HL Deb 14 May 1998 vol 589 cc1261-70

Consideration of amendments on Report resumed.

Lord Moynihan

moved Amendment No. 12: After Clause I, insert the following new clause— RE-WEIGHTING OF VOTES IN THE COUNCIL (". No provision of the Treaty signed at Amsterdam on 2nd October 1997 amending the Treaty on European Union, the Treaties establishing the European Communities and certain related Acts which extends the procedure for co-decision-making with the European Parliament shall have effect in the United Kingdom until the re-weighting of votes in the Council of Ministers anticipated in Protocol 11 to that Treaty has been agreed upon and implemented."). The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move Amendment No. 12 standing in my name. I have tabled this amendment because of the paramount importance the Opposition, and indeed the Government, rightly attach to enlargement of the European Union, as the historic and moral challenge of our generation—a sentiment which I know is shared across all sides of this House.

The present union, its institutions and mechanisms, were designed nearly half a century ago for six states. No one expects these to serve effectively a Europe of the 21st century in all its diversity. To fulfil the mission of enlargement—and it is a mission—difficult issues must be addressed and difficult decisions made, including the re-weighting of votes in the Council of Ministers. Without re-weighting, the smaller member states will have power disproportionate to their populations, enabling them to outvote the larger member states. That situation will only worsen as the European Union is enlarged to include the smaller states of central and eastern Europe.

The proposed new clause delays the extension of powers to the European Parliament until agreement is reached on overall institutional changes which the Government failed to achieve at Amsterdam. As I made clear earlier today, I do not wholly agree with the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, that the advance in the powers of the European Parliament is an important gain in its own right, certainly not in comparison with the need for the institutional changes required for enlargement. Nor can I understand how the Government can claim to have increased democracy in the Union when they failed to address the issue of re-weighting the votes in the Council of Ministers, which would more closely relate each country's influence to the size of its population.

A major goal of this IGC—perhaps the major goal—was to reform the European Union's institutions in order that they should continue to be effective after further enlargement. As I have said before, if Amsterdam had a raison d'être, an idea behind it, a purpose to achieve, it was the acknowledgment that Europe does not end at the Elbe and that institutional changes and reforms were necessary to pave the way for enlargement. We are all agreed on that. The re-weighting of votes is not just necessary; it is vital before the process of enlargement can succeed.

In the present voting system, the United Kingdom, like France, Germany and Italy, wields 10 votes out of 87. Yet those four states represent more than two-thirds of the European Union's population. Democratic legitimacy demands that the relative influence of the more populous states is increased. At present, the system gives one vote for every 200,000 Luxembourgers but only one vote for every 8 million Germans or 6 million people in the United Kingdom, France or Italy. Without reform, the bias against the more populous member states, which are also the largest net contributors to the European Union budget, will become even more pronounced with the accession of more, mainly small, states. Malta has only 400,000 inhabitants, Cyprus 700,000 and Estonia, 1.5 million. A European Union of 27 members containing all the current candidates for accession would include 15 with populations of fewer than 10 million people, about the size of Greater London, and only six, including the United Kingdom, with populations of more than 30 million.

Clearly, the bigger the European Union becomes, the more necessary it will be for states like our own to ensure that any risk of QMV is based on a weighting of votes which reflects the population of individual member states.

The present voting system gives rise to the possibility that small states will be given overweening power and we are drifting towards a situation in which, if many more states enter the European Union, we might have Germany, Britain or France or Germany, Britain and Italy voting together and being voted down by the combined weight of all the other member states despite the fact that in population terms, nothing like an adequate majority would have been achieved.

I have no doubt that the noble Lord will agree that a system which allows countries representing a significant percentage of the European Union's population or the major net contributors as a group to be outvoted would not be acceptable to the United Kingdom. Given the late hour at which the matter was discussed in Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, understandably, did not wish to burden the Committee with the mathematics which the Government will use to determine acceptable criteria for re-weighting. But perhaps today he will comment on the two broad approaches which have been suggested for overcoming the present bias; namely, either changing the number of votes within the current system or the introduction of a second voting criterion.

