The Minister for Europe made a statement, yesterday, at the House of Commons, the Government’s EU renegotiation. Bill Cash made the following intervention:
The Minister for Europe (Mr David Lidington): With permission, I would like to make a statement on the Government’s EU renegotiation.
As the House knows, the Government were elected with a mandate to renegotiate the United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU, ahead of an in/out referendum to be held by the end of 2017, and since July, technical talks have taken place in Brussels to inform our analysis of the legal options for reform. Today, the Prime Minister has written to the President of the European Council to set out the changes we want, and we have laid a written ministerial statement, including a copy of that letter, hard copies of which are available in the Vote Office.
I would now like to offer the House further detail. The Prime Minister’s speech at Bloomberg three years ago set out a vision for the future of the EU. Three years on, his central argument remains more persuasive than ever: the EU needs to change. Increasingly, others, too, have recognised this. Only a fortnight ago, Chancellor Merkel said that British concerns were German concerns as well. The purpose of the Prime Minister’s letter today is not to describe the precise means, including the detailed legal amendments, for effecting our reforms—that is a matter for the renegotiation itself; what matters to us is finding solutions. The agreement must be legally binding and irreversible and, where necessary, have force in the treaties.
We are seeking reform in four main areas. The first is economic governance. Measures that the eurozone countries need to take to secure the long-term future of their currency will affect all EU members. These are real concerns, as demonstrated by the proposal we saw off this summer to bail out Greece using contributions from non-euro members. As the Prime Minister and the Chancellor have set out, any long-term solution should be underpinned by certain principles and should include a safeguard mechanism to ensure that these principles are respected and enforced. The principles should include recognition that the EU has more than one currency; that there should be no discrimination or disadvantage for any business on the basis of currency; that taxpayers in non-euro countries should never be financially liable for supporting eurozone members; that any changes the eurozone needs to make, such as the creation of a banking union, should never be compulsory for non-euro countries; that financial stability and supervision should be a key area of competence for national institutions, such as the Bank of England, for non-euro members, just as those matters have become a key area of competence for eurozone institutions, such as the European Central Bank; and that any issues affecting all member states must be discussed and decided by all member states.
Secondly, we want an even more determined focus on improving Europe’s competitiveness. Unemployment, especially youth unemployment, in Europe is still too high. Unless Europe can raise its game on competitiveness, the challenges we all face from global competition and digital technology will pose a serious risk that the next generation of Europeans will not be able to afford the living standards, social protections or public services that our citizens take for granted. We therefore welcome the European Commission’s focus on competitiveness.
The number of legislative proposals has been cut by 80%, while more regulatory proposals have been taken off the table this year than ever before. Progress has been made towards a single digital market and a capital markets union, as well as in last month’s Commission trade strategy. But we need to go further. The burden from existing regulation remains too high. Just as we have secured the first-ever real-terms cut in the EU budget, so we should set a target to cut the total burden on business. This should be part of a clear strategic commitment that brings forward all the various proposals, promises and agreements on European competitiveness.
Thirdly, we come to sovereignty. As the Prime Minister said at Bloomberg and as we have stressed many times since, too many people in the UK, and in other member states too, feel that the EU is something done to them. In his letter, my right hon. Friend makes three proposals to address this. First, we want to end the United Kingdom’s obligation to work towards an ever closer union as set out in the treaties. For many British people, this simply reinforces the sense of being dragged against our will towards a political union. Secondly, we want to enable national Parliaments to work together to block unwanted European legislation, building on the arrangements already in the treaties. Thirdly, we want to see the EU’s commitment to subsidiarity fully implemented, with clear proposals to achieve that. We believe that if powers do not need to reside in Brussels, they should be returned to Westminster. As the Dutch have said, the ambition should be “Europe where necessary, but national where possible.”
Fourthly, I want to turn to the issue of welfare and immigration. As the Prime Minister made clear in his speech last November, we believe in an open economy, which includes the principle of free movement to work, and I am proud that people from every country can find their community here in the United Kingdom. But the issue is one of scale and of speed. The pressure that the current level of inward migration puts upon our public services is too great, and also has a profound effect on those member states whose most highly qualified citizens have emigrated.
The Prime Minister’s letter again sets out our proposals to address this. We need to ensure that where new countries are admitted to the EU, free movement will not apply until their economies have converged much more closely with existing member states. We need to crack down on all abuse of free movement. This includes tougher and longer re-entry bans for fraudsters and people who collude in sham marriages, and stronger powers to deport criminals to stop them coming back and to prevent them from entering in the first place. It also includes dealing with the situation whereby it is easier for an EU citizen to bring a non-EU spouse to Britain than for a British citizen to do the same.
We must also reduce the pull factor drawing migrants to the UK to take low-skilled jobs, expecting their salary to be subsidised by the state from day one. We have proposed that people coming to Britain should live here and contribute for four years before they qualify for in-work benefits or social housing, and that we should end the practice of sending child benefit overseas. The Government are open to different ways of dealing with these issues, but we do need to secure arrangements that deliver on our commitments to fair and controlled migration.
Let me say something briefly about the next steps. There will now be a process of formal negotiation with the European institutions and with all 27 European partners, leading to substantive discussion at the December European Council. The Prime Minister’s aim is to conclude an agreement at the earliest opportunity, but his priority is to ensure that the substance is right. It is progress on the substance in this renegotiation that will determine the timing of the referendum itself.
The Government fully recognise the close interest from Members on all sides of the House. We cannot provide a running commentary on an ongoing negotiation, but we will continue to engage fully with the wide range of parliamentary inquiries, now numbering, I believe, 12 across both Houses of Parliament, into the renegotiation. Documents will be submitted for scrutiny in line with normal practices, and the Foreign Secretary, other Ministers and I will continue to appear regularly before the relevant Select Committees. Of course, the European Union Referendum Bill will return to the House before long.
The Prime Minister has said and he repeated this morning that should his concerns fall on deaf ears, he rules nothing out, but he also believes that meaningful reform in the areas that I have described would benefit our economic and our national security, provide a fresh settlement for the UK’s membership of the European Union, and offer a basis on which to campaign to keep the United Kingdom as a member of a reformed European Union—and it is that which remains the Government’s objective. I commend the statement to the House.
Sir William Cash (Stone) (Con): The Minister is, if I may say so, not correct in thinking that the legal mechanisms for delivery of these proposals are not part of the solution. Does he not accept that treaty change is needed for virtually every proposal and, furthermore, that treaty change is not on offer, so how are the so-called legally irreversible changes going to be made when even the legal expert from the European Commission says that the Danish and Irish precedents are not valid? How is he going to be able to sell this pig in a poke?
Mr Lidington: Some but not all aspects of the package of reforms that we are seeking will need treaty change. We are certainly looking at different models, including those that have been used by Denmark and Ireland in the past. The technical talks that have taken place in Brussels involving senior British officials have also involved representatives of the institutional legal services, so we are working closely alongside the current heads of the legal services of the institutions. We believe that we will be able to find an appropriate way forward on every one of the issues that I listed in my statement.