Question for Short Debate

Part of EUC Report: Economic Governance – in the House of Lords at 2:01 pm on 16th June 2011.

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Photo of Baroness Maddock Baroness Maddock Liberal Democrat 2:01 pm, 16th June 2011

My Lords, as has already been said by the two previous speakers, in or out of the eurozone, effective economic governance in the European Union is important to all member states and particularly to us here in the UK. The noble Lord, Lord Harrison, has clearly set out the remit and context of the report from Sub-Committee A of the EU Select Committee, of which I am a member. In the short time that I have, I will concentrate on the role of sanctions in future economic governance of the EU.

As has been said, the Commission's proposals on sanctions will not apply to the UK by virtue of its opt-out from membership of the euro. As the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, set out and as I indicated in my opening remarks, the UK has a vital interest in ensuring that these proposals succeed. Our sub-committee report recognised that the markets will play a key role in promoting sensible fiscal behaviour by member states by charging higher interest rates to those countries deemed to have lax fiscal policies. However, the markets have not always proven effective at this in the past. There is a need for a further mechanism to ensure compliance. This is where sanctions fit in. The Government have recognised this-and recognised it in our report.

The sub-committee concluded that the Commission's proposals for a more graduated sanctions regime would help dissuade irresponsible fiscal behaviour. Sanctions will be easier to apply and more of a credible threat if they start off small and are available earlier in the process. Again, the Government have agreed with the committee's assessment of this. As has already been said, one of the greatest failings of the current system of sanctions has been that member states have found it too easy to avoid sanctions when they have broken the rules. France and Germany breached the stability and growth pact in 2002-03 and this led to a conflict between the Commission, which wanted to impose sanctions, and the Council, which refused. In the end, France and Germany managed to persuade the European Council to relax the rules governing the stability and growth pact.

Several sub-committee witnesses argued that sanctions should be made fully automatic. This was the line taken by the European Parliament, which feels that automatic sanctions would prevent member states from negotiating their way out of sanctions. However, the sub-committee concluded that fully automatic sanctions were a step too far and would remove any room for judgment. We supported the Commission's proposals for reverse-majority voting, which would require a majority to vote against sanctions to block them, as opposed to the current system where the majority have to vote in favour. While the sub-committee believes that this discretion is necessary given that the EU is a political union of sovereign member states, it is vital that the Council shows that it is willing to take tough decisions and levy sanctions when the stability and growth pact is breached. The Government agree in their response that the efficacy of the sanctions regime will depend on the degree of political will in the Council. Will the Council be willing to take tough decisions on sanctions when the crisis is over?

We considered various other suggestions on sanctions. At the insistence of Germany, the Van Rompuy task force report did not rule out the possibility of removing voting rights in Council from those countries breaking the stability and growth pact. The sub-committee did not believe that this would be an appropriate sanction and would raise significant questions about legitimacy and sovereignty. Can the Minister confirm that the UK will block this proposal from being taken forward if Germany proposes it once again? The Government also stated in their response that there are a,

"large range of other potential sanctions that could be more easily and swiftly implemented by the Council", rather than removing voting rights. Could the Minister indicate what those might be?

As I stated at the beginning, only member states within the euro area can have sanctions imposed upon them. However, the Van Rompuy task force report suggested that enforcement mechanisms should be extended to all member states, excluding the UK, in the multi-annual financial framework. The committee thought that this was quite inappropriate. The Government's stated intention is that they would oppose these suggestions. Can the Minister confirm that they will stop any attempt to extend sanctions beyond the euro area by any such means?