Given that other less tangible factors beside population, such as the sovereign right of even the smallest states to have a say and member states' global political responsibilities, are also relevant in achieving a sensible balance for determining relative influence, does the Minister agree that, of the two broad approaches that I have mentioned, it would be by far the better solution for this country and for the Union as a whole to reflect those wider considerations of sovereignty and global political responsibilities by changing the number of votes within the current system rather than by introducing the second voting criterion?

The issue of re-weighting votes in the Council of Ministers was raised by the former Prime Minister, John Major, during the Greek presidency. He was rightly concerned that the qualified majority voting should not continue on the present basis whereby votes in an electoral college are given to individual member states rather arbitrarily in a way that bears no relation to their population. So as to avoid being accused of excluding the Scandinavians and others from membership, it was agreed at the informal Foreign Affairs Council in Ioánnina in March 1994 that the IGC would discuss the arrangements for majority voting, and notably the weighting of votes in the system.

Prior to the conclusion of the IGC at Amsterdam, the Foreign Secretary was unequivocally bullish in his confident assertion that he had the negotiating skills to secure voting reform in the Council of Ministers when he told another place: I believe we can look forward with confidence to obtaining more votes for Britain and the larger countries from the Amsterdam summit. Enlargement could create the perverse outcome of the three largest nations, with the majority of the population of Europe, not having a blocking minority in the Council of Ministers. We have every reason to believe that we shall emerge from Amsterdam with an agreement that will give Britain greater weight in the Council of Ministers". But, as the House knows, despite the Foreign Secretary's confidence, he failed at Amsterdam. The final text of the treaty demonstrates that this issue proved too controversial for his negotiating skills.

Protocol 11 on the institutions, with the prospect of enlargement, represents the fruits of his negotiation and is a bad apple or an unripe lemon, if ever there was one. In fairness, however, the Foreign Secretary attempted to rally and said that he was, pleased to say that we have had it explicitly written into the treaty that the issue of the rebalancing of votes in the Council of Ministers must be addressed before any further enlargement takes place". Why, when prior to the summit the Foreign Secretary was so confident that he would return with the key institutional reforms necessary for enlargement, does Article 1 of the protocol simply state the requirement, apparent since the last enlargement took place in 1995, to reweight the votes in Council and to adjust the present number of Commissioners?

The immediate effect of Protocol 11 is to postpone changes to the size and composition of the Commission and to the voting weights in Council to a later date. It also provides that, when further enlargement takes place, the Commission shall comprise one national of each of the member states. This has committed the Union to reform of the Commission; but, again, as the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, very helpfully explained in Committee, only if greater influence is given to Britain in the Council of Ministers' weighted voting, as we are one of the countries which will lose our second Commissioner.

As I understand it, Britain's position has always been that we would agree to give up our second Commissioner provided that we were compensated through vote reweighting. On Second Reading, the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, sought to confirm that that was still the Government's position. He quoted Article 1 of the protocol; namely, that the Commission will consist of one Commissioner per member state on enlargement, but only if, by that date, the weighting of the votes in the Council … has been modified in a manner acceptable to all member states".—[Official Report, 16/2/98; col. 111.] However, the only problem—and your Lordships will appreciate that I wrestled with this as I drove home late at night after the Committee considerations—is that I was sure that the Minister had missed out nine key words from his quote. The full text in the protocol reads that the provision will only apply, provided that, by that date, the weighting of the votes in the Council has been modified, whether by reweighting of the votes or by dual majority, in a manner acceptable to all member states". Therefore, in the context of the full quote, I should like to ask whether the loss of our second Commissioner by the year 2003, to which the Government agreed is in fact compensated for by a watertight, legal guarantee to reweight the votes in Council.

Naturally, I turned to the memorandum of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which, I regret to say, did not inspire confidence in me on the point. It said: The major institutional issues of vote reweighting and reform of the Commission were not resolved by the Amsterdam Treaty. Instead, the Protocol envisages a move towards one Commissioner per member state to take effect only on the next enlargement of the Union and provided that a satisfactory vote reweighting formula can be agreed at the same time, notably compensating larger members'". Therefore, can the noble Lord confirm that we are committed to giving up our second commissioner in a legally binding protocol, upon which others may indeed rely in the Court of Justice, in a treaty which actually only envisages a satisfactory vote reweighting formula? Can the noble Lord also confirm that there is no specific commitment in the protocol to the reweighting of votes in the Council of Ministers, and that the future arrangements envisaged provide for either a reweighting of votes or the incorporation of dual majority into Council decision-making? Does the Minister accept that the latter is not an acceptable solution for Britain?

