HL Deb 28 March 1994 vol 553 cc845-55

3.43 p.m.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, with the leave of the House I should now like to repeat a Statement that is being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary as follows:

"The new presidency proposal which I brought back last night is for a transitional arrangement before a root and branch review of qualified majority voting in the 1996 Inter-Governmental Conference. In this transitional period the presidency and all members of the Council will be legally bound to work for an agreement on the basis of a 23 vote minority. No specified time limit is set, though the Council will be expected to reach a decision on the basis of a 23 vote blocking minority within a reasonable time.

"Let me explain more fully. There was a constructive discussion at the informal meeting of Foreign Ministers at Ioannina at the weekend. The presidency has circulated a compromise proposal to resolve the issue. I have placed a copy of this text in the Library of the House. The presidency has asked all member states to tell it by tomorrow evening whether or not they can accept this proposal.

"The Cabinet will discuss this question at its meeting tomorrow morning. Let me explain the nature of the compromise which has been proposed and on which we shall have to take a decision tomorrow.

"The original presidency proposal was for a blocking minority of 27, to apply from 1st January next year, to last indefinitely, without any restriction or qualification. What it now proposes after discussion and argument is as follows.

"First, a transitional arrangement between the date of accession of Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden and the end of the 1996 Inter-Governmental Conference. At the IGC, there will be a root and branch review of the system of qualified majority voting, including not only the weighting of votes between countries as agreed at the Brussels European Council in December 1993 but also the threshold for agreement, i.e. the definition of 'majority' and 'minority'.

"Secondly, the proposal is contained in a legally binding decision of the Council. This requires the presidency, with the assistance of the Commission, to do all in its power to reach agreement on the basis of a 23 vote minority, taking 'any initiative necessary' to achieve that objective.

"Thirdly, there is no time limit for this procedure, though once all initiatives are exhausted, the Council will be able to take a decision on the basis of a blocking minority of 27.

"There have been three misconceptions which I should like to correct. First, we are not talking here about any threat to the UK's veto. The most important decisions in the European Union can only be taken by unanimity. These include the power of the Commission and the European Parliament, the amount of money available to the European Union and foreign and security policy initiatives. That is and remains the position. Even where the treaty specifies qualified majority voting—for single market legislation, for example—the UK retains the right to continue discussions indefinitely when our vital national interests are at stake. That right—the so-called Luxembourg Compromise—is not affected by the debate over QMV.

"Secondly, a change in the treaty to create a 27 vote blocking minority is not always contrary to our interests. For example, reform of the common agricultural policy, which still consumes 52 per cent. of the European Union's budget, will be more easily achieved with majority voting.

"Thirdly, some have asked why this difficult issue has been addressed now. Why could the QMV issue not have been left alone? The answer is that the treaty specifies the level of the qualified majority at 54 votes out of 76. Had the treaty been unamended, the qualified majority would have been 54 votes out of 90—a blocking minority of 37. I am not sure that many in this House would have supported that. The issue had to be tackled.

"I cannot prejudge the view which the Cabinet will take tomorrow. There are still matters on QMV which deeply concern the Government, particularly in the social field where measures have been taken against our interests, sometimes on a questionable basis. The presidency proposal is a compromise and one which the Cabinet will need to weigh carefully.

"I am sometimes asked whether qualified majority voting is more or less important than the enlargement of the Union to include Austria, Finland, Sweden and Norway. The answer is that there are major British interests at stake in both. We want enlargement to go ahead while adequately protecting our interests on QMV. That is what the Cabinet will aim to do tomorrow."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.48 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, perhaps I may say that I am a little surprised that I did not receive the usual courtesy of a copy of the Statement before it was made. As I understand it, the Government are making a Statement in this House although the matter was raised as a PNQ in the other place.

My first reaction to what the noble Baroness said is that it is a great pity that the Government did not recognise that the time to raise this issue would have been the Inter-Governmental Conference of 1996 rather than now. My second reaction is that I have very little sympathy for the position in which the Government find themselves. It is entirely of their own making and nobody else's. They raised the issue, they raised the stakes on the issue and I have no doubt that they were told what the result would be if they did. They persisted and went to a conference of the Council of Foreign Ministers over the weekend and predictably they have come back with what they have.

