European Union Committee: Report on 2013-14 (EUC Report) — Motion to Take Note

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:21 pm on 24th July 2014.

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Photo of The Earl of Caithness The Earl of Caithness Conservative 6:21 pm, 24th July 2014

My Lords, I am the new boy to the European Union Committee, having joined it in May, so it is not for me to sing the praises of what the committee does. I will leave that to the words of Maroš Šefcovic, the Commissioner for Inter-Institutional Relations, when he stated in evidence to the committee, quoted at paragraph 1 of our report, that,

“the House of Lords is one of the most active chambers we have in the European Union”.

I wish the other countries did the same as we do. In the same paragraph, we quote the Financial Times describing our reports as,

“the sort of calm, balanced report that ought to inform public debate”.

They do, and I will come on to that in a moment.

I regret being unable to take part in the debate we had yesterday on the euro area crisis, which my chairman on Sub-Committee A, the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, referred to. Like him, I will refer to another piece of work we did, on the financial transaction tax. One of our duties, which is highlighted in paragraph 40, is to hold,

“the UK Government to account for its actions on the European stage”.

When we took evidence, it became clear to the committee that the Government had not been as proactive as we would have liked them to have been. Quite rightly, as we say in paragraph 95,

“we criticised the UK Government for its diffident approach to the FTT, and its reluctance over several months to take seriously our concerns”.

It is quite right that, as committees, we can criticise our Governments. Equally, it is quite right that, as committees, we ought to be able to criticise the Commission too, which we do in paragraph 52:

“We were disappointed that the Commission’s responses have been uneven in quality and have not always engaged the substance of the political dialogue”.

I hope that is noted in Brussels, because it is important that this is a two-way exercise. I want to major a little on that and take a personal perspective.

When I was on Sub-Committee D, which the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market, who has just spoken, now chairs, it had just finished a report on the common fisheries policy. That work was so good and so highly regarded that it influenced a major part of the Commission’s thinking on the common fisheries policy. As a result, the laws have been changed. We took a proactive, reasoned approach. We took exactly the same proactive, reasoned approach when it came to reform of the common agricultural policy. Alas, the Commission did not follow that, and there has been no reform of the common agricultural policy.

I think it is worth pausing for a moment to think of the huge share of EU resources that the common agricultural policy takes up, despite the small reduction in the budget that has been achieved. If we could have reduced the common agricultural policy budget, how much more could we have done for important things such as growth and youth unemployment, which is more than 50% in Spain and Greece, that cannot be tackled because of this large common agricultural policy budget? That is a problem in Europe, one that Mr Juncker has to face and get a grip on if the EU is going fulfil its potential.

We also took evidence from Sir Jon Cunliffe. He gave us very wise advice. He told Sub-Committee A that we should have contacts with the euro group, ensure its meetings took place in the context of other EU meetings and be ready to offer technical advice without lecturing or providing unwanted counsel. That was very wise advice. We must not stand and berate Europe; we must participate fully in the negotiations, as the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, said earlier. Again, that is a two-way street. I was deeply saddened by what the President-elect of the European Commission said in his five points. His fifth point was that it is one of his priorities to solve the British problem. There is no British problem; there is an EU problem of which Britain is part. We take evidence around Europe because we are a proactive member of the EU. My concern is that if the impression is given that we are a problem, we might not get the quality of evidence that we have had before, and if we do not have the quality of evidence that we have had to date our reports will not be as good as they have been to date, and that would be detrimental not just to the UK but to the whole of Europe. Therefore, I regret his remarks. I hope that they are not taken in the wrong way.

This is something that we should be able to solve together. We have a very busy schedule—my noble friend Lord Tugendhat said that we have a condensed Session—so we have to do a lot of work in a short time. We are hugely privileged to be part of an EU Committee at this time of our history. We are in a moment of intense change and challenge. How lucky we are to be part of it. How lucky we are to be able to write reports that other people read. Like other noble Lords, I thank our staff for all their help because without them we could not do it.