HL Deb 06 May 2003 vol 647 cc948-50

3.6 p.m.

Lord Newby asked Her Majesty's Government:

What consequences they believe will flow from the decision to exclude United Kingdom officials from the future work of the "Eurogroup" of eurozone Finance Ministers.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Government have recognised, since the Luxembourg European Council in 1997, that member states participating in the single currency will want to meet from time to time to discuss certain issues to do with sharing a currency, but it is important to remember that ECOFIN is the sole decision-making body on economic policy co-ordination. Whenever matters of common interest are discussed, all member states will be present. The UK is already playing an active role in helping to shape the European agenda; the leading part played by the UK in the Lisbon economic reform strategy is a case in point. The Government's positive approach to Europe means that we are able to play a full part in shaping EU policies.

Lord Newby

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. However, would he accept that Britain is losing the opportunity to influence the development of a number of key economic and financial policies, not least the operations of the European Central Bank and the growth and stability pact, by not being a member of the Eurogroup? Although ECOFIN is technically the body that takes the decisions, in reality the Eurogroup, meeting on the day before ECOFIN, is where the real deals are hammered out. ECOFIN is increasingly becoming a rubber stamp.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that is simply an assertion. The noble Lord, Lord Newby, has no evidence for it whatever. Decisions cannot be taken by the Eurogroup; they can be taken only by ECOFIN.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is the Minister telling us that the Labour Party has not yet discovered the device of the pre-meeting?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I have been in the Labour Party for more than 50 years, and I am well used to devices within the Labour Party to avoid democratic decision making. Fortunately, with the advent of one member one vote, nearly all those devices have become inoperative.

In the case that we are discussing, the reality is that no decisions can be taken other than by ECOFIN. If, for example, decisions have to be taken by qualified majority voting, they cannot be taken by the Eurogroup. They certainly will not be able to be taken by the Eurogroup after enlargement.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, can the Minister explain to the House why the decision was taken?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Newby, was referring not to a decision but to an article in the Financial Times on 29th April in which it was reported that it was proposed that United Kingdom officials should no longer attend the working group of officials—not the Eurogroup itself, which Ministers have never attended. There are purely practical reasons for that, in that at the moment there are three member states outside the euro-zone and within a year there will be 13. Noble Lords can imagine, in such circumstances, what it would be like to do simultaneous translation in Estonian.

Lord Saatchi

My Lords, will the Minister clarify one of the matters he mentioned? Will it be the ECOFIN group of Finance Ministers or the Eurogroup of Finance Ministers who decide on the future structure of funding the NHS?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Neither, my Lords; nor will publications by the European Central Bank.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, is the Minister really saying that the decisions that ECOFIN takes at its meetings are not affected by the fact that Ministers from the euro-zone countries will have met the night before and decided the position they will take at ECOFIN? Is he really saying that Britain's interests are not affected by the fact that we are currently outside the euro?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, there are two different questions there, the first of which is what happens at the meetings before ECOFIN. British officials have since the beginning seen the agenda for those meetings. So the answer that I give to the noble Lord, Lord Thomson, is that, yes, I can say that the decisions are taken by ECOFIN and not by any pre-meeting. The answer to the second question is the wider issue of the advantages and disadvantages of being in the euro-zone. The Chancellor will be making a Statement on that matter within the next month.

Baroness Williams of Crosby

My Lords, given the Minister's reply, can he explain why, a short time ago, in the magazine the Business in this country and in the Economist there were specific references to the fact that, as a senior Danish diplomat said, the real decisions are taken not in ECOFIN but in the Eurogroup?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, journalists will report what they hear or what they think they hear. The Government are not responsible for newspaper reports.

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