Bill Cash’s Urgent Question on the European Summit

Mr William Cash (Stone) (Con): (Urgent Question): To ask the Chancellor of the Exchequer whether the decision described as the draft decision in the motion to approve the treaty change on the European financial stability mechanism without a referendum, which was passed by the House yesterday, is now under review.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr Mark Hoban): I am grateful for this opportunity to make a statement to the House about Portugal and the European stability mechanism. I understand that hon. Members are concerned about the events that unfolded in Portugal, which has faced difficult challenges for some time.

Yesterday, the Portuguese Prime Minister resigned after Parliament rejected his austerity Budget. However, let us be clear: Portugal has made no request for assistance, and I hope that hon. Members will understand that it would be inappropriate for me to engage in any speculation about what may happen. It is not for me to say whether Portugal should ask for help, just as I would not tell it how to run any part of its economy. However, I assure the House that we will keep hon. Members informed of any developments.

Hon Members may wish to reflect on the fact that, as my right hon. Friend the Chancellor said yesterday, our deficit is larger than Portugal's, but market rates in the UK are similar to those of Germany. That reinforces the fact that it is right to pursue the course that we set last year to tackle the deficit.

My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr Cash) has also raised questions about the European stability mechanism. A strong and stable euro area is important for British business. Over 40% of our exports go to the euro area, but we are not a member of the monetary union, and it is not our responsibility to deal with the euro area's problems. That is why we have welcomed the progress that has been made on the European stability mechanism. In the design of the ESM, we had to ensure that there was no transfer of powers from the UK to the EU. We would never have accepted that.

The treaty change applies only to euro area member states. There is no transfer of power or competence from the UK to Brussels. The ESM puts no obligation, legal or political, on the UK to contribute. That is why we have supported the agreement, which makes the euro area's responsibilities absolutely clear. In 2013, the European stability mechanism will come into effect. Also in 2013, the European financial stability mechanism will come to an end, and the UK will not be part of it.

Several countries, including Germany, have strong views about how the ESM should be designed, but that cannot change the fundamental aspects of the mechanism, because the ESM will be developed under article 136 of the treaty and it can apply only to member states whose currency is the euro. The UK cannot join the ESM without joining the euro. As my hon. Friends know, that will not happen in the lifetime of this Parliament.

Furthermore, we have ensured that the recitals-the preamble-to the draft decision by the Heads of State and Government at the December Council meeting stated that article 122, which was used to create the temporary funding mechanism,

"will no longer be needed" 

and "should not be used" to ensure financial stability for the euro area as a whole once the permanent mechanism is in place. Should there be any suggestion of amending the draft decision at the European Council, the Prime Minister could not legally agree to it without first coming back to the House for additional approval after a further debate. The House and the other place would have to ratify any change to the treaty.

Mr Cash: I asked the question, first, because the existing European financial stability mechanism, to which we are potentially exposed in respect of Portugal, was described in the report of the European Scrutiny Committee, which I have the honour to chair, as "legally unsound"; and secondly, because it involves the United Kingdom underwriting approximately €8 billion to eurozone countries until 2013.

The motion for a treaty change to create the new mechanism, which was passed yesterday, provides for amending article 136 of the European treaty without a referendum, but the amendment prescribes strict conditionality. What are those conditions? The motion that was passed yesterday now appears to be vitiated. Will the Government renegotiate the decision so that the European stability mechanism, if proceeded with at all, is agreed by the British Government with unanimity only if the legally unsound existing European financial stability mechanism, to which we are wrongly exposed, is repealed? The United Kingdom would thus not be required to contribute to the bail-out of other eurozone countries such as Portugal, which would amount to approximately €4 billion. That course of action is open to the Prime Minister in his negotiations at the summit today, and it would relieve the hard-pressed British taxpayer.

If my proposal were accepted, I feel sure that the Government would have an improved chance of obtaining the European Scrutiny Committee's clearance for any new decision and the passage of any subsequent Bill required under the House's procedures. Will my proposal be accepted?

Mr Hoban: My hon. Friend and I have debated this subject before, and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Europe opened a lengthy debate on it on 16 March. The Government are clear that the European stability mechanism is an important tool, but it is for the euro area to fund it. The ESM will lead to the extinction, as it were, of the EFSM. I do not feel it appropriate to engage in further speculation on events elsewhere.

 

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