EU: Financial Stability and Economic Growth — Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:15 pm on 3rd November 2011.

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Photo of Lord Sassoon Lord Sassoon The Commercial Secretary to the Treasury 4:15 pm, 3rd November 2011

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Newby for initiating this debate. It has been a valuable and insightful debate on stability and growth in the European Union and comes at a particularly good time. As your Lordships are all aware, it has been an incredibly turbulent few months, few days, and few hours for the global economy. The euro area is at the epicentre of this instability. A decisive resolution to the crisis is in our vital national interests, a point that was vigorously underlined by my noble friend Lady Noakes. Such a resolution would provide the single biggest boost to the British economy this autumn.

Last week, good progress was made towards reaching a comprehensive solution for the euro-area crisis. It is one that echoes the approach we have been advocating. First, there is the recapitalisation of European banks. As agreed last week, all major European banks will be required to hold at least a 9 per cent core tier 1 capital ratio by the end of June next year. Importantly, the assessment by the European Banking Authority is that no British banks require additional capital.

Secondly, there is the resolution of Greek debt. There is a headline agreement to reduce the Greek debt-to-GDP ratio to 120 per cent by 2020, with private holders of Greek sovereign debt being asked to accept a nominal write-down of 50 per cent. I should remind my noble friend Lord Marlesford that Greece is subject to an adjustment programme to which the IMF is a party, so there are indeed very considerable and appropriate strings attached.

Finally, in the package is reinforcing the firewall between Greece and other vulnerable euro-area countries, either by using the bailout fund to provide insurance on new debt issued by euro-area countries, or by creating special purpose vehicles to attract private and public resources. As my right honourable friend the Chancellor said, the immediate priority must be to implement the agreement that was entered into on 27 October.

That is the particular and immediate. At the other end of the spectrum we have had considerations of existentialism and very broad future scenarios painted by the noble Lords, Lord Liddle, Lord Pearson of Rannoch and Lord Bilimoria, and my noble friend Lord Flight. I should say at this point that I regret that I will probably disappoint them by not entering today into speculation about what will go on in the future. I will concentrate on the immediate practicalities of the eurozone as we face them today.

The first thing I will address is the question about the IMF, UK resources and where we should put them. The noble Lords, Lord McFall of Alcluith and Lord Hannay of Chiswick, do not paint a fair reflection of the UK's position towards the IMF and bailout funds. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer has been clear that building up IMF resources and building up euro-area bailout funds are separate issues. The UK has always been a strong supporter of the IMF as a global backstop to the world economy, and this support has been from Governments of all political standpoints since the IMF's foundation. The Chancellor of the Exchequer has said that the UK,

"stands ready to consider the case ... for further increasing the resources of the IMF to keep pace with the size of the global economy".

That point was reinforced by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister earlier today.

In recent years some of the biggest use of IMF funds has been for countries such as Mexico and Poland, both non-euro-area countries. In uncertain times, lots of areas around the world may need IMF support and it is important to ensure that this key global institution is properly resourced to do its job. That is in the UK's interest. That is what we will do, but that is very different from entertaining suggestions that the IMF should put its own resources into a potential euro area special purpose vehicle. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Hannay of Chiswick, that there has indeed been talk about that. That is not within the remit of the IMF, which supports individual countries. The Government's position is that we will support the IMF in its mandate; that is not a mandate that does or should extend to euro area or any other special area bailout funds, which are a completely separate matter. Lastly, I remind noble Lords that our support for the IMF does not add to our debt or our deficit and that no one who has provided money to the IMF has ever lost money.

Of course, the package that I have summarised is not the answer to the longer-term reforms that are needed to make the euro area work more effectively. All euro area members need to implement credible plans to reduce budget deficits. That commitment was made in the very first section of last week's agreement. We will continue to ensure that our voice will be heard and our national interests protected. In response to a question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Bilimoria, this will of course include planning to cover the widest range of scenarios that may develop.

It is essential that matters that affect all 27 member states continue to be discussed by all 27 member states. This is the approach that we will take to protecting and promoting the single market. We have agreement and confirmation of that as a result of my right honourable friend the Prime Minister's intervention on 23 October. The noble Lord, Lord Hannay, asked about the euro-plus pact. The Government took a clear decision not to join the current pact as they viewed the pact as a response to the specific needs of the euro area and there has been no change in that position. The vast majority of decisions on economic and financial policy are made by the EU 27, not by the euro area. That will not change. We still have our 29 votes, the same number as France and Germany, and we play an active and positive role in all Council debates. Of course, as noble Lords know full well, it is not a question just of the UK being outside the euro-plus pact; the Czech Republic, Hungary and Sweden did not join either.

