My Lords, this may be a convenient moment to repeat the Statement that has been made in another place by the Prime Minister on the meeting of the European Council, which took place this weekend. The Statement is as follows.
"With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a Statement on last week's European Council. The main focus of the Council was rightly on Europe's economy. In advancing Britain's national interest I had two objectives. The first was to ensure that Britain did not have to contribute to any new Greek bailout through the European financial stability mechanism. The second was to support efforts to bring stability to the eurozone and growth to Europe as a whole, while fully protecting Britain's position. Let me take each in turn.
First, on the situation in Greece, as I have always said, Britain is not in the euro, and while I am Prime Minister it never will be, so we should not be involved in the euro area's internal arrangements. Only eurozone countries were involved, alongside the IMF, in the first Greek bailout; only eurozone countries have been involved in discussions about potential further bailouts; so it is absolutely right not to use the EU-wide European financial stability mechanism for future support to Greece. That is why I asked for an assurance about at this Council and that is what I got.
This was not a simple matter. Article 122 of the European treaty is being used to provide aid for eurozone countries that have mismanaged their economies. That was not our choice. It was agreed before this Government took office. We have dealt with it for the future because when the new permanent arrangements-replacing the European financial stability mechanism-come in from 2013, we will not be part of them and Article 122 will no longer be used for eurozone bailouts. That was the deal I secured last December but we still had to deal with the prospect of a bailout under the existing arrangements. Under qualified majority voting this required real negotiating effort. This Government have consistently stood up for the interests of British taxpayers and, as a result, the British taxpayer will avoid a potential liability of billions of pounds.
My second objective was to support efforts to bring stability to the eurozone and to promote growth across Europe. While we are not in the eurozone, we would be badly affected by a disorderly outcome to this crisis. Why? First, banks across the world, including the UK, hold government debt of all eurozone countries, including Greece. Secondly, the effect on other countries far more exposed to these debts would have a knock-on effect on us. As Sir Mervyn King made clear when unveiling last week's financial stability report, the present difficulties in the eurozone are,
"The most serious and immediate risk to the UK financial system".
It has always been a long-standing principle that the British Government do not comment publicly on market-sensitive issues, and I am not going to depart from that very wise approach. What is important is that a solution be found quickly which is credible in the markets and which will address over time Greece's fundamental problems and contribute to providing stability in global markets and the world economy.
One element of that solution must, in my view, be using the time we now have to ensure banks and banks' balance sheets are strong enough to withstand any problems and difficulties and that there is full transparency across the financial system. In the UK we are stepping up efforts to ensure our own banking system is resilient to risks originating from the eurozone. This needs to be done right across Europe, it needs to be done now and it needs to be done properly. I argued for this very strongly at the Council and that is reflected in the language in the communiqué. As a first step that means the current stress tests being conducted in the banking sector must be conducted properly and transparently, unlike last time, and that Europe must implement in full, rather than water down, the new detailed Basel capital and liquidity standards.
A key way in which we can help all economies in Europe-including the eurozone-is to promote sustainable economic growth. The best stimulus available for European economies is to make sure we are promoting competition, deregulation, supply-side reform, innovation, structural changes and also using the EU to advance the cause of free trade, both via Doha and, where appropriate, through bilateral deals.
Following the proposals that Britain set out at the last Council and which many member states now support, I pressed in particular for concrete steps to reduce the burdens on small businesses and micro-enterprises, vital to promoting innovation, jobs and growth. The Council agreed that,
"the regulatory burden on SMEs needs to be further reduced", and that the European Commission would now assess the impact of new regulations on micro-enterprises and identify existing regulations from which micro-businesses should be excluded. This mirrors what we are already doing in Britain and it is absolutely the right thing to do. For too long, Council conclusions have focused only on what member states should do, rather than on what the European Commission needs to do itself.
Let me briefly turn to other issues raised at the Council. There were three of significance: migration; the Arab spring; and the accession of Croatia. First, regarding migration, Britain does not participate in the Schengen border area and we are not going to weaken our border controls. As an island, Britain has an important geographical advantage in preventing uncontrolled immigration. At the same time, practical measures to strengthen the external borders of Europe are in Britain's interests too. However, there was a proposal ahead of the Council to suspend the measures in the Dublin regulation that allow us to return asylum seekers to the first safe country they arrive in. Together with Chancellor Merkel, I made sure that these proposals were rejected and they are not referred to in any way in the Council conclusions. We will not have our border controls compromised in this way.
