European Communities (Amendment) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:30 pm on 20th November 2001.

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Photo of Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean Minister of State (Middle East), Foreign & Commonwealth Office, Minister of State (Trade), Department of Trade and Industry, Minister for Trade and Investment and Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also Department of Trade and Industry), Minister of State (Trade and Investment) Deputy Leader of the House of Lords (also FCO) 7:30 pm, 20th November 2001

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Howell, for the interesting way in which he moved Amendment No. 34 and spoke to Amendment No. 34A in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke. The protocol is important but that is not the only issue. I was seized with a huge sense of relief when the noble Lord remarked that the matters involved were so vast that no one mind could get hold of them.

The noble Lord gave an illuminating description of his visit to Budapest and elsewhere in central and eastern Europe last week and said that he had not been tackled about the Treaty of Nice. His experience cannot be so different from mine. When people are worried about an issue, they tend to raise it. I agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend Lord Radice. I am sure that if people had not wanted the noble Lord to support the treaty, they would have said so. Most of the people to whom the noble Lord spoke probably did want him to support the treaty today. No one is disputing that in a number of European countries there will be some people who disagree with their government. But it is a function of democracy that we deal with the elected governments of the day, and with the view that they put forward on behalf of the people whom they represent.

The noble Lord spoke again about his vision for Europe in the future. He set it out with the same eloquence when we debated the Bill at Second Reading. He steered a course between his European credentials—of which I am sure he is justifiably proud—and the position of his party. However, I felt that in raising the points that he did, he was properly addressing the issues that are to be raised at the IGC in 2004: for example, defining and de-limiting the European Union's competence; simplifying the treaties which the noble Lord, Lord Howell, criticised; making those treaties easier to understand to the ordinary citizens of Europe; improving accountability and transparency; and the role of national parliaments. When the noble Lord spoke about the "enormous complexity", he was quite right. That is why his view has—if I may draw this from his remarks—at least some points of commonality with that of the Prime Minister; namely, that these subjects should rightly be discussed at the next IGC in 2004.

The noble Lord went on to say that the simple mechanical processes are important. Indeed they are—and they are here in the protocol. The protocol sets out the changes to the institutions of the European Union, the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission, which are in the Government's view essential for the European Union to enlarge—I believe the word I used previously to the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, was "successfully". It is an important mechanical key, as the noble Lord, Lord Howell, said, and I use his phraseology. It is not the only key, but it is certainly an important one. First, to mention a relatively minor matter, we need to repeal the protocol on the institutions which was agreed at Amsterdam. It has obviously been overtaken by the Nice treaty.

Amendment No. 34 by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, would strike out only Article 3 of the protocol concerning vote re-weighting. Amendment No. 34A by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke, would strike out the whole protocol. That is the difference between the two amendments. Either way, the Government believe that the Opposition is misguided in tabling these amendments. Perhaps I may attempt to explain why.

First, we are re-weighting the Council votes to give the United Kingdom and other big member states—that is, Germany, France and Italy—more power relative to the small or medium-sized member states. The effect is that the UK's relative voting power—I stress the word "relative" in relation to current members—goes up. Whereas under the present arrangements we have three times the voting power of Denmark, following the agreement at Nice we shall have four times its voting power. That is a fairer distribution in relation to our population size. There could be a blocking minority, consisting of Germany and two of the other three countries—that is, the United Kingdom, Italy and France.

Secondly, agreement was reached at Nice on a new level of seats in the European Parliament following enlargement. Its overall size will increase to 732 in an EU of 27 members. The number of UK MEPs will fall to 72 from the current 87 seats. We discussed this in some detail during the debate at Second Reading.

It is the Government's position that this is a good deal for the United Kingdom. In designing a system for almost double the current number of member states it was inevitable that the United Kingdom would have fewer seats—particularly if the size of the European Parliament was to remain manageable. But the reduction will be gradual.

Thirdly, it was agreed at Nice that, once the EU reaches 27 member states, there will be less than one commissioner per member state, chosen on a basis of equal rotation. Again, that is an important reform, which will help to keep down the size of the Commission—a point with which I am sure many Members of the Committee have a great deal of sympathy—so that is a manageable size after enlargement.

So we have in the protocol the arrangements that will enhance Britain's power in the Council, relative to the small and medium-sized countries; and which will reform the Commission and keep the Parliament to a manageable size, but with significant numbers of MEPs remaining. We believe that the changes are in the interests of the United Kingdom.

I turn briefly to the points made by the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby de Broke. My noble friend Lord Grenfell is right. Reform of the CAP does not require treaty change. The noble Lord may feel that treaty changes are desirable, but they are not mandatory. That was the point that my noble friend was making. We shall negotiate on the CAP, as I have had occasion to state previously, and as the noble Lord noted, the chapters with the applicant countries have not yet been opened, but they will be opened by the beginning of next year. One would, of course, expect all those who are going to negotiate on such issues to adopt a tough negotiating position. I would do so; so would any other sensible negotiator. The point is what is negotiated in the end, not the position that people adopt in prospect.