EU: Recent Developments — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 4:14 pm on 16th February 2012.

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Photo of Lord Bates Lord Bates Conservative 4:14 pm, 16th February 2012

My Lords, I wonder whether it is possible to be an economic sceptic but also a political enthusiast about Europe. I just want to unpick that a little from a slightly different perspective-that of having spent the past 10 months walking across Europe from Greece to the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Dobbs, said that we must pitch ourselves to see what it would be like to stand on the streets of Athens. I was doing just that in April amid the tear gas and everything else that was going on. In fact, I arrived in Greece just as it had been downgraded. I arrived in Italy just as it was downgraded and I arrived in France just as it was downgraded. The Chancellor then begged me not to come back to the UK. I arrived back and there was a Moody's warning, but I promised him that I would return to France as soon as possible on that basis.

In the course of that walk, a couple of things began to crystallise in my mind. When I left this House in April, I would have described myself as moderately Eurosceptic in my approach to things. As I walked, two particular things struck me. The first was the point of Europe. This was brought home most forcefully to me a couple of weeks ago when I stood beneath the Menin Gate with the last post sounding in Ypres in Belgium. That incredibly moving event has been repeated every single evening since the First World War, apart from the time of German occupation. On that memorial are the names of 54,800 British and Commonwealth troops who died in that first Great War. They are part of nearly 1 million British and Commonwealth young lives that were lost in northern France and Belgium in the First World War.

As I walked the section from Arras to Lille and then Ypres towards Dunkirk, I walked alongside meticulous cemeteries maintained by the British and Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Their Portland stone headstones commemorate the incredible loss that was suffered in human life, not just on our side but throughout Europe. In many ways, the First World War gave birth to the Second World War, which gave birth to the Cold War. An incredible catastrophe was unleashed in Europe.

As a Conservative I resile from the petty bureaucracy and interference in the lives of business and ordinary citizens that constantly seems to come from the European Union. But I was left with a view that it might be better to be sitting arguing about what the label should read on the jar of Women's Institute jam than whose label should be on Alsace-Lorraine. It is far better that disputes, fallouts and arguments that we witnessed at the European Council meeting in November be played out in television studios, debating chambers and committee rooms than on the battlefields of Europe.

I know that that is an obvious point and that noble Lords know it well-very personally in many cases-but to me it was something of a dawning. The penny dropped. This is why Europe is important. We could no more stand aside from Europe in its economic crisis than in its military and political crisis in 1914 or 1939. In a globalised world we are all connected to the economic mainland. To borrow a phrase from the Chancellor, we are all in this together.

I had lots of conversations in bars and restaurants-probably a few too many, otherwise I could have been back a little earlier. In those conversations I discovered a couple of things. First was the enormous affection for British people and British culture across Europe, not least in somewhere like Belgium where people know the sacrifice that was made by the armed services of this country in defence of their liberty. You see people on the high streets wearing and carrying the union jack on bags, watching Premier League football, and speaking the English language. There is a huge appetite for British education.

At the same time, there is the argument of Robbie Burns about seeing ourselves as other people see us. After spending some time outside the UK, I began to see a little of how other people saw us. In relation to Europe, they would see us perhaps as a touch arrogant sometimes in looking at the problems that they were facing, as if somehow we had it all right and were sitting pretty and driving ahead with no pain or dislocation-as if we did not have a banking crisis and billions and trillions of credit card debt in this country. It was as if we had got a perfect world and were going to tell everybody else how to get it right. That was just a perception that people had of us. There was another perception, which said that Britain gets a pretty good deal out of the European Union given that we are not part of economic and monetary union and the Schengen agreement. I had to go through passport control at the borders of Slovenia and Greece but not in other countries. We are not part of that agreement and have managed to get a few different opt-outs here and there along the way. The noble Lord referred to our contribution. In net terms, Germany pays about €9 billion, France and Italy pay around about €6 billion and we pay about €4 billion. I am not saying-