HL Deb 28 October 1996 vol 575 cc107-10

2.50 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will publish the Franco-German proposals for a more flexible Union tabled during the week beginning 14th October which include a proposal for the abolition of the United Kingdom's right of veto, and whether they will now reiterate their intention to retain that right in all circumstances and to refuse to consider it as negotiable.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, copies of the Franco-German paper on flexibility have been placed in the Library of the House. As was made clear in A Partnership of Nations, the Government will oppose extension of qualified majority voting.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I am most grateful to the Minister for that reply. In view of the fact that Her Majesty's Government wish to retain the right of veto and have indicated their willingness to pursue that aim, can we now be assured that they will act on their belief and, wherever necessary, exercise that right in the areas concerned, particularly those under Titles V and VI which concern foreign affairs and defence and home affairs? More particularly, since the French, the Germans, the Commission and a large part of the European Parliament want to abolish the UK abatement, will the Minister assure the House that she will resist that to the uttermost?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, not for the first time I can tell the noble Lord that we shall continue to have the UK abatement so long as there is a Conservative Government in office. He should be very mindful of that.

In relation to the very interesting subject of flexibility there are basic tenets. We have always said that flexibility must be agreeable to all and open to all. That means that flexibility must not undermine the single market. It also means that the obligations taken by a group which decides to go ahead of the others are entirely separate from and should not affect the acquis communautaire. It must also allow for permanent differentiation. When the noble Lord has read those words in Hansard and has thought about the matter, he will see that that means maintaining the veto.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, does the Minister really believe that the wisest way to encourage British influence with our partners in Europe is to adopt the posture suggested by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, of continually vetoing almost everything?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

No, my Lords, I was extremely careful in my reply to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington. The point is that the paper is for discussion. It is quite interesting to read. It deals with the three pillars of the European Union in different ways. It is still open to discussion, and there may be further papers. I have underlined the basic principles. Those like the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, who study these matters will see that they represent the sensible approach for this country to take.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

Nevertheless, my Lords, would my noble friend not agree that the publication of these proposals does not give one enormous faith in the Government's claim that the debate in Europe is moving our way?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, that really is not either a relevant or a helpful comment. It is much better to know what is in the minds of one's partners in order to prepare to tackle the issue properly. I would far rather know what the French and the Germans are thinking. That enables us, as it does so many other nations in the European Union, firmly to express our opposition to an exclusive hard core. We know full well that many others will join us in that. Therefore it is a rather good idea to have the papers published.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the Minister not concerned, as many of us are, that there is a very powerful axis developing between Germany and France which seeks to wrong foot and undermine the British Government's position on all these matters? Will the Minister assure the House that the Government will be strong enough and unwimpish, as they sometimes are, to stand up to that axis? Will she further give an assurance that under no circumstances will the British Government concede any further powers to any institution of the European Union, including the European Parliament and the European Commission?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, the noble Lord's points are very wide of the original Question. However, I assure him that the Government will stand firm on these matters and will do what is right for Britain. It is time that he asked his own Front Bench what they will do about these proposals.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the Treaty of Rome was ideally designed for the six countries who were the original signatories and is quite unsuitable for 15 countries with 11 different languages and various different types of constitution? Should we not therefore welcome the apparent open-mindedness now being shown by France and Germany?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. What was designed for six cannot possibly work in the same way with 15, let alone with an enlarged European Union which we hope to see. It is right that there should be openness. There should be a debate. The Franco-German paper is welcome in another sense, too; namely, it is absolutely clear that flexibility should be open to all. That is exactly what has to happen with 15 nations; it would be the case to an even greater degree with a larger number.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the Minister satisfied that the Foreign Office is completely au fait with the extent of the integration, formal and otherwise, of the policies of France and Germany which originated from the Elysée Treaty of 1963? Is she aware that they act in co-ordination before every Council meeting, that they have penetrated the whole European Commission machine and that these things are happening all the time?

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, I am a good deal more aware than the noble Lord gives me credit for. I am also very much aware that the team in the Foreign Office and those representing the UK in Brussels are extremely alive to all the discussions that are going on. The noble Lord should not think that just because the French and the Germans happen to chat and organise before certain meetings other nations within the European Union do not also do so. They are not the only ones who try to organise to ensure that their point of view prevails.