HL Deb 29 March 1994 vol 553 cc991-1001

3.37 p.m.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on enlargement, qualified majority voting. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Madam Speaker, I shall make a Statement on proposals to adjust qualified majority voting in the context of the European Union's enlargement negotiations. In these negotiations, the Government had two principal objectives:

"First, we wished to see the negotiations succeed, so long as the terms were acceptable. We have been strong and consistent supporters of enlargement. We look forward to welcoming Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden at the beginning of 1995, should their peoples and their parliaments so decide.

"On enlargement, it is necessary to amend Article 148 of the Treaty. Without a change the blocking minority would automatically rise to 37 votes. Our second objective was to safeguard the rights of minorities in the period between enlargement and the 1996 Inter-Governmental Conference; and to seek a fundamental review of qualified majority voting at that conference.

"We believed that there should not be an unqualified, mathematical extension of the blocking minority to 27. We were concerned that successive, unqualified extensions had weakened the democratic legitimacy of the Community.

"A large part of our concern stemmed from the handling by the European Commission of social measures. Article 118A of the treaty, which provides for health and safety at work, had been used as a vehicle for the adoption by qualified majority voting of measures affecting social affairs and employment. In addition, a proposal had recently been made to count the employees of multi-national companies in the United Kingdom towards the threshold of the Works Council Directive—although this measure had been brought forward under the Social Chapter, to which the United Kingdom is not a party.

"My right honourable friend said yesterday that we were pursuing our concerns about the social affairs measures. I can now inform the House that we have received assurances from the Commission that it will not bring forward any further proposals under the health and safety articles under its term of office except for measures directly and demonstrably relevant to health and safety at work. This means that we shall not face a repetition from this Commission of our experience over the Working Time Directive, which we are challenging in the European Court of Justice; or over the Young Persons Directive, which is in dispute between the Council and the European Parliament. The Commission has also agreed now that proposals under the Social Chapter will not embrace people or organisations in the United Kingdom. For the purposes of the Social Chapter, the United Kingdom will be entirely excluded from legislation. This meets a particular concern we had with the works council proposal which the other 11 member states are pursuing.

"The proposal on qualified majority voting negotiated by my right honourable friend at the weekend meets many, though not all, of the Government's concerns. We have secured agreement that the review of qualified majority voting at the next inter-governmental conference will now include the question of thresholds. These will be reopened and re-examined—as will the number of votes attributed to each member country. This means, as my right honourable friend said yesterday, that there will be a root and branch review of the system. This will have to take a fundamental look at the democratic legitimacy of decision-making. At the request of the United Kingdom and Spain, the transitional arrangements from accession until 1996 will no longer provide for unqualified extension of the blocking minority to 27. The Council is under a legal and binding obligation to seek agreement on the basis of a minority of at least 23 votes. My right honourable friend ensured that there would be no time limit for the fulfilment of this obligation. The Commission and the Presidency are required to take "any initiative necessary" to reach a solution adopted by at least 68 votes—that is, with no more than 22 votes against.

"This obligation is justiciable in the European Court of Justice. We expect it to be upheld scrupulously. Should there be any question of a breach of the obligation, we would reserve the right to take whatever action was necessary; and a number of avenues would be open to us. The first would be a legal challenge; and the second would be use of the Luxembourg Compromise.

"The binding nature of the obligation is clearly understood by our partners, and stems from the form of the Council's decision. For example, Germany has said today that it regards the obligation as binding on the Council and has no doubt that other member states of the Union will also fully respect these procedures.

"On this basis, the Cabinet has concluded that our objectives on enlargement and on qualified majority voting have been sufficiently achieved. We are informing the Presidency that, provided the concessions made to the United Kingdom and Spain are accepted without qualification by all other member states, the United Kingdom can accept the proposal.

"Enlargement will bring into the Union countries which share Britain's open trading instincts; and which will be net contributors to the Budget. It will be another large step towards the wider, less centralised, open trading Europe for which we are working."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.44 p.m.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I am obliged to the Leader of the House for repeating the Statement made by his right honourable friend the Prime Minister in another place.

