My Lords, UK Ministers and officials at all levels remain in close contact with their French counterparts. There are key areas where we are working together and making good progress on a number of dossiers. Where we have differences, such as over the budget, the United Kingdom is committed to working closely with France, as with other member states, to take forward discussion on the issue and on the future direction of Europe, in the course of our presidency.
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Will he agree that, as a result of neither of us particularly wanting to leave the EU at the moment, and also the fact that geographically we cannot go anywhere else, close ties and links are important?
My Lords, we certainly cannot go anywhere else. I do not think that anyone would disagree with the importance of all the links. I hope that I can reassure the House that United Kingdom Ministers and officials remain in close contact with French counterparts.
There were 10 ministerial visits to France last month. The Prime Minister spoke to Dominique de Villepin shortly after the European Council. The Foreign Secretary has recently had discussions with Phillipe Douste-Blazy and the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has just launched the UK presidency in Paris with the French Minister for Europe. The work goes on because it is central to our interests that it should.
My Lords, does the Minister agree that nothing is more likely to be inimical to the British Government's objective of getting a serious course correction in EU policy than the belief that this is a ding-dong between France and the United Kingdom? Therefore, it is important that the dialogue of which he has spoken should involve both sides, France and Britain, listening to each other's fundamental concerns and seeking solutions that address them.
My Lords, I agree entirely. Even in the course of the past week when it was possible for those of us at Gleneagles to have discussions with French officials and politicians we were particularly attentive to listening carefully to what they had to say. They responded with a great deal of courtesy, listening attentively to what we had to say, including of course congratulating us on the Olympics.
My Lords, I am not sure that offering congratulations would be welcomed by all parts of the House with the same enthusiasm. For those reasons I should probably stick to the political questions.
My Lords, further to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, is the Minister convinced that we are expressing our concerns in the European context and to the French officials with clarity? Is there a danger that the pause for reflection for which everyone is calling could turn into a pause for inertia and a vacuum into which many French officials in the French foreign office at Quai d'Orsay are pouring a range of new ideas that may not necessarily accord with our ideas for reforming Europe?
Will he encourage his friends in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to listen closely to the ideas this side of the Channel for reforming Europe and taking it in a new direction, of which there are a great many, including ideas from this side? The closer they are listened to, the better chance we have of the kind of Europe that we want to see.
My Lords, I do not think that there will be a great difference of opinion. I was pleased to be able to report the number of meetings that have taken place between British Ministers and officials and their French counterparts. It is true that ideas are coming from France, but a raft of new thinking is coming from the United Kingdom Government.
When the Prime Minister said at the end of the European Council meeting that there could be no business as usual, he signalled that we intended to make sure that our concerns on the budget, security and a sequence of crucial issues for the House and for the country as a whole would be listened to. I assure your Lordships that no opportunity is lost in making sure that we do so in a decent and civilised dialogue.
My Lords, that is absolutely right. As a Londoner, someone who has lived my entire life in London, I know that those who attacked us plainly do not understand the resolve and determination of the people of London, which has always been one of the building blocks of our character. The comments made by the Mayor of Paris, and comments I received from the French ambassador on Sunday and my ability to sympathise with him, because, to our certain knowledge, four French nationals have been very seriously injured in the course of that dastardly attack, show us what old allies are for.
My Lords, I am asked that question fairly frequently in your Lordships' House. The answer is always the same. It is not negotiable. If the noble Lord is trying to reach towards a discussion of whether the entire European budget needs to be reconsidered—whether the absurdities of the common agricultural policy need to be reconsidered—I am sure that they will be. As far as we are concerned, the rebate is an appropriate and justifiable financial measure. Even were we not to have it, we would still be the second largest net contributor to the Community.
My Lords, I have not seen that advice. I usually try to check changes in advice given on websites, either by us or by others. I am not aware, but will check, whether such advice has been given. I will say only this. I do not believe that there is a major European capital that is not susceptible to attack by people who are that ruthless and show that disregard for decent, civilised societies. It could happen in Paris; it could happen anywhere else—please God, it will not do so; but London is no more dangerous than any other city.