HC Deb 05 July 1995 vol 263 cc377-9
16. Mr. Berry

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about Her Majesty's Government's priorities for the 1996 intergovernmental conference of the European Union. [30910]

Mr. Hurd

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out our priorities for the IGC at Leiden last September and in this House on 1 March. As the Minister of State said earlier, we want a European Union which is open, flexible, free trading, efficient and responsive to popular concerns.

Mr. Berry

I note that the Secretary of State did not say that it is a Government priority to secure measures to tackle unemployment in Europe. With 20 million people unemployed in Europe, does he not feel that now is the time for more serious action to deal with that rather than simply abolishing the Department of Employment? What measures will the right hon. Gentleman seek to put forward at the IGC to tackle unemployment, and what effect will they have?

Mr. Hurd

There was a good discussion on jobs at the summit in Cannes a week ago. President Chirac put them at the top of the list for the summit. What clearly emerged from the discussion was the fact that jobs are created through free trade—one of the objectives that I have just mentioned—through deregulation, and through flexible labour markets. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister was in a strong position because we are in the lead on all those matters.

Sir Peter Hordern

In the forthcoming discussions about the IGC, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the agenda for it comprises the extension of the European Union to take in the Visegrad countries and the necessary reform of the common agricultural policy? Beyond that, will he do his best, from whatever position he occupies, to see that the IGC is a low-key affair? We do not want another Maastricht treaty, however skilfully and well my right hon. Friend managed to defeat the arguments of the Euro-sceptics on both sides of the House.

Mr. Hurd

I entirely share my right hon. Friend's last wish and I think that we can avoid that. What is taking shape in the reflections group, which my hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Mr. Davis) attends, is not a huge further radicalisation of the European Union or a huge new concept that will pull up everything by the roots and start something entirely afresh. It is, however, a little more than a 3,000-mile service—for the reason that my right hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Sir P. Hordern) gives.

We have to look ahead to the expansion eastwards, and to some extent southwards—to Cyprus and Malta—of the European Union. One aspect that we have to consider to that end is the changes that will be needed in the common agricultural policy and in the structural funds. No one in their right mind would suppose that we could expand eastwards, which is certainly necessary, while conserving the CAP in its present form as the whole thing would go bust.

Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones

On behalf of my party I, too, pay tribute to the Foreign Secretary for the work that he has carried out during his period of office and wish him a happy retirement.

In the context of the IGC and the future of the European institutions, will the Government be pushing for a review or appraisal of the work of the Committee of the Regions, which was set up under Maastricht, to look at the effectiveness of that committee as it is currently constituted, and to see whether the United Kingdom Government can make the work of the representatives on it much more effective by giving them better support?

Mr. Hurd

That illustrates the difficulties of the exercise. The committee has only just started its work. It is far too soon in practice to review how it is going. High hopes are placed on it in Wales, Catalonia and other places, but it is too soon to make an assessment. That is one of the reasons why 1996, as in the treaty, for the review conference is too soon. However, we have to make the best of the treaty. No doubt the Committee of the Regions will be reviewed, but I am sure that it is too soon to reach a conclusion.

Sir Giles Shaw

Does my right hon. Friend agree that he is right to concentrate on the thematic approach to the conference and not to get into too much detail about the precise agenda and the exact stance that we might wish to take? Does he further agree, as a diplomat who has rendered so much distinguished service to this country, that we should bear in mind that although it was once said that a week was a long time in politics, a day is a pretty long time too?

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that in the coming months the House will seize many opportunities to talk about these issues and to prise out of the Government our approach, and we shall be forthcoming in response.

It is worth repeating the timetable. The reflections group, on which my hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry sits, has just begun its work. The intergovernmental conference will not start, I believe, until the spring—I do not think that the Italians will be in a rush to start it—and it is likely to last a considerable time, so there will be plenty of time for reflection and debate.

Ms Quin

The Government are being urged by some of their friends to bring about a substantial return of powers from the European Union to national Governments during the process that the Foreign Secretary has outlined. Given the right hon. Gentleman's extensive contacts with his European counterparts over the years, does he think that such a substantial repatriation of powers is either possible or desirable?

Mr. Hurd

We are still looking at this. There is quite an appetite for greater clarity and a worry about what in the jargon is called creeping competence—that gradually without changes in the treaty the borderline will slide. That is a worry which goes beyond this country. However, we are still examining exactly what proposals might be sensible.

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