport working time regulations and the transnational information and consultation of employees regulations.
I am not at all in favour of scrapping health and safety regulations or those designed to protect workers. They are extremely important. The point is not even necessarily to weaken health and safety and workers regulations in Europe, but to see whether they can be made more flexible and be applied more flexibly domestically. That is another area where the British agenda should be pushed.
There are signs that European Governments are increasingly seeing things our way; it is not just the 15 members of the like-minded growth group. Italy has traditionally been more renowned for a protectionist stance in Europe and has at times had a less than impressive record on implementing single market legislation, but it is now actively implementing measures to liberalise great swathes of its economy and is actively pushing a single market agenda in Brussels that is directly comparable to ours. Spain, under the new Government led by Señor Rajoy, is also moving to undertake major structural reforms domestically and is shifting its position in Europe accordingly. Ministers must build on such possible alliances, which seem to be growing stronger all the time.
There are other things that I probably do not have time to cover in great detail. In terms of promoting jobs and prosperity, it is important to push for the completion of the single market, particularly in the digital and services sectors. External trade is equally important. This morning, I was in a Committee that voted on a new framework agreement that included free trade with South Korea. It could soon be extended to Ukraine and possibly a range of other countries. That is the kind of thing that will drive jobs and prosperity in Europe, not an overly obsessive attitude to EU treaties and institutions.
Thank you very much, Mr Deputy Speaker. I thought you were about to call somebody more senior.
I agree with the hon. Members who said it is a shame that the debate has had to rely on the kindness of the Backbench Business Committee. When I was Minister for Europe it was an important part of our mandate that before we went to a European Council we had to turn up in the House, in Government time, to answer a debate, even if it meant inconvenience for Ministers. It is a terrible shame that the Foreign Secretary is not here. I respect enormously the Under-Secretary of State for
Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Alistair Burt, and I saw him assert that he is pro-European, which is great, but it is wrong that the Foreign Secretary is not with us.
I want to raise two issues that are not on the Council agenda but should be. The first is Cyprus. For far too long, the European Union has had within it a divided country, with a divided capital city. It affects many people in the UK; there are strong Cypriot communities in Cardiff and elsewhere in the country. The real problems faced by the Cypriot economy could be resolved easily if one were to overcome the political problems, because Turkey is the fastest growing economy on the borders of Europe. I hope that the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister will make it clear that we want progress in Cyprus, and this is no bad time for it, when Greece is trying to resolve some of its own economic problems.
The other foreign policy issue that should be on the agenda is Russia. The elections just before Christmas were a complete and utter farce. In a vast majority of areas, they were corrupt, as every organisation sent to monitor the elections made clear. Absolutely nothing has been done. There have been many warm words from Mr Putin and Mr Medvedev, yet there has been no action. We still have no resolution of the cases of Mr Khodorkovsky and Mr Platon Lebedev, both of whom are purely prisoners of conscience, and not tax evaders. There is also the case of Sergei Magnitsky who worked for a British company.
The British Government should make it absolutely clear that Europe will manage to improve its business with Russia only when corruption is rooted out in Russia. That will not happen if country after country tries to make its own sordid little deals; it will only happen if the whole of the European Union acts in concert and in union to make it clear that Russia has to clean up its act.
I believe in more Europe rather than less Europe. I say that unambiguously. I said to Damian Collins that enforced audit would have meant that we did not get into the hole we are in, and there are other areas. The United Kingdom was wrong when we decided to go our own way, with Ireland, saying that there were to be no transitional arrangements with regard to people from the new member states working in the UK. One of the reasons why so many people came here was that every other country in the EU was going down a different route. It would have made far more sense if there had been a single European decision on that policy area.
At a conference last week, the German film-maker, Volker Schlöndorff said how much he wished that 1 million-plus Poles had gone to Germany and learned German and then gone home imbued with German ideas, language and contacts to build a closer relationship between Poland and Germany. We have made 1 million-plus Polish friends because of our policy; it has been good for Poland and good for us.
