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European Council, Stockholm

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 3:42 pm on 26th March 2001.

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Photo of Lord Strathclyde Lord Strathclyde Conservative 3:42 pm, 26th March 2001

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement and for returning to the practice of making a Statement on the interim summits of EU leaders. There have been occasions in the past when this Government have not made a Statement to Parliament on interim summits. I greatly welcome her intervention and thank her for giving us the opportunity of a short debate.

Perhaps I may also say at the outset that we welcome the sympathy expressed by EU leaders over foot and mouth disease and the strong and swift action taken by some nations in response to the daily, ever more grave situation now facing our farmers. This is a subject to which I shall return in a few moments.

We note that the Council spent much of its time discussing international matters, including with President Putin. While there is no doubt that that has a useful place in such meetings, does the noble Baroness agree that the first priority at such summits should not be searching for a common EU foreign policy, but searching for greater EU prosperity?

Of course we welcome the clear statement of support for Macedonia and for the integrity of its borders. However, will the noble Baroness accept that the problem of violence against the integrity of Macedonia will not be dealt with by EU statements or missions but by robust action by NATO? Does that not reinforce the importance of no EU initiative on defence either competing with or confusing the central position and purpose of NATO?

Can the noble Baroness tell us whether evidence was presented in Stockholm as to whether any of the terrorists responsible for attacks within Macedonia have originated from Kosovo or have used arms supplied from Kosovo? Did President Putin express any concern on this point? What was our response to him?

Was there any discussion of the future status of Kosovo? What is the Government's policy on the future status of Kosovo? Will our judgment on this be affected in any way by the actions of those seeking to promote a greater Albania in the Balkans?

Is not the illusory nature of a common foreign policy shown up by the recent actions of President Chirac in putting out a red carpet for President Mugabe and by French opposition to continuing sanctions in Iraq? Did the Prime Minister have an opportunity to discuss some of those matters with the French? Did he press EU leaders to support sanctions against Saddam Hussein and end financial and political support for the racist and dictatorial Mugabe regime?

The declared purpose of the summit was to enhance the EU's competitiveness. Does the noble Baroness agree that in this light it was a conspicuous disappointment? Is she aware that we welcome those aspects of the summit's conclusions which genuinely move on the Lisbon agenda, including progress made on financial services liberalisation? While acknowledging the welcome statement by member states that they will push for a single market in financial services by the end of 2003, does the noble Baroness believe that that has any implications for current levels of stamp duty imposed by the Chancellor on sales of equity in the London market?

Noting the lengthy appendix to the conclusions on moves towards what is described as,

"further convergence of supervisory practices and regulatory standards", in EU financial markets, can the noble Baroness tell the House of the UK Government's key objectives in these negotiations?

I see that the summit discussed the so-called demographic challenge of an ageing population. It noted the increasing pressure on pensions. Will the noble Baroness say whether any EU leaders expressed support in these discussions for the British Government's policy of forcing pensioners in retirement to buy annuities or for increasing taxation of pension savings by £5 billion a year in order to reduce incomes in old age? Is not that one example of pious words at the summit being completely undermined by misguided action at home?

Will the noble Baroness acknowledge that the high hopes of many in the Government after Lisbon a year ago have largely been dashed? Does she recall promising the House last March that, and I quote the Prime Minister, there had been a "sea change" in European economic thinking,

"away from heavy-handed intervention and regulation, towards a new approach based on enterprise, innovation and competition"?--[Official Report, Commons, 27/3/00; col. 210.]

Does not such rhetoric make the reality since then all the more disappointing? Why has there been so little progress on the liberalisation of energy markets, an issue of vital importance to British business, with all mention of clear deadlines blocked and removed from the communique?

Is it not worrying but predictable, as President Prodi said, that virtually the only movement made since Lisbon has been on what is called "the social agenda", with many key liberalisation measures still subject to delay?

As regards the proposed EU legislation on the application of VAT to e-commerce, described in paragraph 36 of the conclusions, can the noble Baroness assure the House that all elements of that policy will be subject to a national veto? As regards the broader economic scene, is it not striking that with the Japanese economy stalled and the US economy under serious threat, the euro is still receiving no vote of confidence from the markets?

Finally, does the noble Baroness accept that while the principles set out in the Stockholm communique on foot and mouth are the right ones--solidarity with farmers and others in rural communities and determination to contain and ultimately eradicate foot and mouth disease--the best way to meet those objectives in Britain would be to start to implement those measure for which the Opposition and many others have been calling for some weeks?

I look forward to hearing the noble Baroness's answers and I thank her for the confirmation that there will be a further Statement on foot and mouth disease tomorrow.