Regarding the Arab Spring, on Libya the Council agreed a declaration confirming its full support for UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973 and the efforts our brave service men and women are undertaking to implement them. There is now real unity of purpose and political will across the European Union on this issue. The wider world is turning against Gaddafi too, recognising that the Transitional National Council is the only credible diplomatic body which can represent the people of Libya right now. The Russians and Chinese have accepted the importance of the Transitional National Council and Premier Wen made this point to me in our meeting this morning. Gaddafi is increasingly isolated. Indeed, today the International Criminal Court has issued a warrant for his arrest. Gaddafi is now a fugitive from international justice. The pressure and the time are telling on Gaddafi, and we will not let up until the job is done.
On Syria, the Council condemned in the strongest possible terms the ongoing repression and the unacceptable and shocking violence of the Syrian regime against its own people. At my instigation, we expressed particular, grave concern about what Syrian troops are doing close to the Turkish border. On the Middle East more generally, the Council called on all parties to engage urgently in negotiations and, on the fifth anniversary of his capture, demanded the immediate release of Gilad Shalit.
Finally, let me turn to Croatia. Earlier this month I met Prime Minister Kosor and welcomed her country's progress towards completing European membership negotiations. At the European Council, we agreed that these negotiations would be concluded at the end of the month. Croatia's success points the way for the rest of the western Balkans, whose aspirations to join the European Union we have always strongly supported.
At this Council, Britain achieved some important objectives. We have protected the interests of the British taxpayer, we have secured agreements to promote and safeguard economic growth and we have protected Britain's borders from uncontrolled migration. I commend this statement to the House".
My Lords, I thank the noble Lord the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made today in another place by the Prime Minister on the EU Council. I am also grateful for the opportunity of an early sight of the Statement.
On immigration, we support the position set out in the Statement, including on the continuance of the Dublin regulation negotiated by the previous Government. We also support the Government's position on Croatian entry and accession to the EU. However, let me ask the Leader of the House some questions about Libya, Syria, the eurozone and the wider European economic situation.
On Libya, the noble Lord will know that we on this side of the House welcome the Council's continuing commitment to implement UN Security Council Resolutions 1970 and 1973. We are clear that we must keep up the pressure on Colonel Gaddafi and the Libyan regime, and we of course welcome the issuing of an arrest warrant. Those expressing doubts over the mission should remember that, if we had not taken action, this European Council would have been discussing not the conduct of our campaign but, in all likelihood, our failure to prevent a slaughter in Benghazi.
Yet beyond immediate military and diplomatic developments, experience of past conflicts demonstrates that post-conflict planning is crucial to a successful long-term outcome. Can the Leader take this opportunity to clarify the position on this? The Foreign Secretary told the other place on
In the context of the Arab spring, will the Government now publish the review of the strategic defence and security review that the Prime Minister told the other place at Prime Minister's Question Time last week had been conducted?
How can we continue to step up the pressure on Syria, including at the United Nations? We have consistently said that Britain, as a supporter of Turkish membership of the EU, should be saying to the Turks that the potential refugee crisis on their borders will only grow unless they put more pressure on the Syrian Government. Will the Government update this House on conversations between themselves and the Turkish Government on this issue?
Turning to Greece, we agree that it is right that the primary responsibility for addressing the situation lies within the eurozone. As the noble Lord the Leader will know, the UK made no direct contribution to the previous Greek bailout, agreed on
We also have an interest in the durability of the bailout. The Governor of the Bank of England has said:
"Providing liquidity can only ... buy time", and that this will never be the answer to a problem. Does the noble Lord the Leader have confidence that the right balance is being struck in demanding a further round of austerity against the need for growth? We must not forget the impact of any restructuring on the people of Greece.
After the European Union Council and the noble Lord's Statement, it remains unclear what that Council and the UK Government regard as the long-term sustainable solution to the Greek crisis. Instead of saying that we are on the sidelines and winning points here at home, do not the Government need to engage more with our European colleagues to get a solution that will last, in the interests of both the eurozone and the UK?
My Lords, I am grateful for what I think was the broad welcome by the noble Baroness the Leader of the Opposition for the Statement and for what she said about the Dublin protocol migration, which she rightly understood as being extremely important to the United Kingdom. It remains fully intact and in place and it is right that it should not be meddled with.
The noble Baroness then asked a series of questions on overseas countries, particularly in connection with the Arab spring and the Middle East. I shall try to deal with them but, if I do not tackle them all, I shall write to the noble Baroness and make that letter available in the Library.