I hope we have made a lot of Polish friends. When I was a curate in High Wycombe, we had a long-standing Polish community there, many of whom fled German ideas about Polish people from the 1930s and 1940s. But I still think it would have been better for us if there had been a whole-European decision. We underestimated the number of Polish people who would come to the United Kingdom and that was a mistake for our economy.
Anyone from Brazil, China, Russia or India—or, for that matter, Mexico or Turkey—would say that they are all interested in trying to do business with one set of rules in Europe, not 27, on the size of plugs, on electricity, and on many other elements. I believe it is in our interests that we should strive ever more for the extension of the single market, so that we can do better out of the growing economies of the world; otherwise, our future will be on the sidelines, not at the heart, of the world’s history.
I have anxieties about the Government’s attitude on these issues. I know the Prime Minister tries to show a little bit of leg to Conservative Back Benchers and then to his European allies. There is a little bit of leg being shown here, there and everywhere. But the truth is that we need British businesses to be far more courageous about doing business in Europe; they should not just sally forth and speak louder—shout in more grammatically incorrect English than they would to their children—in the belief that they will get a contract. We must have more ambition when it comes to Europe.
I would say to those who said earlier that they praised the Prime Minister before Christmas that—leaving aside my opinion that it is giving the Prime Minister that dangerous element of messianism, which is always worrying for a Prime Minister—the child who has stormed off to his bedroom is rarely the person in the family who wins the argument.
I rise to support the Prime Minister. I think he had no alternative but to say no to a very unsatisfactory deal and to a totally inappropriate proposed measure at that Council. Nor do I think he has lost Britain influence by doing it; I think he has won Britain influence by doing it. We learned subsequently that several non-euro member states could not go along with the draft any more than the United Kingdom could. We also learned subsequently that France, Germany and others are now beating a path to the United Kingdom Foreign Office door, trying to get us back on board, trying to woo us because we had the courage to say no.
We meet today because we wish to influence our Government in what they are doing at yet another important European summit. The European Central Bank has bought the Europeans a little time by printing and lending unprecedented sums of money to a very weak European banking system, but those meeting would be wise to understand that that has only bought a little time; it has not solved the underlying problem. Indeed, there are two underlying problems. There is the inability of the southern countries to compete with Germany at the fixed exchange rate within the euro, making them poor and giving them large balance of payments deficits which they have trouble financing; and there is the big problem of the southern states’ debt getting ever bigger. Because their economies are malfunctioning, because so many people are out of work and because they cannot price themselves back into jobs, their debts and deficits go on soaring, and now in three cases member states of the euro area cannot finance those deficits in the normal way and have to be on life support from the EU and the IMF.
“Let me be clear. To those who think that not signing the treaty means Britain is somehow walking away from Europe let me tell you, nothing could be further from the truth”?
Of course the Prime Minister is right that we are in the European Union and all the time we remain in it we have to use our membership as best we can to protect the interests of the British people.
The main purpose of the summit must be to try to deliver greater prosperity and some growth and some hope to the peoples of Europe, because their hope has been depressed and their prosperity is being destroyed by a system that cannot conceivably work. The euro area is now locked into a system of mutually assured deflation, a mad policy, and the more those countries’ economies decline, the more the deficits go up, the more they have to cut. They cannot get themselves out by monetary means, in the way that the United Kingdom and the United States can, by creating more money in their system, and they cannot get out by having a competitive exchange rate.
Because, as I just explained, it is totally different if a country has its own currency and can use monetary mechanisms to try and grow its way out of the problems, and can establish an exchange rate that allows it to export its way out of the problems, which is exactly what these countries have to do, and are unable to do because they are locked in.
I have no more injury time available, so I need to develop my argument rapidly.
If those countries are to have some hope of prosperity, they need to solve the two underlying problems. It is obvious to most external observers that the way to solve the problem of competitiveness quickly is to devalue. Normally, an IMF programme for a country in trouble not only asks it to cut its budget deficit and reduce its excess public spending, but suggests that it devalue its currency and move to a looser monetary policy domestically, so that there can be private sector-led growth, export-led growth—the kind of thing it needs to get out of its disastrous position. That is exactly what those countries are unable to do. That is why the IMF should not lend a country like Greece a single euro or a single dollar. Greece is to the euro area as California is to the dollar area: it is not an independent sovereign state, and it cannot do two of the three things that a country needs to do to get back into growth and prosperity, because it cannot devalue and it cannot create enough credit and money within its own system.