Let us be clear about where we are in this whole affair. The position now is that the blocking mechanism—the minority between now and 1996—will at the end of the day be 27, not 23. But everyone, particularly the Commission and the Council, will try to seek agreement on the basis of 23. If they cannot get it, they will adjourn for a reasonable time to see whether they can. I make one observation only on that. Anyone who has been involved with the affairs of the Commission and the Council of Ministers will know that the Commission and the Council will strive very hard indeed to avoid taking a decision other than by unanimity. For the Government now to dress up this rather neat proposal that people will try to get agreement on 23, as if it were a great victory is, frankly, a distortion of language.

Yesterday I described this affair as a sorry mess, and so it is. I shall not reiterate what I said yesterday but I note again that the Government are once more trying to mislead people about the effect of what they have negotiated or have received from the Commission. Even at this stage they are not prepared to accept their full responsibility.

In the Financial Times this morning there was reference to a written commitment from M. Delors, the President of the Commission. I do not believe that there has been such a written commitment. If there has been, I should be grateful if the leader of the House could tell us where the letter is. There is not one. The noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, need not look too hard because I spoke to the Commission shortly before the House sat this afternoon. There is no such letter.

The Government apparently asked for three commitments from the Commission; each, frankly, more illusory than the last. On health and safety and the use of Article 118A, they were told to look at the work programme. If your Lordships will allow me to translate from the French—it may not be entirely accurate but I think I can get the gist of it: In the course of their contacts with the representatives of the British Government the President of the Commission and the commissioner responsible for social affairs have stated orally that the propositions under Article 118A which figure at the moment in the Commission's work programme for 1994 concern only health and safety". In other words, the Government were told to look at the work programme. There is no new assurance in that, my Lords.

Secondly, the Government asked for an assurance on the coverage of the social protocol. They were told: The Commission considers that from the legal point of view the social protocol applies according to the principle of territoriality". There is nothing new in that. It has been there ever since the treaty was negotiated.

Thirdly, they raised—and the Prime Minister did riot even see fit to mention this one—a somewhat more esoteric point on objectives 3 and 4 of the social fund concerning the UK's ability to decide the percentage allocation between those two objectives. There is nothing new in that.

Nothing new has come from the Commission in the past 24 hours which entitles the Government now to say that they should be taking a different view from the one they could have taken a week or 10 days ago. None of this is anything to do with enlargement or anything to do with majority voting. So what do we have in reality? This has been an absurd, damaging and humiliating episode. I do not mind if it damages the Government alone. They have shot themselves in the foot so often that it now almost amounts to knee-capping. But I do mind when it damages the country; and I do mind when it damages relations with our partners and the standing of this country in the world. Frankly, they have made us a laughing stock in Europe. And I do mind about that.

The Government started this unnecessary and divisive row. No one else started it. They persisted in it against the advice of the Foreign Office arid, it now seems, the Foreign Secretary himself. Last week they talked it up as if the issue were the most fundamental of all British interests; and today when, as was inevitable, they had to retreat, they seek to claim that it is all right anyway because we have fresh assurances from the Commission, which on my information is totally false.

Why have we gone through all this? It has nothing to do with Europe or with the enlargement of the Community, but to try to preserve a semblance of unity in the ranks of the party opposite. The Daily Telegraph summed it up rather well this morning. It is not an organ which I normally quote. It said: Derision seems the only possible response to a David who announces an engagement with Goliath, marches armed to the encounter, and then returns with unbloodied sling to explain that after a quiet word Goliath agreed to behave more reasonably in future". What a judgment on the way in which this Government are conducting the nation's affairs! It has been a sorely damaging episode. The Government should stop pretending and at least show some regret at the folly of their actions.

Lord Jenkins of Hillhead

My Lords, this morning's decision by the Cabinet is a great deal better than the reverse. The Government's performance over the past three weeks remains incomprehensible. But I shall not dwell on that for a second day running. I make only three relatively brief points. I beg the Government not to try to present the defeat as a triumph. The submissive acceptance of retreat is sometimes necessary, although sympathy is less if the battle itself was totally uncalled for. But it is the waving of a piece of paper after defeat which sticks in the gullet. I pray for the Government not to do that.

I also beg the Government not to pretend that we have secured a blocking majority of 23. We have got 27 with a little cosmetic patch. To pretend otherwise yesterday even strained the great respect in which the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, is held in this House. I was much struck yesterday by the intervention of the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, when he said that we should look to the future and not to the past. But to do that effectively the British Government must try to learn something from this fiasco, for that it most certainly is.

