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Queen’s Speech - Debate (3rd Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 8:39 pm on 23rd May 2016.

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Photo of The Earl of Sandwich The Earl of Sandwich Crossbench 8:39 pm, 23rd May 2016

My Lords, we made a decision to join the EU in 1975. Not only should we stick to that decision, but I believe that we are wasting valuable time with the referendum. The noble Lord, Lord Higgins, was absolutely right: we are already part of Europe, not some offshore island. We recognised after 1945 that we wanted to sit down with other European nations, rehabilitate Germany and rebuild the future with them. We need to pursue these objectives. Over time, we have rightly distanced ourselves from some projects—the euro and Schengen. That is fully understood under various treaties and we are not alone in that. We do not need to subscribe to ever-closer union and we can dissuade others from doing so.

One principle of EU foreign policy that I have personally much admired has been enlargement—the opening of the European ideals, which are still known as the Copenhagen principles, to countries seeking membership, chiefly in eastern Europe and the Balkans. I admit that this policy has received a few knocks. Our ability to understand Russian intentions, for instance, and even to talk to Russia has descended into a dense fog of non-diplomacy. This is not just because of Russian aggression but because of our own lack of skill, and that of the EU, in communicating with Russia, as our EU Select Committee report on Ukraine demonstrated. Russia has historic ties with Europe. Shutting her out is not contributing to world peace.

The process of opening up Europe to a wider membership, instead of confining it to an exclusive number, was a deliberate choice supported by successive UK Governments. It has, of course, made decision-making slower and the machinery more cumbersome, but I feel it was the right democratic choice because it enables members old and new to proceed at their own pace. I quite agree with the noble Lord, Lord Garel-Jones, that national Parliaments have lost ground. That was also addressed by our EU Committee. Those who criticise the failure of the institution fail to recognise its remarkable flexibility in making policies to suit 28 members and a population of 500 million.

I recognise that the EU is having a rocky ride this year. This is chiefly because of migration and the large numbers coming into Greece and Italy, which has tested the Dublin agreements almost beyond their capacity. It is all very well for us to criticise the EU when we are actually the beneficiaries of those agreements. In fact, we ourselves, in choosing a rethink through a referendum, are shaking up the Union. This may not be a bad thing in itself, but we risk destabilising other EU members through our own uncertainties of policy during this absurd campaign. The Foreign Secretary admitted on 6 April that he had not foreseen the migration crisis in Europe. It was also strangely missing from the Queen’s Speech. Could it be that Ministers see this as a continental problem from which we are exempt? Should we not, having decided to remain in the EU, move a little closer to Europe on immigration and influence the latest agreements with Turkey and north Africa? Surely being out of Schengen does not absolve us from a shared responsibility for policy and even burden-sharing?

On international development, I too applaud the confirmation of the aid budget and our continuing example and leadership in humanitarian affairs. I, like the noble Lord, Lord Loomba, would like to see a stronger role for the Independent Commission for Aid Impact, or ICAI, which scrutinises aid and reports to the Commons International Development Committee on DfID projects, such as the CDC, mentioned by my noble friend Lady Flather. ICAI’s reports are extremely valuable and it is a pity that it does not communicate more directly to the public. We need to be able to respond to ill-informed tabloid criticism of aid, if and when it comes.

On trafficking, I look forward to the debate in the name of my noble friend Lady Prashar on the EU action plan against migrant smuggling. With the spotlight moving from the Middle East to Africa, the UK is also involved in the EU-Horn of Africa migration route initiative, more familiarly known as the Khartoum process. This programme aims to co-operate with some of Africa’s more authoritarian Governments in an attempt to stop trafficking at source along the borders of Sudan, Eritrea and Libya. We will hear much more about it, but its main motivation is to slow down the flow of migrants across the Mediterranean, although many of these are genuine refugees. There may be some perverse improvement in our relations with Khartoum—they could hardly be worse—under this programme, especially if serious money is changing hands. We may be able to deter a small number of migrants with development programmes, as we have tried to do in Somalia, but most observers are sceptical that the Sudanese and Eritreans will find any reasons to discourage migration or trafficking, given that these are becoming useful sources of revenue for customs officers and police.

Illegal financial transactions cost Africa at least $50 billion every year. The African Union has set up a high-level panel to deal with this, but our own Government should bring their own weight to bear here. DfID transfers, while never entirely free of corruption, are on a much smaller scale and are nowadays monitored, as we heard, through exhaustive internal reviews. I hope the Minister can say something about these development priorities in Africa, which are having so much more impact on us.

Finally, on the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, about information, I hope the Minister will put him right on the question of the balance of competencies review. That was an exhaustive process, going through all government departments. Unfortunately, the Government did not, I think, pay enough attention to public awareness and understanding of that review, but the Minister might like to comment.