European Council — Statement

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:12 pm on 19th October 2015.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lord Wallace of Tankerness Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 6:12 pm, 19th October 2015

My Lords, I also thank the noble Baroness the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by the Prime Minister on last week’s European Council. It appears that, when we have these Statements, the agenda may be very much the same but these very serious and profound issues are no less intractable.

It is clear from the Prime Minister’s Statement that the issue of migration and refugees was what most of the Council meeting was about. As the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, has said, we still have regular reports on our TV screens that provide visual reminders of the suffering of—and, indeed, deaths of—many of those who are trying to escape the oppression in Syria and trying to find a better life for themselves in Europe. The issue is no less problematic now, and indeed I rather suspect that as we approach the winter months and see the effect that the winter weather will have on the refugees, there will be some even more harrowing pictures and scenes.

The Prime Minister in his Statement says that,

“the UK does not take part in Schengen … we are not participating in the quota system for migrants who have arrived in Europe”.

He says that as if, in some way or other, it was a badge of honour. I accept there is no legal obligation, as we do not take part in Schengen, for us to take refugees under the EU relocation scheme, but on these Benches we would argue that there is a strong moral obligation to play our part. I believe that would be consistent with the letter to the Prime Minister that was subscribed by a number of Bishops of the Church of England and published at the weekend, which said that it would be consistent with,

“this country’s great tradition of sanctuary and generosity of spirit”.

I hope and believe it should not be a question of either/or—of either taking part in the EU relocation scheme or doing other, very valuable work. I applaud the work that the Government have done in the support and help that they have given to those in the refugee camps in Jordan, Lebanon and Turkey and, indeed, on their commitment to bring—perhaps we would argue for more, but nevertheless they are bringing some—more vulnerable people from there to the United Kingdom. However, it should not be an either/or; we should do that and also be willing to make a meaningful and substantial response to the human suffering that we see in our own continent.

I acknowledge what we are doing, but on a specific point I remind the noble Baroness that, when we had a Statement on this issue when we were back last month, I raised with her that there had been a report that 600 young Afghans had arrived in the United Kingdom—unaccompanied children—who were then deported after their 18th birthday because their temporary leave to remain had expired, albeit that many had by that stage established very strong roots in the communities where they were living. When my noble friend Lord Ashdown of Norton-sub-Hamdon pressed the Leader of the House on this matter, she said:

“I am not suggesting that there is a new set of rules, or a change to existing rules, because of this expanded refugee programme at this time”.—[Hansard, 7/9/15; cols. 1258-59.]

I would hope that, in the intervening weeks, the noble Baroness and the Government have had an opportunity to consider that. If we are taking in people—and it will often be the more vulnerable people, including children, from the refugee camps—and if many of them come and settle here and make their roots here, I am not quite sure what they feel about the thought that they could be sent home without further ado on their 18th birthday. Again, that is another moral issue to be considered.

On the question of Syria, we will certainly continue to condemn the brutality of ISIS and we support the conclusions of the European Council that there has to be a political settlement. Indeed, there needs to be much greater emphasis on the possibilities for diplomacy, including possibly looking at issues such as something similar to a treaty-based, Dayton-style regional agreement as happened in the Balkans, which would be supported by neighbouring countries as well as the major powers. Are the Government giving consideration to that and to doing more to draw Iran into the process, which I rather suspect could be a very influential player in trying to achieve the kind of political solution referred to in the Council communiqué?

We certainly welcome the EU-Turkey action plan. It is important to recognise the burden that Turkey has to bear in accommodating refugees and it would be interesting to know particularly what the Government propose to do to support that action plan. Given that it is now some considerable time since Turkey applied to join the European Union and it has been the policy of successive Governments to support that application, can the noble Baroness indicate whether it is still the policy of Her Majesty’s Government—provided, of course, that Turkey meets and signs up to European Union values, including on human rights issues—that it would be our intention to support Turkish membership of the European Union?

On the issue of renegotiation, the Prime Minister had indicated four broad heads of discussion, and I think it would be very useful at some stage to have a debate on that in your Lordships’ House so that we can probe and examine these four areas in greater detail. I certainly endorse what the noble Baroness, Lady Smith of Basildon, said about encouraging and making provision for 16 and 17 year-olds to vote in any referendum, and I hope that the noble Baroness the Leader of the House will not give a knee-jerk response to that. We just need to think on the fact that, in the referendum in Scotland last year, engagement among 16 and 17 year-olds was higher than engagement among 18 to 24 year-olds. Most schools did some kind of civics, encouraging young people to find out how they went about actually voting, and that may hold young people in good stead for years to come in terms of playing a part in the civic and democratic process. Therefore, in a decision which will be so fundamental to their future lives, we should give them an opportunity to have their say.

If we look at the conclusions that emerged from the EU Council meeting, we find that after five pages there are two lines:

“The European Council was informed about the process ahead concerning the UK plans for an (in/out) referendum. The European Council will revert to the matter in December”.

Given that the main item on migration was so important, it is perhaps not surprising that the matter is relegated to two lines, but I would be interested to know whether the Minister knows what the mood music was. How did people react to the Prime Minister when he informed the Council about the process? In particular, having had very serious discussions about migration and the EU relocation plan—and the Prime Minister no doubt made it very clear that the United Kingdom has nothing to do with it because we are not part of Schengen—how did the Council react to the Prime Minister’s request about renegotiation? It would be interesting to learn something about the mood music around that.

I shall not go through each of the four issues that the Minister mentioned, but I want to ask specifically about the question of competitiveness. When I was in Brussels with colleagues last month, we heard much about what is being done on the digital single market, capital markets union and liberalising services, which are things on which the United Kingdom quite properly and effectively is taking the lead. The Minister says that more needs to be done, and we would like to know what more the Government have in mind. The Government are playing a crucial and positive role there. Do they not have sufficient confidence in their ability to continue that leadership? If they say that more needs to be done, it would be very useful to know quite what that means.