By Jonathan Isaby
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We have already highlighted the result of the vote of yesterday's debate on the future use of the European Financial Stability Mechanism to bail out eurozone countries, which saw a rebellion by thirty Conservative MPs.
As I explained yesterday afternoon, Mark Reckless MP proposed a motion that would have required the Government to place the EFSM on the agenda of the next meeting of the Council of Ministers or the European Council and effectively mandated British ministers to vote against continued use of the EFSM unless a Eurozone-only arrangement relieving the UK of liability had been agreed. Reckless wrote about it for ConHome on Monday.
However, Daventry MP Chris Heaton-Harris – at the behest of Tory whips, according to a variety of sources – tabled an amendment signed by a large number of fellow backbenchers which watered down the original motion, instead merely urging the Government to raise the issue and expressing support for "any measures which would lead to an agreement for a Eurozone-only arrangement".
Clacton MP Douglas Carswell, a signatory to the Reckless motion, was incandescent.
"We are told that the Government’s priority is to cut the deficit, and rightly so—but why, therefore, are we assuming the vast liabilities of other countries? Having struggled for the past year to cut £6.2 billion from our public spending, why do we sign up to bail-out commitments twice as great, all in order to bail out a currency we chose not to join? We have been told that the bail-outs are to help our friends, but since when do we help a friend in debt by pressing upon them a high-interest loan? A year of bail-outs has not removed the debt burden from our neighbours and friends; it has merely increased it.
"We have endlessly been told that by bailing out the countries in question we are rescuing the people of Ireland, Portugal and elsewhere. I am not sure that the people of those countries quite see those bail-outs as such a salvation. Like the people of Argentina a decade ago, they increasingly recognise that their economic well-being is being sacrificed by politicians in pursuit of grandiose dreams of monetary union. We have heard how these bail-outs will buy time, but time for what? Are they buying time for the bondholders to pass the weight of their losses on to the shoulders of taxpayers? Ministers have sought to reassure us that UK liabilities for the bail-outs will be limited until 2013, but we need to look at the sheer volume of debt that needs to be rolled over in the affected countries in the next 18 months —limiting our liabilities until 2013 is little comfort to those who care to look at the maths.
"We have been told that Britain will get this money back, yet at the very moment that Greece hovers on default we proceed to lend £4.2 billion to Portugal. We have also been told that there is something unavoidable about the bail-outs. It is supposedly a deal struck by the former Chancellor at the ECOFIN meeting on 8 May last year, but I can find no evidence to suggest that we sought to challenge it in the ECOFIN meeting in the week that followed. If Ministers were really reluctant participants in the stabilisation mechanism, why did the Economic Secretary to the Treasury write on 18 July last year: 'While these decisions were taken by the previous government, this Government judges them to be an appropriate response to the crisis.'?
"That does not sit entirely comfortably with the idea of Government reluctance to join in the bail-outs. If this Government were reluctant about the deal that they claim they inherited, why are we promoting the senior official behind it to be the next ambassador to Brussels?
"We have sat here for too long listening to what Ministers tell us. We have been fed too many bogus assurances and too many reasons that have turned out to be excuses. The bail-outs are not only ruinous and quite possibly illegal; they are indefensible. They mean that although we may not be in the euro as a currency union, we have been dragged into it as a debt union. It is not enough simply to listen to further assurances given from the Dispatch Box as Ministers regurgitate what officials permit them to say.
"This House needs to instruct the Government to act. It is not time for spoiler amendments designed to stop short of instructing the Government to act. It is not time for carefully calibrated wordplay intended to create the illusion of opposition to the bail-out when such opposition does not exist. There is only one way to vote today to halt the haemorrhaging of our cash. I urge colleagues to support the motion in the Lobby, and to reject the Whips’ efforts to water it down with this disgraceful amendment."
"The motion argues that there is no legal base for making EU money available for bail-outs. It questions the idea that the natural disasters clause can be used to justify using EU funds to pay the countries concerned. Let me say at the outset that the amendment does not touch the very important line in the original motion which states that the European Scrutiny Committee, of which I am a member, 'has stated its view that the EFSM is legally unsound'."