The Minister of State in another place insisted that he would not agree to our second Commissioner being removed without reweighting. We on these Benches strongly support that stance. But why, then, did he agree to the inclusion of an alternative to reweighting; namely, the use of dual majority in the treaty text? The Prime Minister, Foreign Secretary and the noble Lord have on several occasions recorded their bitter disappointment that no further progress on the institutional reforms necessary for enlargement was made. We share that disappointment. Indeed we on these Benches share not just that sense of disappointment but also the alarm that has been echoed throughout the central and eastern European applicant nations.

Until Committee stage it was not clear why no progress had been made. During our debate in July the noble Lord said that at Amsterdam agreement was near. Last July the explanation of the failure to reach agreement was as follows. The noble Lord said: We failed on the institutional side to agree the size of the Commission or the reweighting of votes but we came close to agreement. The noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, asked me why. One slightly flip answer is that we did not reach that item until four o'clock in the morning. It may be that the heads of government or other states were not quite as alert at that point as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister". To be completely fair to the noble Lord, in Committee he substituted for that flip explanation a rather more sober and thought-provoking one. He told the Committee that when the Government came to the negotiating table there was already deadlock on the linked questions of the size of the Commission and the weighting of votes on the Council, although the Government did their best to broker a deal in six weeks. That is a little different from the Foreign Secretary's brimming confidence prior to the Summit that a deal would be reached. The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, told us that with a little more time agreement might have been reached on the issue of institutional reform.

What lead did the Government take at Amsterdam and what trade-offs did they demand so that the treaty could contain those necessary institutional changes to hasten enlargement to the east? Although no progress was made at Amsterdam, and despite the deadlock on the linked questions of the size of the Commission and the weighting of votes in the Council that the noble Lord described, he is optimistic. He does not think that it will be, such a colossal problem for the existing members of the European Union to achieve agreement even though ultimately there was no consensus at the summit". Nor is he of the opinion that the present impasse will delay the enlargement process. But given that the Government's explanation for the lack of progress relies largely on the dearth of political will amongst other member states—notably not the United Kingdom in this context—and deadlock in the Council of Ministers as a result of the intransigence of other partners, will the noble Lord give the House some more detail as regards the reasons for his optimism that the issue will shortly be smoothly resolved? I sincerely hope that is the case.

The noble Lord, Lord Whitty, who has considered this matter in detail, has also said that he does not envisage a further IGC will be needed to enact the necessary treaty revisions. I am concerned about that because as I read Agenda 2000 it recommends a further IGC to deepen political integration and reform Europe's institutions before enlargement takes place—interestingly enough it mentions an objective of the generalised introduction of qualified majority voting. As Protocol 11 effectively postpones the need to take any decisions on the forms of voting weights and Commission size until a new member is on the threshold of joining, when and in what form does the noble Lord envisage such decisions will be made?

I hope the House will forgive me for having gone into this matter in such detail. Finally, what lead did the Government take in ensuring that further progress was made on institutional reforms at the Luxembourg Summit in December? Where do we go from here? That is of critical importance in the context of this amendment. The presidency conclusions last December were largely dedicated to setting out the timetable for the accession negotiations which we are all proud to have begun under the British presidency. But the absolute prerequisite for enlargement of the Union was given only in one sentence which states that, the operation of the institutions must be strengthened and improved in keeping with the institutional provisions of the Amsterdam Treaty". Was that what the Minister of State meant when he told another place that the Government would continue to pursue institutional reforms which would, be one of the issues that would be taken forward from the conclusions which will, we hope, be reached at the Luxembourg Summit in December"? Again the Minister's optimism was not sufficient to persuade his European colleagues.

