On Tuesday he asked the following Starred Question:
To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they continue to support European integration.It is a cardinal rule in politics that only those questions to which one knows the answers should be asked of Ministers. Whether anybody, including HMG, knows the answer to this is a moot point. Certainly, you would never work out what it was from Lord Howell's rambling and waffly reply:
My Lords, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has described the present situation as,Um, in Europe but not run by Europe? Being at the heart of Europe? Flexible Europe? Have we not heard all these suggestions before while the process has continued in one direction?
"an opportunity to begin to refashion the EU so it better serves this nation's interests".
We want to see a European Union, in his words,
"with the flexibility of a network, not the rigidity of a bloc".
The future shape of the EU might well involve more integration in some areas and between some countries, and less in others. Of course, the Government have also made it clear that they wish to see no treaty changes that transfer power or competencies from the UK to the EU in this Parliament.
To Lord Pearson's supplementary, Lord Howell came up with yet another mushy statement:
I think the British people have a sensible and balanced appreciation of the virtues of living in the European continental area: that it is a mighty single market; that our influence in it is useful; and that when it comes to trade bargaining with the rising powers of Asia, Latin America and Africa, it is very useful to have a bit of muscle. That is a perfectly sensible and common-sense view that, I suspect, prevails in the minds of most of the British people. They may not like some of the aspects of the EU-many of us find these things irritating-but on the whole it seems a reasonable grouping in which to be deeply and actively involved, and that is where we stand.The Marquess of Lothian (formerly Michael Ancram) tried to cut across it all and get some sort of a straight answer:
My Lords, how would the Minister define a European Union that is more of a network than a bloc?Good try by his Lordship but it got him nowhere.
My noble friend is asking for an answer that would take longer than the patience of the House of Lords could tolerate. The simple answer is that a bloc tends to be a congealed and sometimes compelled form of integration under tight central control, while a network is a much more modern, less fragile and less rigid structure in which exchanges of views and dialogues in addressing new issues can constantly be adjusted in the light of changing circumstances.It was that well-known and completely open europhiliac, Lord Anderson of Swansea who put the right question and drew the right conclusions though I would phrase them somewhat differently:
My Lords, do not the ambitions set out by the Minister depend essentially on the concurrence of our partners? What expectation does he have that that will be forthcoming? Is it not a fact that as a result of the economic and financial crisis, there will be strong pressures for more integration in certain sectors? We as a Government and as a country have a choice, either arrogantly to rail against them from outside, or to be part of them and seek to bow them in a way that we want, including on principles of subsidiarity and proportionality.Or, in other words, there is nothing we can do to achieve that much-vaunted flexibility and our choices are either to get out and renegotiate all the agreements afterwards or to go along meekly with whatever is being put together. Lord Howell did not say that, which will not surprise this blog's readers:
Some of those aspects are correct, but the noble Lord overemphasises the polarity and the rigidity of the choice. There is no doubt that one of the propositions that is current throughout the eurozone is that the only way forward is towards fiscal union. Indeed, if that is a way of avoiding total chaos in the European markets, it is in our interest, too, that the process should be non-chaotic. That is perfectly clear. However, in other areas, as I said earlier, some degree of decentralisation and flexibility might play a much more useful part in making the European Union fit for purpose in the 21st century.The words wall, jelly and nail spring to mind.