Post-conflict planning is extremely important and it is important to get it right, as the Foreign Secretary said to another place on
On Syria, the noble Baroness is correct in seeing just how difficult a situation this is. We will continue to work with our international partners in Europe and beyond. We will increase pressure until there is, we hope, an end to the violence. All political prisoners should be released and the Syrian population should be allowed to protest peacefully. We have called on the Syrian Government to engage substantively with the legitimate demands of the protesters. It must be right for the Syrian Government to meet their people's legitimate demands and the violence must stop. The Council condemned in the strongest possible terms the ongoing repression and violence by the Syrian regime against its own citizens and expressed its determination to hold those responsible to account. The EU is applying targeted sanctions to an additional seven individuals and four entities that finance the Syrian regime. The sanctions include three Iranians, in response to clear evidence that Iran is involved in providing equipment and support to help to suppress protests.
The noble Baroness was right to raise the question of the eurozone, which is an extraordinary unfolding story. As I repeated in the Prime Minister's Statement, it would not be right for us to comment on market-sensitive matters. I understand why the noble Baroness argues that the agreement struck on Article 122 was done with cross-party agreement. Equally, she will know why we must agree to differ on that explanation. If we had been the Government at the time and my right honourable friend had been the Chancellor, I am sure that he would not have signed up to it.
There are clear difficulties in the eurozone and it is in our interest that these should be resolved. We are all committed to a growth agenda to help to stimulate our economies. Equally, it is right that the members of the eurozone should understand the nature of their problem. We believe that, when you have overborrowed, the thing to do is to cut the spending. That might lead to austerity but it is considerably better than the alternative, which is why we are carrying out the same medicine here in the United Kingdom. It must be the fervent wish of us all that the eurozone crisis will be resolved in the coming weeks and Statements will be made to this House either by me or the Treasury Minister.
My Lords, with regard to the Prime Minister's objective of supporting efforts to bring stability to the eurozone, the noble Lord the Leader of the House will be aware that over the weekend the Chinese Government made it clear that they are prepared to play a bigger part in supporting the euro and the eurozone. Do the Government support this initiative and did the Prime Minister raise the matter in his discussions with Premier Wen earlier today?
My Lords, I cannot help my noble friend in his extremely up-to-date question about what the Chinese premier said today to the Prime Minister. The Chinese Government have indicated that they would be willing to support the eurozone, which is very much to be welcomed. The Chinese population has as much of an interest in long-term financial stability in Europe as we have. We very much welcome their interest. I do not wish to overspeculate but I am sure that their help will be extremely useful in stabilising the eurozone.
My Lords, is there not a need for more honesty in public utterances? Through our membership of the IMF, we are already contributing to the Greece plan. If we are to have the financial stability and growth that the Prime Minister wants, we need to engage positively so that we stabilise Greece and ensure that contagion does not spread to Spain in particular. Is there not a case for us engaging with Germany and other countries that are designated as rich to ensure that the rich countries help the poor to restabilise the euro? We could all then look forward to increased growth and prosperity.
My Lords, of course we are engaging in stability and growth. One of the conclusions of the Council was to do many of the things that the United Kingdom has been practising for some time. They include the encouragement of free markets in goods and the single market in services-particularly the digital economy-and new rules and regulations for micro-enterprises, which I know the noble Lord will be most interested in. It is very difficult to see how countries of the eurozone will get themselves out of the state that they are in by continuing to borrow in ever increasing amounts and not tackling the fundamental problem that underlies their economies, which is that they are spending considerably more than they can afford and that the international markets are growing nervous and are increasingly unwilling to lend to them.
My Lords, while it is clear that we do not have the same obligations as members of the eurozone-nor should we-and while it is also clear that the interests of the British taxpayer need to be defended, does the noble Lord not agree that, since the consequences of things going wrong in the eurozone could be very grave for us, as the Governor of the Bank of England reminded us last week, it would be a great help if we could hear rather more about what the Prime Minister is doing to assist in finding a solution and to safeguard this country's interests in terms of the contingency arrangements being put in place? It is difficult to believe that British interests are maximised by standing on the touchline, which seems to be the principal thrust of the Prime Minister's Statement as repeated in the House by the Leader today.
My Lords, my noble friend is entirely right in saying that we are standing on the touchline so far as the problems within the euro are concerned and that we see the countries of the eurozone needing to deal with that internally. However, my noble friend would be wrong if he thought that we had an entirely neutral view on the future of the eurozone as an entity, which we do not. He is quite right in saying that our economic interests and those of the eurozone are extremely closely tied. Something like 40 per cent of our exports go to eurozone countries. We wish to see stability and growth, which is why a large part of the Council was given over to a discussion about growth right across Europe and not uniquely in the eurozone countries.
