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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:48 pm on 24th July 2014.

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Photo of Lord Bowness Lord Bowness Conservative 6:48 pm, 24th July 2014

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Boswell of Aynho, for his introduction of this report and for his chairmanship during the year in question, when I was still a member of the Select Committee. I am very pleased not to have severed all connections and to have the pleasure of serving on Sub-Committee D under the chairmanship of the noble Baroness, Lady Scott of Needham Market.

I will begin by making two points, which I suspect ought to be addressed to the mysterious usual channels, not the Minister. When the Select Committee first decided that its annual report should be put down for debate and not merely published, it was hoped that the debate would provide the focus and opportunity for a wide debate on European Union matters, to be answered by Ministers as well as providing a window on the activities of the committee itself. While we have had a full and wide-ranging debate with many valuable contributions from all the noble Lords who have spoken before me, the graveyard slot of a hot summer Thursday in July is not conducive to drawing in a wider range of Members other than members of the EU Committee and its sub-committees. I am sure that there are difficulties in timetabling, but given the breadth of subjects covered in the report, which shows just how much European Union matters are in fact part of mainstream politics, in future a means should be found of getting a better and more substantial billing for this annual report, which it deserves. Moreover, if I may say so as a coda to that comment, so do the Select Committee reports which are offered similar slots despite the time and work that has gone into them and the public interest expressed.

The chairmanships of the noble Lords, Lord Tordoff, Lord Renfrew and Lord Roper, and now the noble Lord, Lord Boswell, have indeed ensured the enviable status which the committee enjoys, if not in this House then across the European Union and other national parliaments. This is because of the leadership shown by our successive chairmen and the thoroughness and objectivity of the reports, which in turn owe something to the expertise brought to bear on the subjects by Members who have been involved with European Union affairs through the medium of the Select Committee and its sub-committees. My noble friend Lady Scott of Needham Market has already referred to the changes which have been made to the rules on sub-committee membership. I will say no more than this. Even if it was right to limit membership to three Sessions with no return for two, the retrospective element and the decision to treat the European Union Select Committee and its sub-committees in this way is a matter that the usual channels—because undoubtedly they control these matters whatever the formalities of the decision-making process—should revisit urgently and quickly if value and expertise are not to be decimated.

The report looks forward as well as looking back, and one of the important activities of the committee will continue to be the sessions held with the ambassador of the incoming presidency and with the Minister for Europe. I suggest that that is an opportunity where the committee, on behalf of the whole House, is able not just to react to Government and the European Union, but to press for action in particular areas. Perhaps I may outline three of the areas which I would like to mention.

The first is that enlargement to include the states of the western Balkans—I was told at the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly meeting that south-eastern Europe is how they prefer to be referred to—must be kept high on the agenda. We should be applying our efforts to resolve the Macedonia situation, to advance its candidature, and to ensure that the normalisation of relations between Serbia and Kosovo continues. We need to confirm our continued enthusiasm for eventual membership of these countries and the others of that area. I would say to the Minister that we should not link the enlargement agenda with our own possible attempts by the United Kingdom to renegotiate its place in Europe, as initially we tried to do with Albania, and our doubts about freedom of movement. If we do that we will undoubtedly create uncertainty in those countries about our true intentions, and once that happens, the reforms will falter and the countries will start to look elsewhere.

Membership for none of these states is an immediate prospect, but the steady advance in that direction should not be stopped, and the growth of substantial Russian investment in the region, reported to be some €5 billion euros over five years in Serbia alone—a candidate country—should in itself be sufficient motive to ensure that we put our efforts behind maintaining the European direction of travel. These countries will have an added importance given the routes of proposed schemes such as the trans-Adriatic pipeline, which would help to reduce member states’ dependence on Russia. Reliance on Russian energy and that policy should have a priority in the present circumstances. The United Kingdom should be prepared to lead in that respect and not just leave it to others, because we have only a limited dependence on Russia for our energy.

The events of this year have emphasised the desirability of the European Union acting together in matters of defence and foreign policy, and underlined the folly expressed by some recently of taking peace and prosperity in Europe for granted. This is not the time to seek selective disengagement. The United Kingdom used to be somewhat reluctant to espouse the cause of a united foreign and defence policy, so it has been interesting to see the Prime Minister pressing member states for united and strong action against Russia. However, I believe that we will find the way forward only in discussion and give and take.

All member states have different sensitivities, priorities and concerns. Some will have worries about threats to energy supply. The proceeds of sale of a warship may be as important to France as the benefit we derive from the City of London, which was described in Tuesday’s Times as the “haven for Russian Capital”. If we are to find a united way forward we all have to be prepared to sacrifice something to achieve the common good. I hope, in winding up, the Minister may find it possible to comment on these points.

I return to the report. The European Union Committee has a role to play in questioning and holding the Government to account in their dealings with the

European Union, and raising the kinds of issues to which I have referred. If I may say so, the report shows how comprehensively it does this and I am sure that the story in next year’s report will be no different. I support the Motion.