HL Deb 24 July 2000 vol 616 cc7-9

2.52 p.m.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why they are opposed to Franco-German proposals for enhanced co-operation within the European Union, and whether they will in future support proposals to allow those countries that wish to integrate at a faster speed within the European Union to decide that for themselves.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, enhanced, or closer, co-operation has been possible since the entry into force of the Amsterdam Treaty. We are not opposed to it and recognise that in an enlarged EU it may prove useful. The Amsterdam IGC also agreed certain conditions governing the use of enhanced co-operation intended to ensure that it protected the coherence of the EU, in particular the single market. The issue for the IGC is whether those conditions are too restrictive. We will examine proposals for change carefully.

Lord Lamont of Lerwick

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Can she say what harm to British interests could conceivably result from France and Germany, for example, introducing a carbon tax or harmonising their corporation tax rate or co-operating on environmental matters, provided these did not cut across legislation on the single market? Is it not the case that Europe, with the Danish opt-outs, the British opt-outs and with the Schengen agreement, is already a multi-speed, variable geometry Europe? Is it not time that the Foreign Office stopped its obsession with so-called "influence" and "dining at the top table", and, if I may mix my metaphors, stopped behaving generally like a dog in the manger?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I am surprised that the noble Lord should so describe Her Majesty's Government. It is not a description which I recognise or with which I could possibly agree. The noble Lord will know well that closer co-operation was set out in Amsterdam. The reason that those conditions were attached was so that there would be coherence within the Union. The noble Lord will know that the Government are committed to enlargement. We are one of the countries leading the way in relation to that matter. It is extremely important to those countries that wish to join Europe that they know exactly what they are joining. For that reason we do look at the conditions that were attached at Amsterdam. It is a new structure. We should like to wait to see how matters develop. But it is right to say that this matter is being talked about.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, perhaps I may ask my noble friend to beware of any proposals that come from the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, on European Union matters, whether they are faster or slower. Does she not agree that the idea in principle of allowing, in an enlarged community, non-qualified majority voting so that member states could do precisely as they wished would create the kind of chaos the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, might like but which would not be sensible in a serious European Union?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I cannot but respectfully agree with my noble friend. We would wish to see a Europe functioning at its best. We believe that the system is there to allow that to happen. This Government are determined that Britain should remain relevant, as opposed to becoming increasingly irrelevant.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, is it not the case that subsidiarity is becoming ever more important, particularly with enlargement of the EU? Should that not apply at every level, from the region upwards? In anticipating the next Question, might it not help to prevent over-legislation at Westminster?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, subsidiarity is of course a matter of importance. But Her Majesty's Government feel, and with force, that we have to create in Europe a fair playing field for all countries so that we know the way in which we are going and the conditions which apply to all of us.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, is it not the case that the real agenda of many Conservative Euro-sceptics is to take the UK out of the European Union altogether? On the question of subsidiarity, is it not outrageous that they are quick to accuse Brussels of a breach of subsidiarity but at the same time involve themselves in the domestic affairs of Denmark by interfering in Denmark's euro referendum?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness that it is a matter of great concern to hear reports of such interference. If it is happening, it is right that we should deplore it.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, can the Minister give one example of co-operation, enhanced or otherwise, in the European Union by the previous government? Does she agree with me that Britain's entry into and exit from the exchange rate mechanism perhaps provides a lamentable example?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I would love to agree wholeheartedly with my noble friend. I must confess that I cannot immediately think of one example, but I am sure that noble Lords opposite may have a longer memory than mine.

Lord Tebbit

My Lords, to pick up the expression of my noble friend Lord Lamont, is it not time that the British dog got out of the federalist manger? If we were to allow those who wish to create a federal Europe—certainly the German foreign minister is among them—to get on with it, among those countries that wish to do so, we could then exact a price in terms of the reorganisation of the Community which would accelerate the entry of the central European countries and others and allow us to regain control of, for example, our own agricultural policy.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, the noble Lord is talking about a century which has now gone. The Government are committed to the future and to reality. They remain centred on that. Britain's interests are best placed with Europe. As long as this Government remain in office, that is where we will be.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, is it not the case that if there had been more enhanced co-operation between France and Germany over the past 130 years we would all have been saved a great deal of trouble? In the forthcoming IGC and in regard to the Treaty of Nice, should not the attitude of the Government be relaxed and flexible towards these bilateral links that other European powers may wish and these pioneering ideas which may or may not carry European integration forward? I suspect that in some cases it will be backwards. What about the alliances that we should be forming with other European countries? Should we not be much more supportive towards, for instance, Poland and the other applicant states, which are now becoming increasingly disillusioned by enlargement and threatening the entire movement towards greater European integration?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, as I have already said, closer co-operation is possible under the conditions laid down in the Amsterdam Treaty. The noble Lord knows that we are encouraging Poland and the other applicant states to join. That situation will continue.