All that the Government have succeeded in doing is incensing our prospective allies in the four new applicants and infuriating our existing partners. They created the maximum of confusion with the minimum of effect. Confusion is a perfectly legitimate diplomatic weapon if one wants to confuse one's enemies. But here we have been confusing our friends. Frankly, it has been one of the most crass pieces of British diplomacy certainly that I can remember and of which I am conscious.

I presume it was a clever wheeze no doubt thought up by the same person who thought of the phrase "back to basics" in some governmental conference or conclave. It was probably said, "Wouldn't it be a good wheeze to have a good argument about the voting in the Council of Ministers? That is sure to help the party". It has not helped at all. They have tried to put a Band-Aid on a gaping split. It is time that the Government recognised that their party is savagely and irredeemably split on this issue.

The Government's handling of the whole affair has been a national disgrace. It is not often that [ can say that I have been ashamed of the way in which our Government have been behaving. But the way this matter has been handled, particularly over the past week, is frankly shameful. Whatever one thought of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher—one thought about her a great deal when she was Prime Minister—at least one felt that she believed what she was saying. She had a firm point of view which she argued with consistency and commitment. No one knows what this Government's position is on many issues. If this is meant to be a government at the heart of Europe, heaven save us all from a government on the periphery.

The priority in this issue, which I hope the Government now recognise, must be to secure enlargement. That is the main priority, which has been the expressed priority of the Government for a long period of time. It is certainly our view that that is the point on which the Government should be concentrate-ing. I hope that the Cabinet recognises that tomorrow and clears up this sorry mess.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, I begin on a non-controversial note. When I first heard, to my surprise, that this Private Notice Question had been accepted for Answer in another place and would therefore come here in the form of a Statement, I felt a stab of sympathy. I can imagine how unwelcome to the Government that decision must have been this morning. Midmorning information—mostly occurring on a Monday—that one has an unwelcome PNQ is the sort of chorus of doom which accompanies ministerial life. Having said that, I am bound to turn to something a little more controversial.

The Statement of the noble Baroness was more obfuscating than clarifying. One had to be a careful listener to realise that she was about to defend a move to 27 votes rather than sticking at 23 votes. which was the figure constantly mentioned at the beginning. But it is also the case that the indefensible position which the Government created for themselves--nobody else created it—over the past three weeks has been not merely unwise, but incomprehensible. To engage in a battle for a worthless piece of ground which cannot be won, and in the course of losing the battle to achieve the maximum of ill will and endanger the Government's major previously proclaimed British policy objective, is not patriotism; it is an inability even on a clear day to see two inches ahead of one's nose.

It endangers the policy objectives for the following reasons. Mr. Major's contention, "Britain at the heart of Europe", has long since become a bad joke. Since then, as I understand it, enlargement has been Britain's major objective. We are currently engaged in the easy move to enlargement—the EFTA four. My guess is that as a result of the shenanigans of the British Government we shall probably lose two of those four and maybe three. But this is a preface to the difficult but still more important step, which is the enlargement of the Vi seg rad 3, or 4 as they have now become. That is still more important for the stability of the continent and the reputation of the European movement. Yet having made such a meal of the easy bit, that in itself has become substantially less likely.

The arguments deployed in this matter are some of the most horrifyingly bad that I have ever heard. For a British Government to argue that, on an unlikely combination, 41 per cent. of the population of Europe —or at any rate the governments of the population—might be overruled when that Government have been overruling 58 per cent. or 59 per cent. of the British population where all the unwanted, undesirable, ill-thought-out legislation mostly amended by your Lordships' House has been imposed upon us, is fantastic. I hope that the Government are capable of realising that, because they seem incapable of realising the most obvious of facts.

