June 19, 2007

European Affairs debate

John Bercow argues that increased European co-operation is in the best interest of the UK and highlights examples including defence procurement, energy supply and cross-border crime.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): It is a genuine pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham (Mr. Hands), who is, as we have all seen and heard, as educated, cerebral and dextrous a contributor to our debate as we could hope for on this important occasion.

I confess that my starting point is somewhat different. For 34 years, under successive Governments of both colours, Britain has been a member first, of the European Community, and subsequently, of the European Union. That is because a judgment was made that it was in our interests to be so. My view is that it remains in our interests for two principal and highly compelling reasons, the first economic and the second political. The economic argument has not fundamentally changed—if anything, it has strengthened. The arguments made in support of initial entry—the opportunity of massively expanded trade, the creation of a vast new raft of jobs, the deregulation of markets and increased consumer choice—seem to me, if anything, more potent now than they were back in 1972. That is because, first, a great deal has been achieved since then in terms of liberalisation, consumer choice and competitive capitalism, and secondly, there was then a market of 250 million or 350 million people, but there is now a market of well-nigh 500 million people.

Secondly, there was and is a political reason for our membership. We were conscious, as we are now, of a huge number of challenges which, with good will and flexibility among member states, can be more effectively tackled together than if we insist on choosing to consider matters only for our individual constituent nations. In the process of trying to overcome some of the transnational problems that beset us, we seek also to promulgate and disseminate essentially democratic values that we nurture and cherish in this country, and which we recognise as underpinning the democracies of other member states of the European Union. The reality is that if one is in government, whatever the anxieties, frustrations and disappointments, one probably acknowledges that when it comes down to it and one has to make a choice, it is more sensible to be part of the European Union than not to be part of it or so to detach oneself from the mainstream as effectively to neuter one’ influence. We can all make Eurosceptic speeches‚ÄîI have done so myself and can do it virtually in my sleep‚Äîbut I would politely suggest that there is a difference between what one does when one is charged with the responsibilities of government and what one does, or says, when one languishes in the impotence of opposition. My personal view is that we should put the issue of membership to bed.

Let me underline the argument for the avoidance of doubt. Of no fewer than six Prime Ministers —Ted Heath, Harold Wilson, Jim Callaghan, Margaret Thatcher, John Major and the present Prime Minister—none has seriously entertained for one moment the notion of exit or departure from the European Union. That is the starting point. We need to be in there, punching our weight and making a contribution. We need to try to be constructive at all times on every issue.

Kitty Ussher: Let me try to pursue the point that I attempted to make earlier, but to which I did not get an adequate answer. Following the hon. Gentleman’ chain of logic, would it not be unwise for the Conservative party to leave the European People’ party if that means that the Chancellor of Germany will not speak to his party’ leader?

John Bercow: That is a fascinating intervention, to which I would happily respond in appropriate detail and with all my arguments marshalled on another occasion. If the hon. Lady is interested in joining me for a cup of tea, for which I am happy to pay, I am willing to debate the matter with her at another time. However, I shall not be diverted, even by the quick-wittedness of her interventions, from the central thrust of the argument on which I should like to focus.

The logical corollary of accepting the principle and practice of continued membership is recognition of the need to co-operate. There must be a basic pre-disposition for members of the European Union to try to co-operate. Moreover, co-operation in the European Union is not a one-off instance or an isolated act but a continuous and recurrent process, which is implicit in our commitment to membership. It is striking and interesting that several hon. Members from different parties have acknowledged the merit of co-operation but paid lip service to or genuflected at it. They have not gone on logically to develop the argument and to explain in what respects, for what reasons and in what instances co-operating is worth while.

Let me therefore give some examples of working together on a co-operative basis, which is indispensable for the future interests of the United Kingdom, irrespective of the outcome of the forthcoming Council meeting and any subsequent intergovernmental conference. First, let us consider defence co-operation. European Union countries spend approximately ¬£250 billion a year on defence procurement. I should have thought that it logically followed from that state of affairs that it is worth trying to co-operate to achieve better value for money and interoperability of personnel and kit, and to safeguard and promote this country’ defence industrial base. That argument is almost unanswerable. Perhaps that can be done under existing arrangements and does not require an extension of legislative power, but one does not need to take an absolutist stance. The issue is how to advance and bolster the UK’ interests.

Let us consider co-operation on energy policy. It is manifestly clear that it is to our advantage for energy policy purposes and in the attempt to combat climate change to try to pool our resources and hunt as a pack.