As noble Lords have recognised, because the single market is one of the most powerful tools we have to promote sustainable, mutual and renewed growth in the UK and across the EU, we must continue to work hard to progress it. We have made substantial progress to complete the single market over recent years and the UK has worked hard to prioritise measures that bring the greatest benefit to growth. That is why we have strongly supported the liberalisation of EU cross-border trade in services, prioritising the passing and proper implementation of the services directive. Even conservative estimates place the benefits of this at a very substantial 0.8 per cent of EU GDP.

There are huge gains to be had for growth and job creation, a point that my noble friend Lord Shipley drew particular attention to, and those come from even the smallest changes to protect and promote truly free and open markets within the European Union, a point underlined by the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Bath and Wells. I refer, for example, to that genuine single market in services, addressed by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens. A digital single market could add €800 billion to EU GDP. The Government have led the way in that. My right honourable friend the Prime Minister's pamphlet, Let's Choose Growth, published in March this year, provides the blueprint to realise that gain. I draw the attention of the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, to that pamphlet because that is the way in which the Government see growth in the eurozone being driven forward. It has nothing to do with repatriation of powers, as he seeks to paint it.

The Prime Minister also secured language, in the 23 October European Council conclusions, which calls for an EU growth test to filter out EU legislation which is harmful to growth and jobs. That is positive and important. I am, of course, grateful for the ongoing work of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, in your Lordships' European Union Committee in discussing and helping to promote these ideas.

In support of that, my noble friend Lord Newby asked about our positioning of UK officials in Brussels. I recognise that we have to work harder in this area, but I believe that the push on this, which the Foreign Office made last year and continues to make, has led to success in the EU campaign. On the number of candidates put forward for EU positions, we have seen the UK rise from a lamentable 19th place to a barely respectable, but much better, 12th position last year. That is one indication that we are making some progress, but we have to work harder.

In respect of this positive agenda, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Razzall who talked about the wider group of pro-growth member states, which regularly meets with my honourable friend the Minister for Employment Relations, Consumer and Postal Affairs and with counterparts from 13 other EU member states. There are lots of very practical things on the agenda that officials and my ministerial colleagues are working on, just as your Lordships' committee is doing.

That takes me on to the outward-facing aspect of this, to which a number of noble Lords have drawn attention. We must remember that the gains to be made from freer trade are not just a matter of completing the single market but are a matter of completing the outward-facing trade arrangements under the Doha trade round and out-of-trade bilateral agreements. That is a critically important area to which my noble friend Lord Newby drew attention. The Government continue to support the Doha round. It is important to complete Doha as a matter of urgency but we also should point to the importance of the EU's bilateral trade deals with markets such as India, Canada and Singapore. On the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Giddens, about labour mobility within the EU and outside it, of course those bilateral deals pick up important issues related to labour mobility as far as they link directly to trade. My noble friend Lord Shipley raised a detailed point. There have indeed been very recent Commission proposals to extend the European globalisation fund. I can certainly assure my noble friend that we are currently considering the Government's response to those recent proposals.

I turn next to financial services, an area to which a number of noble Lords drew attention. In the past year the Government have demonstrated the same resolve to promote an open and single market in financial services. I say to my noble friend Lord Teverson that I do not recognise that there has been any loss of voice in this area. Yes, we have to recognise that there is a change of architecture and make sure that within that architecture we maximise our voice, but I would suggest that the evidence is that we are being heard. For example, on the alternative investment fund managers directive, we completely reversed the Council's position to ensure that the directive is internationally consistent and non-discriminatory.

On the Basel III reforms, we are working with the Commission to ensure that the capital requirements directive reinforces rather than weakens the single market by having high, common and consistently applied standards for capital, just as we are doing at the G20 to ensure that we do not distort international competition and markets. Likewise, we cannot undermine European competitiveness by unilaterally implementing a financial transaction tax. At a time when we have to do everything we can to promote growth, a tax to undermine Europe's competitiveness is in no one's interest.

These continue to be turbulent, dangerous times for both the European economy and the global economy. Within Europe, the decisions reached last week are a big step to resolving the crisis that has undermined economies around the world since the summer. We still have a long way to go to finalise the details of that agreement and it is important that all parties to the agreement deliver on their commitments. Beyond that, the UK will continue to be at the heart of that process and the process of coming up proactively with pro-growth policies for the UK and for Europe. At the same time, we will continue to protect and promote our interests across the EU.

In conclusion, I am very grateful to my noble friend Lord Newby for stimulating this debate and for the constructive proposals and suggestions from all sides of the House.