We need to give honest advice to our partners and colleagues in the eurozone, around the European conference table—in private, not in public—that the only way forward, the only way to resolve the crisis for those countries that can no longer borrow in the marketplace at sensible rates of interest, is to have an orderly way of letting them out as quickly as possible, so that they can re-establish their own currency, their own looser and appropriate monetary policy and their own banking policy, and offer some hope to their subject peoples.
I am very worried that this is not only an economic crisis, this is not only a banking crisis, this is not only a currency crisis, but it is also now a crisis of democracy. The challenge, in countries such as Greece and Spain, is how the Governments manage to get buy-in to the policy of deflation, and cuts with everything, that is the only offering from the euro scheme and the euro system. We see in some of these countries now that the electorates do not choose the Government; the European Union’s senior players choose the Government. We see in some of these countries that the electorate change the Government but they do not change the policy. The new Government have to pledge to follow exactly the same policy, which does not work, in order to get elected and to be acceptable to the European Union, in order to carry on drawing down the subsidies and loans from within the European Union that have to be on offer to try to make the system operate to some extent.
I hope that the British Government will adopt the following position. I hope that they will say in public, whenever asked about the euro, that the British Government have no intention of providing any running commentary on the euro whatever, and have no intention of saying anything that makes the position of the euro worse, but will always give good, strong, independent advice in private. That should be the public position. It is too dangerous to say things. Most of the things that politicians say about bond markets and currency crises make the position worse, so the United Kingdom would be well advised to have a simple formula, which all Ministers use, that we are providing no commentary on the euro and we wish the euro members well in sorting it all out.
In private, we are important allies and partners of the euro area and the British Government need to give honest advice to try to get our continent out of this mess. I do not believe there is a single fix that can solve that problem for all the countries currently in the euro. Many of them went into the euro with inflation rates that were too high, with state deficits and debts that were too high, and with currencies that were not in line with the German currency. It was a huge error. The founders of the euro knew that there had to be very strict requirements; they broke them from day one.
It will not solve the problem to sign up to some new constitutional pact that says that a country down on its luck, unable to borrow money, running out of cash, will be fined. Who will pay the fine? The answer is that the fine would have to be lent to the country in trouble by the very people who are fining it. It is so preposterous that I find it very difficult to believe that serious people can sit round a table, negotiating such an instrument.
They should cast aside the draft instrument. It is irrelevant; it cannot work. They should sit down in private and work out how to get non-competitive countries out of this mess before even more damage is done to their economies and their democracies.
It is always a pleasure to follow Mr Redwood who, in his 25 years in this House, has always been strong and consistent in his criticisms of the European Union.
I add my voice to all those who have spoken in favour of there always being a senior Minister at the Dispatch Box to introduce a debate such as this. When the right hon. Gentleman was a Secretary of State, the Minister for Europe in that Government wound up the debate, which would have been started by the Foreign Secretary, and when I and then my hon. Friend Chris Bryant served as Minister for Europe, this debate was considered an important opportunity—perhaps the only opportunity—for Back Benchers to influence the Government as the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister for Europe went to European summits. I therefore hope the first message the Government will take from the debate is the unity of opinion in the House—I have not heard a single opposing voice—that this should be a debate in Government time, with Members not limited to five minutes in which to state their views.
My second point is to ask the Minister to tell us when he winds up what has happened to the Lisbon strategy. It was agreed at the Lisbon summit in 2000 as part of the Lisbon agenda, developed over 10 years and adopted very recently with a set of five headline benchmarks. Does that strategy still exist, given the eurozone crisis? Are the Government still committed to delivering in those five areas—employment, investment in research and development, education, poverty and greenhouse gas emissions—which were set at the first ever summit to benchmark EU economic policy? Are we on track to do so? I get the feeling from discussions that I have had and from the responses to questions I put to Ministers, including the Prime Minister when he returned from the last summit, that although there is an intention to support the Lisbon strategy, it is certainly not high up on the Government’s agenda. I think that, given that this informal meeting is about growth and jobs, it is extremely important that we have benchmarks for the EU.