We all know that we need significantly to free up the energy market and that there is a commitment to try to ensure 20 per cent. renewables use in future. That requires collective action. We also know that there are huge gains to be made in energy efficiency. Several hon. Members have alluded to the reality that China is a growing power, that there are concerns about Iran, that India is an increasingly significant force in the world and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith and Fulham pertinently reminded us, there is Russia.

For security of supply, seeking to marshal our resources and maximising our value for money, it makes a great deal of sense to try significantly to extend defence co-operation in the European Union.

Mr. Hands: On defence co-operation, it is worth thinking about a project such as the Tornado fighter, which was set up by four sovereign countries. Indeed, when it was first set up, Spain was not even a member of the EU, so it is perfectly possible to have co-operation and joint effort without having the EU—but my hon. Friend has already said that.

John Bercow: That may well be so—for the time being.

The point that I would like gently to underline to all colleagues is that one does not need to die in the ditch on an abstract principle, which is in a sense a violation of the Conservative tradition, unless one needs to do so.

Mr. Jeremy Hunt (South-West Surrey) (Con): I hesitate to say this because I so rarely disagree with anything that my hon. Friend says. I am listening very carefully to his argument about the importance of co-operation. Does he agree that one of the biggest concerns of the people of this country is that all too often, co-operation within the EU is about doing deals behind closed doors? It feels to many people like decision-making power through their elected representatives is being taken away from them and becoming a process over which they have no control. Will my hon. Friend address that concern, about which many people feel strongly?

John Bercow: I understand the point, I recognise the concern and there is an extent to which I share it. I politely suggest to my hon. Friend, however, that that concern does not invalidate the merit of or need for co-operation. It underscores the importance of having greater transparency, which is partly a matter of scrutiny by this House. We need dramatically to improve our procedures in that regard and perhaps those of the EU as well.

I would like to warm to my theme of co-operation, which I think is true in respect of a number of aspects of the challenge to tackle crime. Cross-border crime, for example, is estimated to cost the EU something in the order of ¬£20 billion a year‚Äîa huge sum of money. If we ask people, “Do you want the European Union to control criminal justice policy?” they will say no to that, but if we break down the issue into a series of bite-sized chunks, people are much more amenable to the argument. If we ask about the exchange of data, the contribution of Europol or the role of Eurojust, I believe that there is growing recognition that it is simply not sensible to die in a ditch and insist on the preservation of complete independence where that independence tends to entail an element of impotence‚Äî [Interruption.] Others have had their opportunity to contribute and I am going to develop my argument.

I happen to believe that asylum policy is also an area on which we should co-operate. It was referred to en passant by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague), who spoke from the Front Bench about the pursuit of a common European asylum policy as though that were somehow a bad thing. Actually, as I have been arguing for the last two years in pamphlets and elsewhere, it would be a good thing. Why? Asylum is a phenomenon that confronts all EU member states and a great many other countries to boot. If we want seriously and effectively to tackle the growing phenomenon of asylum shopping, to share the responsibility for people seeking sanctuary, and to sign up to and enforce the principle of non-refoulement, we need some sort of collective agreement.

Let me simply say that I do not know whether there will be a deal; I do not know whether it will be a deal worth having; and I do not know whether the House will judge it to be a worthwhile deal. What I do know is that the issues will not go away. We really have to take a hard-headed, pragmatic and self-interested view of how we can advance the cause of United Kingdom plc.

I strongly agree with a great deal of what my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies) had to say. The Commission is too large and it should be reduced. I happen to think that merging two roles—of the High Representative and the External Affairs Commissioner—that currently operate entirely separately would, as my hon. Friend suggested, make a great deal of sense. Like my hon. Friend, I am a member of the International Development Committee and I believe that it is manifest and arrant nonsense for the European Union to be represented by two separate individuals giving conflicting impressions. I also think that the rotating presidency as it operates at the moment is corrosive of the interests of the EU and, yes, we can look for a simpler, better and more efficient deal in terms of qualified majority voting.

There is a slightly neurotic strand to some of the critics’ arguments. On the one hand, people are hugely critical of the European Union and flay it at every turn, but on the other, when suggestions for reform, improvement, transparency and efficiency are made, they then seem somehow to retreat into the laager that suggests that any change must necessarily be for the worst. That seems to be a mistake.

Let us return to the best tradition of British foreign policy making, which entails a degree of pragmatism, of jealous regard for the national interest, and of recognition of the need for flexibility. The British national interest should come first, second and third in our deliberations over the next few weeks, and in the months and years ahead.

5.15 pm

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