The most important fact is that whether the blocking minority be 23 or 27, it is of no value to us unless we have allies in Europe who wish to be allied with us. Our own vote is 10. Let the blocking minority be what it is, that figure can never be achieved alone. What we have done is to ensure that people are deeply suspicious of being allied with us. The Spaniards have been waiting to jump ship for the past two weeks and they did so. Why are we so unsuccessful in getting allies in Europe? It is perfectly true, as it is sometimes argued, that other countries can sometimes play a national, even a selfish, hand, but they manage to do so in a way which secures for them more support. That is the central question. Out of this fiasco I beg the Government to try to learn something for the future, otherwise there can be no Statement more hollow than that of the noble Baroness yesterday, and that as a result we shall approach the 1996 renegotiations from a more favourable threshold. We shall do the reverse unless we learn the lessons of these terrible three weeks.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, first I have to say to the noble Lord, Lord Richard, that I am not in the least bit surprised to find that he seeks to belittle the achievement of the Government, because the Labour Party would have signed up for a higher minority vote without securing any safeguards whatsoever. That they should therefore try to run down the safeguards that we have achieved does not surprise me in the slightest. It is clear from the Statement that the safeguards are not as good as we wanted originally, but they are still very substantial indeed.

Of course the blocking minority will increase to 27, but the process before that figure can be used is very substantial indeed. It will apply until the treaty amendments following the 1996 IGC enter into force. Where there is a minority of 23 or up to 26 votes opposing a decision, it will be binding. That means that it will be legally binding and there will be an obligation on the presidency, with the assistance of the Commission, to take the initiative to facilitate a wider basis of agreement within the Council. The Council will do all within its means to reach a satisfactory solution within a reasonable time which can be adopted with at least 68 votes with a blocking minority of 23. What is a reasonable time will depend on the circumstances, but it will be a reasonable time in order to discharge the obligation to facilitate a wider basis of agreement within the Council. I believe that that is a significant and important safeguard.

Some noble Lords seem to be confused about the figure of 37 which I used in the Statement. I shall try to explain. The qualified majority in the present treaty—that is to say, for the present 12 member states, is 54. If there were no decision on the qualified majority after enlargement the figure of 54 would remain unchanged, but the total number of votes after enlargement would rise from 76 for the present 12 to 90 for the 16. So the blocking minority would be 90 minus 54. For those who cannot do mental arithmetic, that is 37.

Noble Lords

It is 36!

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, one of the first pieces of advice which I was given many years ago when I was a chartered accountant was never to do mental arithmetic in the witness box. Noble Lords are quite right; it is 36 plus 1. But that is how the figure of 37 arises and it is a real figure.

The noble Lord cast some doubt on the announcements which we made about the social legislation. That is separate but very much related to the issue of qualified majority negotiations. The United Kingdom has been concerned by the Commission's attempts to undermine the opt out from the Social Chapter obtained at Maastricht. I can understand again why the noble Lord does not believe that that is a great advantage because he was in favour of signing up to that legislation. But we on this side of the House and the Government believe that that would have been a very bad step for us to have agreed to.

Assurances have now been obtained from the Commission which are very reassuring. Only two new items of legislation planned under the national health and safety provisions supported by the United Kingdom on mine and equipment safety will be pursued. The noble Lord also said that the Council always tried for unanimity and therefore qualified majority voting is not important and that we cannot claim a victory. That is not true.

Qualified majority voting is increasingly used in the Council in the annual budget and under the health and safety regulations under Article 118A. So I believe that this agreement is a very good one in the circumstances. The noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, said that it was a great deal better than the reverse. But I have to say to him that the Liberal Party would seek to abolish the national veto, as I understand it. So the Liberal Party would seek to remove the protection of the blocking minority also, and we would have majority voting on all issues in the Community. In these negotiations, I believe that the Government have substantially achieved their objectives. Those objectives were, first, to achieve a successful enlargement. That has been achieved. The second objective was to provide adequate protection for minorities. We believe that we have achieved that.

