HL Deb 24 June 2003 vol 650 cc133-6

3.9 p.m.

Lord Howell of Guildfordasked Her Majesty's Government:

What discussions they have had with the governments of the 10 European Union accession states about the proposal to create the post of a full-time President of the European Union Council of Ministers.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have held discussions with all the EU accession countries, as well as with existing member states, on the proposals for a full-time Council chair. The Government support these proposals, which would give the Council's work greater continuity and coherence. Heads of government of member states and accession countries will further examine these proposals, and others put forward in the draft constitutional treaty, at an intergovernmental conference later this year.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. But does she realise that, although many of these small countries, particularly the new applicants, accept the need for a longer rotation of the presidency, they regard the idea of a full-time President of the Council, elected or chosen behind closed doors—a kind of new "Mr Europe" or "Ms Europe"—as a huge mistake? Does she recall that these smaller countries used to regard Britain as their champion and friend but now one hears them saying that we are siding with the big boys in a Europe which will be less equal and less congenial to the smaller nations? Is that really what we want?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I should point out that I do not believe that concern is limited only to accession countries. The fact is that many of the small countries have concerns about this matter and we understand those concerns. But Her Majesty's Government believe that the proposals for a full-time chair are not the recipe for big state domination which some of the smaller countries fear they are. The chair is designed to add coherence and continuity and not to lock in the interests of any particular member state or states.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that the larger the European Union becomes and the more countries it contains, the less well will integration work and the more hardship could arise from each country having no control over its own currency?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, we are considering the possibility of a presidency. Perhaps I may try to concentrate my responses on how that presidency will operate in relation to smaller countries. The current system was created when there were only six countries in the European Community. The fact is that it is already creaking under the strain of the current number of members. Many countries believe that the current system will become unworkable with the much hoped-for expansion of the European Union. For that reason among others—coherence and continuity, which we believe are so important—we have supported these proposals.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart

My Lords, does the Minister accept that there is no difference in interest between accession countries and existing member countries in seeing the strategic plans of the European Union properly drawn up and carried forward from one period of six months to another and that, in any event, with the rotation that would exist between 25 member states, no country would have a day in the sun very frequently? Does she also accept that what is important is effectiveness in chairing the presidency and in ensuring that representation of all member countries is achieved in other ways?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I agree with that almost entirely. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, who, after all, has had the opportunity to consider these matters rather more closely than some of us, expresses it very well when he says that this issue is not about a day in the sun for a particular country. I stress that we are already working under a strain with 15 member states and, if we do not make some changes, we shall be under even greater pressure in trying to work effectively with an EU of 25 members.

I believe we must consider what the Council chair would do in driving forward the work, in ensuring proper preparation and continuity on the basis of the General Affairs Council, and in presenting a report to the European Parliament after each meeting of the European Council. Much in these proposals is positive. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Howell, that I believe this is a crucial point. It is an issue that will benefit all countries in the European Union and will not bring about a division between accession countries and those who are already in the Union or a division between the big and small countries.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, can the Minister explain to your Lordships how the cause of democracy will be advanced by this proposal? By "democracy", of course, I mean the interests and will of the people of Europe as opposed to their governments, bureaucracies and so on.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I did not think the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, believed that the current position was serving the purposes of democracy that well. I am interested to know that he now seems to imply that we are not doing that badly if we do not need this type of change.

However, perhaps I may take him up on the point about why this arrangement would be better. We believe it would be better because at present we are chopping and changing every six months. The fact is that the work of the European Union comes to a halt as we go through a handover period. We are going through one such period at the moment in the changeover between the Greek and Italian presidencies. The whole point of considering a President or a chair of the Council is to ensure a carrying-forward of the will of the European Union. The preparation and continuity of that work would be enormously important and I believe that, with better representation in that way, the purposes of democracy would be well served.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that, in light of what she and the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, said about the new chairman—I believe that that is what was contained in the report to Parliament yesterday—or President or whatever one cares to call it, there seems to be some difference of view on the matter? It would not simply be a job which entails preparing and carrying forward the agenda but, as the Prime Minister said in Cardiff. the President of the Council would be a man or woman speaking for the European Union on the world stage. The new President of Europe would be able to speak directly on the telephone or otherwise to the President of the Union States. The job seems to be far bigger than preparing an agenda and carrying it forward.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, of course there would be a role for any chairman or President, and there is an interesting discussion about the nomenclature that we are using here. We have said "chairman". I understand that there is no French equivalent of that; the French have used the word "president", and there may be some interesting discussions around that. But the noble Lord is right: one of the functions envisaged for the Council chair is to ensure external representation of the Union but without prejudice to the responsibilities of the Commission President and the putative Minister for Foreign Affairs.

The important point about these proposals is that we do not want to unbalance the institutional architecture. All the institutions—the Commission, the Council, the European Parliament and the Court of Justice—need to be strengthened. They have all been considered during the course of the work that the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan, and our other colleagues—notably, the noble Lord, Lord Tomlinson—have been undertaking on our behalf. I very much look forward to discussing them in due course when we come to debate the IGC.