Furthermore, it points straight to the Germans having 15 votes to our 10 when we come to discuss these matters in the future. It is impossible to escape the conclusion that these rivallings—for such they are—have nothing to do with British interests in Europe and everything to do with the internal politics of the Conservative Party. They are a desperate effort by the Prime Minister to preserve his own skin at whatever the cost. Those who are equipped to step into that skin are not behaving very edifyingly either. If ever a government looked past their sell-by date, it is this one. At the centre is that most pathetic of all spectacles; that is, a weak man trying to behave like a strong man and as a result looking even weaker.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, as I understand it, since this was an Answer to a Private Notice Question in another place the noble Lord, Lord Richard, would not normally have been given the text in advance. I received it only moments before I entered the Chamber and would have shared it with him had I found him.

I turn to the points in hand. As I understand it, the noble Lord, Lord Richard, said that if we had known that the issue was coming up, surely we should have solved it long before. I can only say that we always knew that the issue would arise, as with previous enlargements. The issue has been around for a number of months. The Foreign Secretary made our position clear on the institutional aspects of enlargement, including qualified majority voting, in his evidence to the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee as long ago as 23rd November. The matter was discussed again in December. It has not suddenly arisen.

Nevertheless, throughout that time it has been necessary to look after the needs of this country. If there is one point I can emphasise to your Lordships, it is that we have benefited considerably from the weekend at Ioannina. The original proposal was 27 from 1st January 1995, indefinitely. Now the decision of the Council, which will be legally binding, requires the Commission and the presidency to work for agreement on the basis of 23, taking "any initiative necessary" to achieve that.

As I said in repeating the Answer to the PNQ, there is no time limit after which a decision would be forced through on the basis of 27. All 12 nations acknowledge that the position is temporary and it must be reviewed in 1996. I happen to believe that the debate was valuable not just for the safeguards we appear to have secured but also in changing the terms of the 1996 debate so that it can deal with the enlarged community (which I am convinced there will be); it can deal with the needs of further enlargement. That is something to which we should certainly be turning our minds.

The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, was wrong when he said that we have put the current enlargement in jeopardy and made the Visegrad enlargement less likely. It is up to the Community to grow with time, and I am convinced and know that that is exactly what the Government are working for.

This has not been an easy period, but I know from first-hand knowledge that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has done what is best for Britain. What he is recommending to the Cabinet is most certainly the right balance between looking after our interests with a 23 blocking minority and allowing enlargement to go forward.

4 p.m.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, would my noble friend be slightly surprised to hear me say that I agree with much that was said by the noble Lords, Lord Richard and Lord Jenkins, on the tactics with which this negotiation has been conducted? Does she not agree that it seems a little odd to say that we have an arrangement by which discussion can go on indefinitely until an issue has been resolved on the basis of a blocking mechanism of 23 but that we have an ultimatum that we must make up our minds on this issue by five o'clock tomorrow evening? The two things do not seem to gel well together. Does she further agree that if the Government were going to give overriding priority to the admission in the near future of the four applicants, they should have known that they could be turned over on any particular matter in the negotiations? Did it not only confuse the issue when our right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary made it sound as though he was going to stand absolutely firm on 23 as opposed to 27 votes and then it seems has conducted a negotiation which I do not think has quite come out in that manner?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, not for the first time I find it hard to agree with my noble friend, particularly when he seems to put agreement with political opponents before loyalty to his own party.

Noble Lords


Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I find it very hard, when I know that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has indeed worked all this time to get agreement on the basis of a blocking minority of 23, to take what my noble friend has just said. The fact that no time limit is set for a decision to be forced through on the basis of 27 is an important gain; the fact that we have enlarged the decision to be taken in 1996, by which time we hope the EFTA countries will be members of the European Union, is a gain. Above all, the thing that has worried my noble friend for so many years—that we will still have the Luxembourg Compromise—is a vital agreement which is still there. That is what my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has achieved. I do not believe that my noble friend is right to say, as he did, that he could agree with the comments that were made by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, about my right honourable friend the Prime Minister.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, the noble Baroness has presented a Statement today which she says comprises the recommendations of the Foreign Secretary to be made to the Cabinet tomorrow. It would seem to me—and I do not know how far I share this feeling with other noble Lords—that not only was she doing that but she was at the same time indicating in advance what the Cabinet decision was likely to be, because there was a strong advocacy of the course recommended by the Foreign Secretary.

