HL Deb 01 November 2000 vol 618 cc944-7

2.52 p.m.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they are considering accepting changes in majority voting and the number of European Union Commissioners at the forthcoming Inter-Governmental Conference in Nice.

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

My Lords, the Government have made clear on a number of occasions that we are prepared to look pragmatically at extending the areas subject to qualified majority voting where this would benefit Britain, while ruling it out for areas of key national interest. As at Amsterdam, we believe that in the interests of a more efficient Commission the larger member states should be prepared to give up their second Commissioner provided that a satisfactory agreement is achieved on the re-weighting of votes in the Council. We have made clear that there must be substantial re-weighting in Britain's favour if we are to give up one of our Commissioners.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, perhaps I may first welcome back the noble Baroness. Her friends on all sides of the House are very pleased to see her back on the Front Bench.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, is not this an issue on which the Government will have to come rather more off the fence, and fairly quickly? Clearly the question of the extension of qualified majority voting is highly emotive. Does the Minister agree that, arguably, it could be the fault line that divides those who, in the famous words of the treaties, want an ever closer Union from those who want a more effective Union but do not want it to be any closer? Will there not be an essential moment at Nice when this division may start to appear and the Government will have to be very clear on which side they will come down?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, perhaps I may first thank the noble Lord for his kind compliments on my return, and all noble Lords who have generously asked after my health. I am very glad to be back.

As to the noble Lord's supplementary question, the Government have not been on the fence. We have taken a balanced and realistic view of what is in the best interests of this country. The noble Lord will know that the majority of decisions in Europe already are taken by the use of qualified majority voting. We have been clear that where qualified majority voting will inure to the benefit of Britain, we will contemplate change. Where it will not, we will not. That has been our position for some time. It is a sound position and one which we propose to continue.

Lord Harrison

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that by the judicious extension of QMV we can make the single European market more open to British business? This will provide more opportunities for British firms and will translate into prosperity and jobs.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I agree with my noble friend that judicious extension of QMV may inure to our benefit, as I said to the noble Lord, Lord Renton. We shall be vigilant to ensure that it is only on occasions when it will inure to our benefit that we will give it consideration.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, perhaps we on these Benches may also welcome the Minister back to her brilliant defence of her wicket and say how pleased we are to see her.

Is it not correct that some extension of qualified majority voting and some reduction in the number of Commissioners is crucial to the enlargement of the Union, a goal shared by many of us on all sides of the House? Can she say whether, with the extension of qualified majority voting, the Government would support, as a broad general rule, co-decision making by the European Parliament in order to strengthen the democratic accountability which is so crucial to the success of the Union in future?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I join wholeheartedly with the noble Baroness in saying that the Government are committed to the enlargement of the European Union. We have been at the forefront of that, and quite rightly too. So far as concerns qualified majority voting, I repeat what I said earlier. That must remain the case. The issue of co-decision making is being looked at by a number of parties and we have said that we shall consider the matter. But the noble Baroness perhaps pushes me to go further than the Government are minded to go at the moment.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that any treaty signed at Nice will require ratification by both Houses of Parliament? If that is so, could she speculate as to what rights Parliament would have were it minded to reject ratification? Would that be within its powers?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Viscount's question directly. The noble Viscount will know that at the conference the decision will be based on what each country decides. That will be the final determinator of the position. Scrutiny is certainly possible under our procedure. Whether that would enable the decision to be overturned is quite another matter. I shall be happy to write to the noble Lord with a fuller response after I have had an opportunity to give the matter mature consideration.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, whatever the powers and however emotive the issue, noble Lords on all sides of the House who want to see enlargement of the European Union must surely recognise that it would be absurd not to consider the issue of the number of Commissioners and other matters relating to qualified majority voting. Can my noble friend avoid apologising for the Government doing just that?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I hope I have not apologised as my noble friend indicated. I make it plain that there are areas where a move to qualified majority voting would be advantageous to the United Kingdom. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made this clear at Biarritz. One such area concerns the rules of procedure for the European Court, where the United Kingdom have pushed for QMV to improve the court's efficiency and to speed up access to justice. Other areas concern aspects of transport, industrial policy, appointments and financial regulations. So there are areas where we would benefit from change. The Government are determined that Britain should enjoy that benefit wherever possible.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, while the number of Commissioners is obviously important, does the noble Baroness agree that an even more important issue is the curbing of the expansionary tendencies of the Commission, its desire to involve itself in inter-governmental areas and its enormously excessive workload? The Prime Minister touched on this in his Warsaw speech, but what precise proposals will the Government take to Nice in order to meet this central issue in the name of democracy in the European Union.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, we have made it clear that the real issues will be dealt with by the Council and not the Commission. I know that many noble Lords have expressed concern about the ambit of the Commission's work. We have continued to examine these issues but, clearly, the Commission's role is different, and separate, from that of the Council. Although there seems to be confusion in the minds of others, we need to be clear that the power base remains with the Council, not with the Commission.