"Members on both sides of the House know that the Government would not have accepted the motion tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Rochester and Strood (Mark Reckless), and that if we were to vote on the original text it would be probably be defeated, and the House would be left without a view on this matter. My amendment, which I should like to think has a good chance of being passed, would enable the House to adopt the words of the European Scrutiny Committee.
"I believe that the legality of the EFSM, and indeed that of the European financial stability facility—the EFSF—has been questioned in relation to the EU treaty’s “no bail-out” clause, which states that the EU and member states 'shall not be liable for or assume the commitments of' other member states."
"I will say more about the politics later in my speech. In any event, I believe that if either my amendment or the original motion is passed, the House of Commons will be the first member state Parliament to question formally the legality of the stability mechanism.
"The remaining part of my amendment involves a fairly academic argument. Does any Member in the House truly believe that, with the Greek economy running out of cash, market fears that the Eurozone contagion will spread and reveal itself at the heart of the Spanish and Italian economies, and the continuing problems in Ireland and Portugal, this matter was not going to be up-front and central at the next meeting of the Council of Ministers or the European Council? I should like to think that those problems are not only the first item on the agenda for such meetings, but being discussed every day throughout the Governments of Europe.
"Bail-outs have become what they were always going to be: politically toxic, not only for those who provide the cash—the local election results in Bremen at the weekend underlined that—but, much more, for the Governments of the countries receiving the money, who have to introduce economic measures that are politically unpalatable to the people, as so many Spanish socialists found last weekend. Whatever senior advisors of Governments across Europe may think, the markets have already decided—and I consider it to be a matter of fact—that the Greek bail-out has not worked and will be renegotiated.
"What I believe my hon. Friend for the Member Rochester and Strood is after is a vote that will prevent us from providing any more money for these bail-outs through the EFSM. Alas, although the UK could vote against any proposal presented—and I should like to think that it would—the simple fact is that because of the disastrous advice given to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer and the consequent actions that he took at meetings on 9 and 10 May last year as the last Government were leaving office, the UK entered the mechanism. Moreover, the Council decides on these matters now, and will do so in the future, by means of qualified majority voting."
"In the most basic terms, voting for the original motion will not mean that we are no longer liable to contribute to bail-outs via the EFSM. Worse than that—as I have said—because the Government signalled they were not likely to accept the original motion, it would in all likelihood have fallen, and therefore, far from this House having put its foot down, it would not have had a view at all. My amendment merely recognises that reality. It does not build up false hope that we can simply stop being involved in these matters, but it does send a message to Government that I hope will be reflected in the ongoing debates on them: that this House wants there to be a eurozone-only arrangement in the future.
"Too regularly in this place and elsewhere, those of us who question various aspects of our relationship with the European Union march our supporters to the top of the hill only to find that we are outnumbered and outfoxed, and are then valiantly and gloriously defeated. We need to get real."
At this point, Tory MP Richard Drax – who backed the Reckless motion – intervened on his colleague to say:
"Perhaps we are led to the top of the hill and then let down by parliamentarians who do not have the guts to stand up for their country."
"My hon. Friend could, perhaps, say that, but he would obviously have to have a good 10-year track record of actually standing up for this country in a different Parliament somewhere else", in reference to his time as an MEP.
He then concluded:
"The economics of our time is proving us right. It is time we changed tactics, and time we learned from the past. Let us win the arguments we can, bank the result and push forward. I am sure that those on the Treasury Bench have noted the feeling of the House on this matter. I would like to think they understand that we expect the Government to play all the cards they are dealt in negotiations with our European partners, and I would remind them of how much cross-party support they have for their negotiations on the next EU financial framework for 2014-2020. We have a veto on that matter, and are expecting great things.
"My endgame is to spare the UK the costs of these bail-outs, leaving them as a proper matter for the euroland countries. I intend to press this amendment—tabled in my name and those of more than 50 other Members—to the vote."
As reported already, the Heaton-Harris amndment was passed by 267 votes to 46, with Reckless and 29 other Tory MPs among the 46 who wanted to stick with the original motion.