Wednesday, July 07, 2004

Questions to the Leader of the House

Following on from the concession made by Blair in the constitutional treaty that co-ordination of economic policy should be agreed under qualified majority rules, Angela Browning, MP for Tiverton and Honiton, asked Peter Hain (formerly Europe Minister), the following oral question in the House (Hansard 1 Jul 2004: Column 442-3):

When the Chancellor of the Exchequer comes to the House next week, will the Leader of the House ask him to incorporate in his statement details of how he will manage the United Kingdom's economy in future when there is an European Union constitution? When the Prime Minister made a statement on 21 June, I asked him what voting method would be used for co-ordinating EU economic policy.

He replied that the treaty made it clear that member states determined their economic policy, but he did not specify the voting method. A few moments later, my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) repeated the question but he still would not specify the voting method and I therefore tabled a written question.

The Prime Minister referred it to the Minister for Europe, who replied by citing article 1.11(3) of the draft constitutional treaty, which states that part III determines the arrangements. I have studied part III, which clearly states that, because the voting method is not specified, the default applies as per article 1.22(3), thereby making proposals subject to qualified majority voting.

Now that economic policy in this country will be determined by QMV by other countries, perhaps the Chancellor will explain whether he is happy with that arrangement.

Hain answered in the following terms:

The hon. Lady and her colleagues have an obsession with attempting to show that the new draft constitutional treaty is a threat to Britain's interests when the rest of the European Union views it as a triumph for Britain and our negotiators. Only the Conservatives and their allies in the media and elsewhere cannot recognise that.

On tax and the central economic decisions that the Chancellor makes, this Government are the sovereign body. On co-ordinating economic policy, we have been responsible for driving forward an agenda for economic reform in Europe that was determined at the Lisbon summit some years ago. It included liberalisation of energy policy, so that that our companies, which were previously denied the opportunity to get into markets such as France and Germany when their companies had access to ours, were given free access on a level playing field under single market rules.

That is co-ordination of economic policy. Such matters are normally decided by unanimity at the European Council. All decisions at that level are made by unanimity.

What is going on here? The whole point about the series of amendments to the constitutional treaty is that what started off as the responsibility of the European Council was transferred to the Council, and – as Mrs Browning rightly observes – because the voting method is not specified, the "default mode" of QMV applies. Hain does not appear to know this, or is he being "economical with the truth"?

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