4 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that very few Members of your Lordships' House will regard what he has said as an unqualified victory for the Government? Many of us feel that that would be stretching the truth much too far. Is the noble Lord aware that some 50 years ago many of us in this House were assembling on this side of the Channel with our American colleagues to liberate the various countries of Europe which are now part of the 12? Is the noble Lord further aware that very few of us at that time ever thought that we in this country would be presented with an ultimatum expiring in 48 hours and that we would come out of it waving a white flag?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I hope that the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition felt that that contribution from the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, which is characteristic of him and of the views that he holds very sincerely, was also in line with the policy of his party, which, of course, it is not. I believe that the agreement was a very important agreement, enabling not only progress to a stronger European Union, but also to an open market trading organisation by the accession of those countries. I believe that to be correct. Many of us—certainly on this side of the House—have believed that the main justification for stronger links in Western Europe has been to avoid the sort of disasters to which the noble Lord referred, which have occurred twice in the lifetime of a number of Members of your Lordships' House.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that even to those of us who have indulged in a slight, but possibly frequent, kicking over of the traces, his announcement has done the authority of the present Administration no good whatever? In effect, it said that it is in the essential national interest that the blocking minority should stay at 27. That may or may not be the case, but, in effect, the announcement said that the essential blocking minority can now be reduced to 23. The announcement has produced a legalistic figleaf the size of a microdot to cover its nakedness. It makes it extremely difficult for those of us who really wish Her Majesty's advisers well not to be very depressed by what we have just heard—least of all because it makes former commissioners of the European Community extremely smug, arid that is very irritating.

Noble Lords


Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I share the less than 100 per cent. enthusiasm for the last part of my noble friend's contribution. Indeed, I do not accept the basis of his question at all. The Government's first objective was to achieve enlargement. I believe that most Members of your Lordships' House believe that to be the right policy. The second objective was, at the same time as achieving enlargement, to protect minority opinion within the Community. If the straight proposal on a numbers basis had happened as in the previous enlargement, the blocking minority would have been a straight 27. We have agreed with our Community partners a very significant improvement on that situation which is of benefit not only to us, but also to other countries within the Community because we believe that, as the Community grows, so the democratic problems will require better arrangements for minorities. That will be even more so in the IGC in 1996. There is recognition throughout the Community that those negotiations will be extremely important because the. arrangements for a Community of 12 are not appropriate: for a Community of 16—and certainly not for a Community of 20.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that many of us have some sympathy with him in that this afternoon he has had to come to the. Dispatch Box to defend the indefensible? I do not intend to attack the Government this afternoon because I want answers to three questions. First, are we going to have the assurances from the Commission in writing, because it is clear from what my noble friend said from the Front: Bench that we have not yet received those assurances in writing? Can the noble Lord assure me that we will have those assurances in writing in due course? Secondly, the noble Lord referred to "this Commission". Does that mean that the assurances are only short term and temporary and will be set aside by a future Commission? Thirdly, please could the noble Lord try to tell us what our position will be in future negotiations when our partners know perfectly well that when we take a position at the beginning, a few threats and some bullying from them will make us change our mind within a few days and certainly in no less a period than a fortnight?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, the noble Lord asked me three questions. I have no information as to whether or not the undertakings that were given by M. Delors were in writing, will be writing or were given over the telephone. However, I find very surprising any suggestion that M. Delors will not stick to an agreement that he has entered into, especially when it comes from a fellow Socialist. I have no doubt whatever that received assurances from M. Delors on this particular point are perfectly satisfactory. I think that they are right. M. Delors' undertaking was for the lifetime of this Commission. A new Commission will have to consider these matters afresh. However, I have every reason to believe that the undertakings that have been entered into by this Commission will be taken seriously by a new one. As far as our partners are concerned, I think that what has emerged from these discussions is that, as I said earlier, it is now accepted by all member countries of the European Union that we cannot move from a Community of 12 to a Community of 20 without considering the safeguards of minorities. I do not know what will be the outcome of negotiations which will not even start until 1996, but I have every reason to think that the basis upon which they will start will be satisfactory. I believe that I spoke earlier about "successful enlargement". I meant "successful negotiations". The enlargement is subject to ratification by the peoples and parliaments of all the countries concerned.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, I take the same view as my noble friend Lord Richard in his condemnation of the way in which the Government have handled this matter. I should like to put one specific question. In the Statement which the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker of Wallasey, read yesterday, which was repeated by the noble Lord when making his presentation today, appeared the phrase, "This is a legally binding decision of the Council", as if somehow or other it was different from any other decision of the Council. Like many other noble Lords, I have taken the opportunity of reading the text of the declaration of the 12 present member states of the European Union which was made in their statement yesterday. I can find nothing that implies that there will be some new legally binding document, which I suppose must mean a new treaty. Will the Leader of the House explain what that term really means? I fear that it is just a piece of gobbledegook.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, the noble Lord asked for an explanation. The explanation is blindingly simple. The member states have agreed that this decision will be legally binding, which means that if any nation is aggrieved by it, these matters can be taken to the European Court of Justice and are justiciable in that sense.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us feel that a great advance has been effected by securing the four additional members of the Community? All four are admirably run countries which will undoubtedly exercise a very good influence on the operation of the Community as a whole. Is he further aware that to have achieved that with minimal reduction in the safeguards looked for appears to many of us like a very considerable achievement on which the Prime Minister should be congratulated?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend. He puts it better than I can.