My Lords, I cannot help but be struck by the number of negatives in the Statement: the word "not" is in almost every sentence, certainly on the front page. Following up the general assessment made by my noble friend Lady Royall, could the Leader of the House not go so far as to say that we have to be engaged in quite a significant way? The alternative of a collapse of the Greek negotiation is difficult to contemplate with any equanimity. Will the noble Lord go one inch further and say something that is not in the Statement, even though Greece has its own sub-heading, which is that we wish the Greek Prime Minister well and hope very much that he wins his vote tomorrow in Athens?
My Lords, if that was the tiny inch that the noble Lord wanted, I can easily give it to him. Of course we wish the Greek Prime Minister well in winning his vote and, indeed, in succeeding in the policy of trying to reduce the budget deficit, bringing long-term benefits to the Greek economy and stabilising the eurozone. These things are in all our interests. I do not wish to give the impression that the British Prime Minister was standoffish in this Council-quite the contrary. That is why key conclusions on fiscal policy, on job creation and burdens on business, on Doha, on the European stability mechanism treaty and on development were all issues that were profoundly debated and, quite rightly, very much supported by the British Prime Minister.
My Lords, perhaps I may press the Leader of the House to try to summarise what I think is the ambivalence that Members of the House feel about the Government's stance, which seems to be that it is in our interest to support the stability of the eurozone but not in our interest to do anything much towards that beyond speaking from the sidelines. My second question is more direct. Is it necessarily in the interests of the Greek people to stay with an overvalued euro and not to revert to the drachma, which would enable them to manage their economic affairs more flexibly in the years to come?
My Lords, that really is not an issue for the British Government; it must be an issue for the Greeks, for the European Central Bank and for anybody else who is involved. We want to see a successful and stable eurozone. The European currency union is very substantial and, as I said a few moments ago, it is very important to the British economy, given the amount of our exports that go into the eurozone. While it is in our interest for the eurozone to be a successful monetary union, it is not necessarily in the interest of the British taxpayer to be seen as a lender of last resort. That is the difference that we have made in this Council, which is why we are very glad that Article 122 will no longer be used if there is a bailout.
My Lords, I am pleased that the Prime Minister has said that Article 122 will no longer be used in future for bailing out other countries. Is it not true, however, that Article 122 was used illegally? Indeed, Article 125 of the Lisbon treaty precludes Article 122 or any other article from being used to bail out other countries within the European Union. In that case, the Commission broke the law. Should not the Government in fact be referring that breach of the law to the European Court of Justice to see exactly what went wrong?
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, is always first to pick holes in an argument of this kind and, rightly, to see when illegality is going on. We take no particular view on this. We know that some controversial decisions have been taken on the basis of these articles, but we are very glad with the results of this Council and the communiqué, which we believe has come up with the right solution.
May I press the noble Lord just one more time on this question of standing on the sidelines? I draw his attention to a report in the Financial Times this morning showing the massive exposure of Lloyds bank to Greek sovereign debt. Is it not the case that we simply do not have the luxury of standing on the sidelines where international capital markets are concerned?
We have independent regulatory regimes that look into these matters. The exposure of British banks to Greek sovereign bonds is substantial, but it is considerably smaller than the exposure to other European countries.
My Lords, it is always my deepest pleasure to defer to the kindness and remarkable wisdom of the independent UKIP former Labour Member who sits so graciously on our Benches. It is even more of a pleasure to defer to one of my own colleagues. In repeating the Statement, the Leader of the House mentioned the Arab spring. I welcome the statements by the Foreign Secretary and others about the need to follow the revolutions taking place in the Middle East and north Africa with support for development of the democratic processes in those countries, but is the Leader aware that at the same time the Foreign and Commonwealth Office is putting the squeeze on the finances of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and bodies that exist specifically to ensure that that kind of work is extended and developed? How does he reconcile this? Will he have a word with his noble friend sitting next to him, and with the Foreign Secretary, and say that it is vital that the work of the Westminster Foundation for Democracy and other bodies promoting democracy is increasingly supported as we see the developments taking place in the Middle East and north Africa?
My Lords, the Westminster Foundation for Democracy is obviously a much valued organisation with a tremendous reputation and a long lineage over the past 20 years of explaining democracy to many countries that have come to it in a new way. It is also true about the Arab spring. My noble friend Lord Howell of Guildford has kindly reminded me that it is his view that the Westminster Foundation for Democracy got an increase in its budget this year. The noble Lord, Lord Foulkes of Cumnock, is vigorously shaking his head, which means that there is a disagreement between them. I admire them both greatly in their respective ways, so I shall make it my business to find out the answer. Whatever the truth, we all know that bodies of this kind have had a bit of a squeeze put on them as an inevitable consequence of the economic considerations that we have. The Westminster Foundation for Democracy is a highly valued body and I shall write to the noble Lord about its funding.