My third point is about EU enlargement, of which I am a great supporter. It has been of great benefit not only to the eastern European countries that have joined but to our country in particular. Croatia is due to join in July 2013. The EU has given Croatia €150 million to support its entry, and it will give another €150 million this year and €95 million next year. Will the Minister tell us whether that is the final figure; whether there will be any increase or, because of the euro crisis, any decrease in the amount we give Croatia; and whether that will continue after Croatia joins the EU?
This is a very short debate and we have to make very short speeches, but if those three points can be conveyed to the Prime Minister when he attends the summit and if the Minister can indicate the Government’s position when he winds up, I am happy to conclude my remarks now.
This debate is being conducted between some right hon. and hon. Members with an extraordinary air of complacency and myopia. The European Union is on the edge of the most appalling crisis—a self-inflicted crisis that many of us predicted when the euro was first conceived in the early 1990s and is now being fuelled by blindness and denial. The fundamental problem is that the euro cannot work—it cannot succeed. There are fundamental structural flaws that are destined to cause the euro eventually to fly apart into separate currencies. I do not want the euro to fail, but the fact remains that the crisis will go on and on until it does fail, so we should start to ask ourselves whether it is, in fact, in our interests that it be resolved quickly and in an orderly fashion, instead of waiting for the markets to do their work.
The fundamental structural problem is that the different national components of the euro represent very different economies, with different surpluses and deficits. The 2010 figures for trade in goods in the eurozone, provided by the Library, show that Germany has a surplus in exports to the other eurostates of €43.4 billion. Other countries have very large deficits: France’s is 4%, Greece’s 6% and Portugal’s 9%. Unless there is a system of fiscal transfers permanently operating to compensate for those surpluses and deficits, the European economies will become ever more out of balance. The debt problem has been greatly exacerbated by artificially low interest rates in countries that were used to much higher interest rates and therefore borrowed vast sums.
Is it in our interests that the other countries succeed in creating fiscal and monetary union? We will be excluded from a massive monetary union, which historically—for centuries—we have tried to avoid. Or is it in our interests that the euro gradually breaks up in a reasonably orderly way?
I do not subscribe to the view that British foreign policy should be constantly to try to divide and rule on the continent. Actually, I think it would be in our interests if the euro succeeded with a democratic settlement in the European Union, but for the euro to succeed with 17 nations the institutions would be required to take on much more power, to accumulate much more taxation and to distribute money much more than they do now, and I put it to the House that because there is a democratic deficit in the EU, which everyone acknowledges, the institutions lack the legitimacy and the authority to be able to impose their will across the democratic nations of the EU. There is a fundamental lack of consent to what would be required to impose the necessary discipline.
The problem with the fiscal union treaty is that it is a case of Germany trying to write German rules for the whole eurozone. That will not work—it cannot be sustained—and the result will be the break-up of the euro, so we had better start planning for that eventuality now. There are three things we should do, the first of which is to have a plan and not pretend that a break-up will not happen. I accept the suggestion made by my right hon. Friend Mr Redwood that the plan should be made in secret, but there should be a plan and the IMF should be its guardian. Secondly, the plan should be clear on what liabilities will be denominated in what currencies as each country comes out of the euro—easy for sovereign debt and very complicated for commercial paper, but it has to be done. Thirdly, the G20 must be ready to provide the liquidity needed to deal with the defaults that will occur as each country comes out of the euro—massive defaults that will require massive central Government printing of money to recapitalise the European banking system.
That can be done and it has to be done. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was absolutely right to veto the treaty on
The debate comes at a crucial time for the eurozone and the wider European Union. Last month’s European Council could and should have taken the vital decisions needed to stabilise the eurozone and boost growth and jobs in the EU, but it failed to do so. Monday’s European Council is a vital chance to make up for previous lost opportunities, but I fear that the Prime Minister’s diminished position in Europe has jeopardised the Government’s ability to achieve and influence that. His walk-out at the previous European Council was a spectacular failure to engage with our European partners. We have a world-class diplomatic service, but the Prime Minister refused to use the talent, professionalism and experience of the Foreign Office and opted instead to let the Treasury run our foreign policy. He decided that keeping his Back Benchers happy was more important than helping our main export market resolve the eurozone crisis. He in fact followed the advice of the Foreign Secretary who, according to various reports, before the last European Council told him:
“If it is a choice between keeping the euro together or keeping the Conservative party together, it is in the national interest to keep the Conservative party together.”
