HL Deb 13 July 1999 vol 604 cc171-4

3.10 p.m.

Lord Taverne asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to support the full aims of the Britain in Europe campaign.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Government fully support the setting up of Britain in Europe. We want a successful cross-party campaign. The Prime Minister has confirmed that he will attend the launch. As the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, has said: Britain in Europe has concentrated on the need to build a bigger, more productive European role for Britain". The Government fully support that aim.

Lord Taverne

My Lords, I welcome the Prime Minister's support for Britain in Europe and that of senior Conservatives who seem prepared to flaunt the traditional rituals of Westminster by putting country first and party second. I recognise that the argument in favour of the euro should be seen as part of the wider question of Britain's position in Europe, but will the Government give a lead—and recognise the importance of doing so—in arguing for the euro in principle and not leave the Opposition's arguments against the euro unanswered, as they did at the elections to the European Parliament?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, in a rather less contentious way may I say that of course the Government recognise the cross-party nature of the group? Its membership already includes the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, Mr Giles Radice and Mr Menzies Campbell. We have already seen such luminaries as Sir Ken Jackson, the General Secretary of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, and Niall Fitzgerald, the chairman of Unilever, lend their support. Support has been expressed not only by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, but by Mr Paddy Ashdown and Mr Kenneth Clarke. There has been no change in government policy. Our position on the euro remains the same as that set out by my right honourable friend the Chancellor in October 1997. That includes the five economic tests that will have to be met before any decision on the euro is taken.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the position of groups such as Business for Sterling is nearer to the Government's position than that outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Taverne, and his friends, who would like to see us pushed into the euro without any of the considerations that the Government have laid down? Does my noble friend also understand that over the years millions and millions of pounds have been poured into the European movement from the taxpayer and other interested parties, including the British taxpayer? So far that has only made the British people more reluctant to go further into the European adventure, as they showed at the recent elections, when they certainly voted against trading the euro for the pound, which has been a successful currency for many hundreds of years.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the Government agree in large measure with the major concern of the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, to inject a good dose of rationality and common sense into our national debate. Britain in Europe has never been wedded to the idea of rushing into the euro regardless—far from it. The Government agree on that. We also agree with Britain in Europe that Britain's voice should he heard in Europe, that we need to engage properly in Europe and that, if we are to be heard on such important issues as reform of the common agricultural policy and structural funds, it is sensible for us to engage as fully as possible.

Lord Howe of Aberavon

My Lords, as a board member of Britain in Europe, may I add my welcome to the noble Baroness's answers? Will she ensure that the Government lay great stress on the huge and various potential benefits to Britain of being able to conduct almost two-thirds of our overseas trade with a market of almost 300 million people in a single, stable currency?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords. I am glad to be able to support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Howe, on that. The United Kingdom's prosperity is intricately tied up with prosperity of Europe. The single market has 380 million customers and enlargement will add a further 100 million. Almost 60 per cent of UK trade is with EU countries and 40 per cent of UK overseas investment is destined for the euro zone. Our business community recognises that and so do the Government.

Baroness Crawley

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the Britain in Europe campaign makes a significant and positive contribution to the vital and long overdue national debate about the future strength of our membership of the European Union?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

Yes, my Lords. I agree with what my noble friend says. I remind her that the Government will apply five economic tests when deciding whether to recommend the euro to the British people. I also remind her of the triple lock that the Government will have on the process: first, the Government will consider whether it would be sensible and in our economic interests; then Parliament will have an opportunity to decide; and then the people of this country—the ones who really count—will make their decision in a referendum.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, will the Minister use this opportunity to give a special vote of thanks to those former officials from her department, including two former ambassadors to Washington, one former ambassador to Paris and two former permanent secretaries to the Foreign Office, who have cast aside the conventional thinking of the department and said that, far from increasing Britain's influence in the world, joining the single currency or moving further towards political integration in Europe would diminish our standing? As that message does not seem to have reached those in the Britain in Europe movement, will she ensure that Sir John Cole's remarks are widely distributed to them?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, is not it a good thing that under this Government former diplomats feel that they can express their views? I welcome any sensible contribution to the debate from either side, provided that it is based on fact, not prejudice. I remind the noble Lord that not that long ago a former Conservative Foreign Secretary said: The European Union is one of the most successful partnerships of the 20th century and we mean to keep it that way". So do we.

Lord Grenfell

My Lords, does my noble friend also welcome the statement made by a number of equally distinguished diplomats that Britain should seriously consider embracing the euro? Does she agree that it would be fair to give equal time in the debate to those who are in favour of the euro and those who are against it?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course I do. In recent days and weeks a number of distinguished diplomats have made their views known. I should be happy for everyone to feel able to engage in the debate. One or two people have, rather unkindly, pointed out that some of those concerned are ex-diplomats. Nonetheless, if they are putting arguments to us on the basis of their considerable experience, they all deserve a hearing. However, it is not they who will decide. It is not even your Lordships and another place. The people of this country will decide whether we join the euro.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, does Britain in Europe consider that the euro is a step towards political union? Is it not true that Mr Prodi believes that, as do most European statesmen? Does Britain in Europe think so? If not, why not?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I really cannot answer for Britain in Europe. I suggest that the noble Lord addresses his question to the noble Lord, Lord Marshall, and others. The noble Lord, Lord Marshall, has made clear that it is important that we should now have a rational, commonsense, national debate. The Government support that wholeheartedly.