It is to seek answers to this question that I have analysed the issue in some detail. I apologise to the House for going into that detail. However, it is critically important that these issues are resolved: the re-weighting of votes; enlargement; and the institutional changes that we all hope to see come out of Amsterdam.

It is against that background that I have tabled these questions to the Minister in the context of this amendment. I am grateful to the House for listening to me for so long on this point. I hope that some of the many questions I have asked will be able to be answered at the conclusion of the debate. I beg to move.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, I see no reason for the noble Lord to apologise for having detained the House even at this late hour on a matter of extreme importance. He spoke about it in a knowledgeable and helpful way, and I agree with a great deal of what he said. I shall be brief in my remarks because I do not think there is need to go over the same ground.

It is vital to reform the institutional structures as we move ahead to further enlargement. We all recognise that if the next six countries—the so-called first wave—were to join the European Union it would be difficult to run the institutions. If the second six were to join the Union, it would be almost impossible in any effective way to run the institutions of the Union well. I do not put too fine a point on it in saying that most people will agree that with 15 members states it is already difficult to find jobs of adequate weight for all the commissioners. One does not tell a story out of place by saying that there is a good deal of jockeying to decide which responsibilities commissioners will have, since clearly some tasks have more heavy, weighty and significant responsibilities than others.

As regards the consensus which has begun to form around the idea of one commissioner for each member state, I regret that it removes what I believe is the excellent principle that certain of the large countries should have commissioners drawn from different political parties. In the United Kingdom, it has become the custom that one of the two commissioners comes from the leading opposition party and the other from the government party. In Germany, one of the two commissioners normally comes from the junior partner in the coalition. The idea that the commissioner should not necessarily be of the same party as the government of the country is valuable. In many ways it is an example to countries which do not understand that people from different parties can share a common patriotism towards the country of which they are part.

I should like to see commissioners becoming junior ministers to other commissioners so that we can develop a greater degree of integration within the Commission than exists at present. That is the way things are going. As the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan said, if they go in that direction, it is essential that there should be a re-weighting of votes. From these Benches, we somewhat prefer the idea of a dual voting system. We think it important that the populations of the member states should be reflected in the decisions made. That requires a system under which there is weighting for population as well as the existing weighting of votes. That is vital because of the disproportionate contributions to the budget made by different member states, and the probable increase in weighting of responsibilities that will occur if we move towards a common foreign and security policy, even in a limited way.

I do not wish to detain the House further. It is an issue which Amsterdam hardly had time to more than pass by. It will be a major responsibility for either the next IGC or some European Council in the next few years. What is clear is that we need to resolve this issue as soon as possible, otherwise it will be a difficult issue in the centre of the enlargement discussions, and I think all of us would regret that.

9.30 p.m.

Lord Belhaven and Stenton

My Lords, while I cannot disagree with anything my noble friend Lord Moynihan said, he observed that most of the applicant states are small. That is true of countries such as Slovenia and Estonia. However, I should remind the House that the population of Poland is between 40 million and 45 million. When it is compared to the other countries in Europe, it cannot really be described as a small country.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, as I believe the noble Lord, Lord Moynihan, will recognise, I have some sympathy with much of what he has said. The fact remains that the amendment he asks us to agree would prevent the UK from ratifying the Amsterdam Treaty until agreement had been reached on the re-weighting of votes in the Council. As such, it would delay not only progress in Europe, but progress on enlargement.

I understand the concern in the House that we were not able to reach agreement. Her Majesty's Government accept that that was disappointing. When we came to the negotiating table, after 1st May last year, there was some degree of deadlock on this matter, and the Dutch presidency decided strategically to leave the matter until the endgame of negotiations at Amsterdam. At Amsterdam, both the Dutch presidency and ourselves did our best to broker a deal. Given a little more time, we might even have reached agreement. I think I can say that we ought to have reached agreement. Ultimately, however, there was no consensus, and no definitive reforms were written into the treaty. That is a disappointment, but not a disaster. We did make some progress. We have come away with a protocol setting out the mechanisms by which those outstanding issues will be resolved in advance of the next enlargement of the Union.