Lord Desai

My Lords, perhaps I may ask the noble Lord three questions. First, is it not true that the number is not 27 but 30 per cent. of the total votes, because if one of the countries was not to join, the number of votes necessary for a blocking minority would be adjusted to 30 per cent? The principle of 30 per cent. has been accepted and retained. There is no change in that. Secondly, perhaps I may ask him about the delay that a blocking minority of 23 can win. Is it not true that another country may, at any time, reopen the issue, and by a simple majority overrule whatever is going on? So a blocking minority of 23 cannot indefinitely stop something from going through. It is just a variable delay depending upon how many enemies one has created. Lastly, has any one of the four new partners who are about to join asked for derogation from the Social Chapter?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I am not informed on the last question. I do not know; but I shall find out and write to the noble Lord. To my own embarrassment and expense, I have already bandied numbers about earlier in this exchange. As I understand it, the 30 per cent. is nowhere in the legislation. The minority blocking vote has been around 30 per cent., but in the legislation it has always been expressed as the number of votes necessary to achieve a majority. That is what it is. It was 54. It will now increase so that the blocking minority will be 27, but with the procedures that have been agreed.

The noble Lord asked what would happen if some country decided to seek to change those arrangements. Of course I believe that it would be possible to change these procedures by a simple majority, although I am not an expert in that particular matter. What is clear is that in those circumstances the Luxembourg Compromise, which exists in the background, is still available to us and can be used. Of course no one wants to use the Luxembourg Compromise unless it is necessary. That has not been changed. Indeed, its authority has been enhanced as a result of the negotiations, because Spain has also indicated that in certain circumstances it too would not hesitate to use the Luxembourg Compromise.

Lord Wyatt of Weeford

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Commissioner in charge of health and safety in Brussels has already said on the wireless that he is not going to take the blindest bit of notice of any undertaking not to link hours of work with health and safety?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I have not had my noble friend's advantage of listening to the Commissioner on the radio. All I know is that M. Delors has indicated that this Commission has no proposals to pursue any health and safety matters other than the two items that we have indicated that we approve of relating to mine safety and equipment safety. I have now been informed that none of the applicants has asked for a derogation from the Social Chapter.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, it seems to me that the noble Lord the Leader of the House did not deal adequately with an important point raised by my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead when he suggested that in the future, instead of becoming involved once again in these arcane and complex matters of numbers and voting, we should concentrate on building up allies within the Community, and that we should work to try to persuade people that our views, which we happen to feel are in our own interests, would also be in their interests, so that when this matter arises again we should have a much stronger following than we had apparently on this occasion.

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord that we should seek to build up allies and strengthen our position within the Community. I believe that in the past few years we have made a significant improvement in those relationships. I do not believe, for example, that we could have had a successful negotiation at Maastricht had it not been for the warm and constructive way in which my right honourable friend the Prime Minister conducted those negotiations which I believe were very much to Britain's benefit.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, how was it then that we found ourselves in a minority of one in the recent negotiations?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, the answer to that is that we were not in a minority of one; we were in a minority of two—and two very important countries. That comes ill from the Liberals who would give up all national vetos in these matters.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, would it not have been easier to have won friends after Maastricht if, instead of coming out of the negotiations shouting, "Game, set and match", the Prime Minister had come out saying how understanding his friends had been in the other countries of Europe?

Lord Wakeham

My Lords, I am perfectly happy to say how understanding everyone, including the British Government, has been in this matter.