That is the only thing that the Prime Minister did achieve, because he did not stop anything happening. His diplomatic defeatism was accurately summed up by the Deputy Prime Minister earlier this month, when he said:
“The language gets confusing. Veto suggests something was stopped. It was not stopped.”
I could not agree more.
The hon. Lady makes some of the points that I made several months ago and that other hon. Members sympathetic to the pro-European cause made at the time of the summit. Surely we have now moved on. The Prime Minister, in his remarks today at Davos, quite clearly stated;
“It fundamentally reflects our national interest to be part of the single market on our doorstep and we have intention of walking away. So let me be clear: we want Europe to be a success.”
The process of re-engagement is under way.
The process of re-engagement might be under way, but the Prime Minister’s decision to walk out of a summit that did not have a text to it has undermined our influence in the EU. His spectacular mishandling bought him short-term political respite from the pressure of his Back Benchers, but they will always want more, and we heard that in today’s debate.
May I pray in aid the Deputy Prime Minister, who said that the Conservative party in the European Parliament is now allied with “nutters, anti-Semites and homophobes”? The right hon. Gentleman has not resiled from that. That is walking away from Europe. As long as the Conservative party is in alliance with those weirdos, it loses a good part of the political traction that it should have in Europe.
My right hon. Friend makes a valid point. If the Prime Minister had not pulled his MEPs from the mainstream centre right in the European Parliament when he was Leader of the Opposition, he would have found that he had much more influence before the summit, because he would have been in Marseille for the European People’s party meeting in preparation for the European Council summit.
It is of real concern to the Opposition that by isolating the UK the Government have lost influence with our European partners and could lose influence over the single market. Deeper fiscal integration by the eurozone countries does not necessarily lead to the development of separate trade policies or separate decisions on the single market, but that could come about if the UK continues to lose influence.
I understand that the Polish Government are now seeking to secure a seat at the frequent eurozone summits—a logical negotiating position. If they are successful, they would then have a voice, even if they did not have vote, at eurozone summits. As it stands, our Government will be barred from such meetings, leaving the UK without a vote and without a voice, unable to guard against eurozone Heads of State and Government straying into areas of decision making that are relevant to the EU of 27.
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Opposition voted against the IMF contribution last time. I think that he might have been in the Lobby with us. We think that the European central bank should be the lender of last resort and that IMF money should concentrate on countries with severe economic problems outside the eurozone.
The Prime Minister’s walk-out also resulted in risks to foreign direct investment. Businesses investing from the US and Asia have chosen the UK for their operations because it gives them access to European markets. But if the UK’s position in the single market were in doubt, foreign direct investment would also be under threat. Moreover, as the Deputy Prime Minister rightly said on the Sunday after the December Council, if the UK stands tall in Brussels, we stand tall in Washington. It is also true that if we stand tall in Brussels, we also stand tall in Beijing and the other major emerging economies. With economic power moving south and east, to countries the size of continents, it is nostalgic longing for the empire to think that the UK can go it alone. It was the Minister for Europe, in a recent Opposition day debate, who said that
“without the size of the EU behind us, the United Kingdom on its own is unlikely to be able to secure the same deep and ambitious free trade deals with other regions or trading countries around the world.”—[Hansard, 13 December 2011; Vol. 537, c. 724.]
I will in a minute.
The task of Monday’s European Council is both urgent and long term—urgent in that it must address the lack of confidence in European markets, but alongside that the EU must enhance the resilience and capacity of the single market to get back to a sustainable footing in the long term.