During these many months since Maastricht I have been wondering, and still wonder, when the Government will have the courage to say no to something that is proposed by the Brussels Commission and followed out into the Council by its faithful servants —the Dutch, the Belgians and the Luxembourg ones. I have been wondering when they would ever say no. It may well be that tomorrow the Cabinet will say no and insist on the terms forecast by the Prime Minister himself as the essence on which he would take his stand on behalf of the United Kingdom. I hope that that will still prevail. But in the absence of any indication at the moment, will the Government please bear in mind that even as the noble Baroness is talking here this afternoon the Brussels bureaucracy is still making plans together with the European Parliament for yet further concessions to be made at the 1996 Inter-Governmental Conference, to which she has referred? Will the noble Baroness give the House some indication as to the point upon which the Government in this field, which is vital to the United Kingdom, are prepared to take a firm stand for the United Kingdom as distinct from making concession after concession in some of the weasel words, I regret to say, in which the communiqué has been presented to the House?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord should understand that the recommendations which the Foreign Secretary is putting to the Cabinet tomorrow come not only from him but from his 11 colleagues in the Council of Ministers. That is the basis. Therefore, in accusing me of advocating this solution, I am simply saying that I believe that this is a way forward. It will be entirely up to the Cabinet whether or not it accepts that way forward.

The noble Lord went on to ask when the Government would say no. He knows full well that we have indeed referred the difficult questions on the working time directive to the European Court of Justice because we believe that the directive was taken on the wrong basis. It should not have been taken by majority voting. He asked when else we had said no. We said no to the social chapter. That was why we negotiated the social protocol.

Most noble Lords have looked forward to enlargement. I believe it is right for the European Union that we should continue to look forward to enlargement, but not at any price. That is why I believe that my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary has come back from the meeting in Greece with a sensible proposal which is workable and which allows us to change the terms of the 1996 debate, which is something for which the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, has often. argued.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend say whether, as there is apparently to be a Cabinet decision tomorrow, a further Statement will be made in your Lordships' House tomorrow afternoon embodying and reporting that decision?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I cannot tell my noble friend for certain whether that will be so but I have a funny feeling that I might be standing at this Dispatch Box tomorrow afternoon, too.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that I, at any rate, welcome the fact that her noble friend Lord Tebbit was prepared to pay attention to his common sense, to his conscience and to his loyalty to this country rather than to party advantage when he asked relevant questions of her from the Dispatch Box this afternoon? Is she further aware that it is still not clear to many of us exactly what has been agreed? Have the Government agreed to 27 votes being the blocking minority, or is the figure 23? Whichever it is, from when does it operate? If the Commission and the Council are going to examine the matter further between now and 1996, will it then be possible, if 27 votes has been agreed, to go back to the 23 votes which apparently has not been agreed? If the agreement reached has been so good, will the Minister say why the Foreign Secretary has had to come back and consult the Cabinet about it? If he had achieved what the Cabinet had said it wanted to achieve, does the Minister agree that he would not have needed to consult the Cabinet again and could have signed any agreement yesterday? Finally, can the noble Baroness say exactly who is "Monsieur Oui" now, the "poodle of Brussels"?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I believe as I believe your Lordships' House and the other place believe, that it is in the United Kingdom's interest to secure enlargement. That has long been a united purpose of both our Houses of Parliament. The Government are not yet in a position to agree what was a proposition brought back by my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary yesterday following his discussions with 11 colleagues. If it is agreed tomorrow then the proposals which have been made would begin at the time of enlargement —in other words, there would be no change right now.

Perhaps I may recap for the information of the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart. First, the original proposal was 27 votes. We now have a proposal from all 12 Foreign Ministers that the decision of the Council will be legally binding and will require the Commission and the presidency to work for agreement on the basis of 23 and, I quote from the document, taking "any initiative necessary" to achieve that. Secondly, there will be no time limit after which a decision will be forced through on the basis of 27. All 12 acknowledge that this position is temporary and will have to be reviewed in 1996. As I said some moments ago, by then we hope that Austria, Sweden, Norway and Finland will be members of the Community.