I accept much of what the noble Lord says in relation to the need to change the voting systems prior to enlargement. However, I shall not be drawn tonight on the arithmetic or the different systems. I note that the noble Lord, speaking for the Official Opposition, seems to favour a system based on the existing weighting system; and I note that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, seems to favour, on balance, a dual system. Either approach could safeguard Britain's relative position. Therefore they will be subject to further negotiations.

I draw the attention of the House to the terms of the protocol. Article 1 states that when the next enlargement takes place, the Commission will comprise one national of each member state, but only provided that the weighting of votes in the Council has been modified to increase the relative clout of the large member states. The noble Lord suggested that in my previous quotation from the protocol I missed out nine words. He is of course right. But either way, my final words—namely, that it would increase the clout of the large member states—apply, whichever route we take.

We consider that that protocol represents in the circumstances a sensible deal. We have agreed to surrender a second British Commissioner. I understand the anxieties of the noble Baroness. Nevertheless, we believe that on balance it is sensible to do that, but only if there is an acceptable change in the voting system. Amsterdam recognises for the first time explicitly in the treaty that the weighting of votes in the Council is inequitable and needs adjustment.

Moreover, there were other changes in the Amsterdam Treaty—I would argue, on qualified majority voting; on flexibility; and on the limit of the size of the European Parliament—which were designed to prepare the way for enlargement. However, in order to achieve the enlargement challenge, our first priority is to get the Amsterdam Treaty effectively out of the way and to achieve ratification in all 15 member states. When that is secured, we can start focusing and finding a political agreement to settle the outstanding issues of vote re-weighting and Commission size.

The noble Lord argued that this failure at Amsterdam puts at risk the whole enlargement process. We do not believe that to be the case. I went into some detail on Tuesday night to say that we have already launched the whole process of enlargement. The agreement at Amsterdam has allowed that to happen. The issues of Commission size and voting weights would have to be addressed anyway in accession negotiations. Any new member state means changing the voting weights. All member states will have to examine the issues, just as they had to at every previous enlargement.

However, Article 2 of the institutions protocol states that at least one year before the membership of the Union exceeds 20 following the accession of five new members, an IGC would be convened to review the composition and functioning of the institutions. That does not mean that we are committed to another major comprehensive root-and-branch analysis of the institutions of the Union. We are talking about the leftovers from Amsterdam; not about an unlimited re-examination of the institutional structure of the Union. It is therefore a limited exercise. It is technically an intergovernmental conference and will require treaty changes, but it is a limited exercise. We believe that it can be achieved relatively easily—not entirely easily because political deals will have to be done—but it can be achieved simply if it is limited to those objectives.

We believe that it can take place well before any accession of a new member state. There is talk of it happening during the German or Finnish presidency next year. Perhaps that is true; perhaps it will take a little longer, but it will take place before there is any accession of a new member state.

The fact that Amsterdam did not involve substantial moves towards solving the issues is not a problem in terms of engaging in the enlargement process; nor should it be a problem for us now in agreeing to the ratification of the treaty. The amendment would prevent us ratifying the treaty. The noble Lord's objectives of resolving the issues and moving into the proper enlargement process are worthy ones which we on these Benches share. However, if the amendment were carried, it would slow us down, if not entirely prevent us ratifying the treaty. I therefore ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his response. He displayed greater support for the arguments I was deploying than I anticipated this evening. That in its own right will lead me to withdraw the amendment in a moment because I see the power of his argument with regard to the amendment. To be fair, I was aware of it from the outset.

The points that the Minister made are important and will be studied in detail. I have only one brief observation to make at this stage. I believe the Minister is being over-optimistic in believing that an IGC which he now defines as a "technical IGC" will necessarily, in the context of what he has said, become a limited exercise. I have a feeling that on this subject the chances of such a technical IGC being a limited exercise are slim. However, I may be being a little cynical at this late hour of the evening. Perhaps the noble Lord is right; we shall see.

Having made that passing observation, I am grateful to the Minister for his comprehensive reply and for his support for the many points raised. He did not go into detail on all the questions I asked; nor, sadly, into the mathematics. I was looking forward to that. Those reflections apart, I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, for her comments and observations on the matter. In the light of what the Minister said, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 13 to 17 not moved.]