We welcome the intention to focus on jobs and growth on Monday, as well as agreeing a fiscal compact. We would prefer the Government, rather than merely commentating on the outcome of the European Council, to be setting the agenda. We hope that their failure in diplomacy will not involve a failure of policy and economics. After all, in the coalition agreement, the Tories and the Liberal Democrats stated that Britain should play a leading role in the EU. The Prime Minister clearly did not have that in mind in December.
When the Minister replies, will he clarify one issue? The Deputy Prime Minister has been organising his own meetings, and in some cases he seems to be running his own parallel foreign policy. While it is right for the Government to be building bridges, it is disappointing that the Deputy Prime Minister has thus far chosen not to report the outcome of the meetings to Parliament. Would the Minister therefore confirm whether the Deputy Prime Minister was speaking for the Government when, at the recent European Liberal forum, he said:
“We believe— the treaty—
“should, over time, be folded into the existing EU treaties so you don’t get a permanent two parallel treaties working separately from each other.”?
At next Monday’s European Council, the British Government at least have observer status, but that is thanks to Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Monti, who want the UK back in the room. They see the UK as a leading member state, advocating an extension of the internal market. It is testament to past British diplomacy and previous Governments that many other member states share the view that, with Britain isolated and excluded from these talks, the push for further liberalisation and reform becomes harder.
The hon. Gentleman is frustrated, but he will understand that because interventions eat into my time I will continue.
Britain’s standing in the world—economically and politically—must be reinforced and strengthened, not weakened. The resolution of the eurozone crisis is manifestly in our national interest. It is also in the national interest for the UK to be at the heart of the EU, a large member state with an open economy, arguing for and securing an extension of the single market, arguing for and securing reform of the EU. The UK now needs to regain that position and start rebuilding bridges.
On Monday the Prime Minister should seek to undo the damage caused by what he did in December, diminishing our standing in Europe and the world. It might not please his Back Benchers, but it would be of benefit to businesses, jobs and employees throughout the country. The Prime Minister must start to put the national interest before his party’s interest.
I thank Emma Reynolds for her remarks and all colleagues for taking part in this important debate. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for finding the time for this debate on next Monday’s informal Council. We know that there are many calls on the time it has available to allocate, but as it now holds the time previously assigned for European affairs debates, I am pleased that it found time for this debate.
It is fantastic that my hon. Friend is here and we greatly respect him, but will he take back to the Foreign Secretary the clearly expressed wish of Members on both sides of the House that we should have a full afternoon of debate in which he is present before any future European summits?
I thank my hon. Friend for his generous remarks. As he knows, occasionally colleagues cannot be where they would like to be because of other business, but I have heard what colleagues have said. My hon. Friend Mr Leigh expresses an interest in how the House scrutinises European business, and I will certainly take back to the Minister for Europe and the Foreign Secretary what colleagues have said. I would like to underline the effort and valuable work of my hon. Friend Mr Cash and the European Scrutiny Committee.
No, because I might take another intervention on something else. Time is limited and I cannot do justice to everyone.
On Tuesday the International Monetary Fund published its world economic outlook. It revised down its global growth forecasts, mainly because of developments in the eurozone. It now expects the eurozone to enter a recession in 2012, with GDP falling by 0.5%. Those of us outside the eurozone are not immune from that. The ongoing sovereign debt crisis is having a chilling effect on our economy, too. Like my hon. Friend Mr Jenkin, I do not want to see the euro fail.
The eurozone needs to find a credible and sustainable solution to the debt crisis. Beyond that, there is a challenge for all 27 EU member states to release the brakes on growth to generate wealth, jobs and enterprise, and that was very much the focus of the speech made by my hon. Friend Damian Collins.
On the point of improved opportunities for the single market, will my hon. Friend ensure that the Government take a clear message to the Council that work on improved tariff reform between the UK and Japan is vital for the British motor industry, particularly Honda in Swindon, which is a Japanese company based in the UK?
I can make no stronger a case for Honda in Swindon than my hon. Friend has made. He is absolutely right to focus on competitiveness, growth and the agenda that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will take forward there. I appreciate his comments. This informal European Council will rightly focus on growth and competitiveness, and it is vital that it makes progress ahead of the March European Council, which will also focus on growth.