We still have the Luxembourg Compromise where vital interests are at stake. I believe that is why the Foreign Secretary is putting this recommendation to the Cabinet. He agreed with the Cabinet before he went to the meeting in Greece that he would return to the Cabinet with the detail of the discussions. That is why he did not give agreement in Greece and neither did any of the other 11 Ministers. The matter will go to the Cabinet and a decision will be made.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there are behind her a number of noble friends who have a great deal of sympathy with my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary in the very difficult negotiations in which he has found himself taking a leading part? There will also be a measure of sympathy with him in the fact that his position has been made much more difficult by a lot of opportunistic posturing on the part of those who might have held their tongues for a little while.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend for what he said. I rarely remember a time when there was so much opportunistic chuntering from people who do not even really understand the detail of this matter. I speak for some within my own party.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

My Lords, I am sorry to be stupid, but I am trying very hard to understand. Could the Minister tell us what figure will operate between the accession of the new members and the review conference of 1996? Will it be 23 or 27?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, it will initially be 23 with no time limit to it. That means it will be 23. I say "with no time limit" because the proposal which my right honourable friend put to the Cabinet is that the decision of the Council would require the Commission and the presidency to work for an agreement on the basis of 23. No time limit is set on the basis of achieving it at 23.

Lord Cockfield

My Lords, as the treaties contain no reference whatever to a blocking minority, it is not at all surprising that there should be a degree of confusion in this matter. But what the treaties define are the number of positive votes required to pass a proposition. Having said that—I believe that that is what underlies a great deal of the exchanges which have gone on—perhaps I may make this point. It is not uncommon for a particular country to take a strong line and then, as a result of a protracted period of negotiation, to accept some sort of compromise. We are not the only country to take that line.

At the end of the day what matters is that the Community goes ahead together. We now have a reasonAble chance that that should be the position; namely, that if the proposition which is now being considered by Her Majesty's Government, the Cabinet, or whoever takes the final decision, is accepted, then it follows that enlargement can go ahead. Enlargement is more than just being a policy that the Government have supported. It is a policy of immense advantage to the European Union as a whole and to this country in particular. What is more, we have to look forward to the end of this century and the early years of the next when the peace, stability, security and prosperity of Europe as a whole is going to depend on the Community enlarging its frontiers to include the countries of Central and Eastern Europe.

So what we all ought to do is not so much rake over the embers of the past, but turn our minds to the future and to devote our efforts to constructing a sound and durable future.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, as time is short, perhaps I may say that I agree in principle with what my noble friend said. Enlargement is a very important matter for the whole Community, particularly for this country and for many others who want to apply in future.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, can the Minister explain why the Government have been so very stubborn about reducing the size of the arithmetical blocking fraction for the enlargement of the EFTA countries when they were perfectly ready to accept the normal enlargement of the fraction for the accession of Spain, Portugal and Greece?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, we have always believed that we should not allow majority voting to bulldoze minority interests, but to build on consensus. I believe that we did that in the case to which the noble Lord referred. We must make sure that we are able to resist unwelcome proposals.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, can my noble friend the Minister repeat—perhaps in other words—the answer which she gave to the noble Baroness, Lady Castle? If it is the case that, until 1996, 27 continues to be the figure

Noble Lords

My Lords, the figure is 23—

Lord Beloff

My Lords, no. We were told that 27 continues to be the figure. In that case it is not so much a compromise because it would suggest that the other countries have totally given way to the British position. I cannot believe that that can be the case. Therefore, can we know exactly what happens if a proposal is made between now and 1996? Which blocking minority is valid?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the original proposal was 27 from 1st January 1995. It is perfectly true that the treaty says 27, but what was proposed yesterday and what my right honourable friend has put to the Cabinet is the decision of the Council, which is legally binding, which would require the Commission and the Presidency to work for an agreement on the basis of 23, with no time limit.

Lord Jay

My Lords, do the Government take the view that the Luxembourg Compromise is now legally binding?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the Luxembourg Compromise has never been legally binding, but it has always been accepted. We still have the Luxembourg Compromise where vital interests are at stake.