The UK has played, and will continue to play, a strong and positive role in the EU as we and our European partners face the most pressing task of tackling our shared economic challenges. We are leading the arguments for growth and others continue to look to us for leadership. We have spearheaded the work of 16 member states, some inside the eurozone and some outside, in pressing for reforms to support growth. Together we have over the past year secured positive conclusions from European Councils that reflect our priorities. Action is now being taken, as shown by the Commission agreeing to exempt micro-businesses from EU regulation unless a clear case can be made for their inclusion.
Our diplomatic efforts to build alliances for growth continue in the European Council. The UK has agreed growth priorities for the informal Council with the Netherlands, Sweden, Finland, Ireland and Estonia, which will cover: completing the single market; reducing the regulatory burden; what member states should do to improve labour markets; and reaffirming the importance of the external dimension of the single market.
My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister also spoke to the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, at the weekend to discuss our shared priorities. They agreed that the steps we should take to strengthen growth and fight unemployment, particularly youth unemployment, in Europe will form the focus of the informal Council on Monday. A number of right hon. and hon. Members spoke about our engagement with Europe. The Prime Minister was very clear today when talking about engagement, as my hon. Friend Martin Horwood made clear. In response to the question Keith Vaz asked on Lisbon, I can tell him that the Prime Minister today said in Davos:
“For all the talk, the Lisbon Strategy has failed to deliver the structural reforms we need.”
It has largely been replaced by Europe 2020, which includes the sorts of benchmark the right hon. Gentleman referred to. The fact remains that we need to be bolder in the structural reforms we pursue to promote growth. The Prime Minister also said:
“Britain has been arguing for a pro-business agenda in Europe… Over the last year we have spearheaded work with 15 other member states across the EU... This weekend Chancellor Merkel joined me in calling for a package of deregulation and liberalisation policies… But we need to be bolder still. Here’s the checklist: all proposed EU measures tested for their impact on growth; a target to reduce the overall burden of EU regulation; and a new proportionality test to prevent needless barriers to trade in services and slash the number of regulated professions in Europe. Together with our international partners, we also need to take decisive action to get trade moving.”
That is what the EU needs, and that is what the informal Council will concentrate on.
I have only three minutes remaining, but I will take one further intervention, because my hon. Friend deserves it; we have discussed these matters on many occasions.
Alas, I have not had the opportunity to test that quote with my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, but I will do so as soon as I have the opportunity.
A number of Members, including the hon. Members for Ilford South (Mike Gapes), for Rhondda (Chris Bryant) and for Wolverhampton North East (Emma Reynolds) and Mr MacShane, spoke about engagement in Europe. We are engaged. As my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham said, the Deputy Prime Minister hosted a meeting of various liberal European Prime Ministers, Commissioners, Deputy Prime Ministers and Foreign Ministers on
As for lack of engagement and isolation, I am astonished that the presumption of the hon. Member for Wolverhampton North East in bringing to the House a challenge to the Government when the Opposition’s position is distinctly unclear. We will continue to work hard with our many allies in Europe to advance our interests. It is not isolation; it is defending the national interest. We differ from others in that we are not in the euro and do not want to join. We will not proceed with plans for fiscal consolidation if we feel that we are not protected. We will continue to work hard to advance our interests. One thing that would have made Britain weaker was coming home with a treaty change and no safeguards.
If the Opposition want to criticise the Government’s policy, they need to say what they would have done in office, but last month in the space of 10 days they had three different positions: first they refused to say what they would do, then they said that they would have vetoed the treaty, and then they said they would not have done so. They would have some credibility if they had a policy, and a bit of consistency would help.
This useful debate has concentrated not only on engagement and the like, but on the prospects for next Monday. The UK has an ambitious agenda for growth in Europe, and it is one we share with many like-minded states across Europe. It is also an agenda on which we have made much progress already throughout the last year. We will continue to ensure that we put our national interests first and to have a policy from a united party in relation to the UK interests in Europe. We will continue to look for partners who will share that interest, and at the moment the EU is calling for growth, competitiveness and more jobs.
One and a half hours having elapsed since the commencement of proceedings, the motion lapsed (