HC Deb 03 April 1996 vol 275 cc375-6
6. Mr. Barnes

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement about the prospects for enlargement of the European Union. [22616]

Mr. Rifkind

Extending eastwards the security and prosperity we enjoy in the west is the fundamental task for Europe over the next decade. The United Kingdom is playing a leading role in taking that process forward.

Mr. Barnes

Is not democracy very precious, especially for the new democracies of eastern Europe? Why should they have to give up much of their hard-won democracy in joining the European Union, which is centralised and bureaucratic? Why do we not turn it into a democratic system, so that, when democracies move into the European Union, they only transfer democracy? Should not that always be done by referendum, so that the people can agree to that transfer of democracy?

Mr. Rifkind

It will, of course, be for each applicant country to decide its internal arrangements for confirming any desire to join the European Union. I have no doubt that countries that have been deprived of democratic institutions for 50 years and which have won them back in the past few years will be loth to give them up, for reasons that we all appreciate. We seek a European Union that is fully consistent with the democratic principles to which we all attach importance. The European Union exists on the basis of a belief in democratic values, so there should be no inconsistency between the two objectives.

Mr. Forman

While I welcome the general prospect of further enlargement of the European Union, is there any effective influence that Her Majesty's Government can exert to get a more rational order of enlargement? It does not seem sensible to some of us that the next states in line to join an enlarged European Union should be the micro-states of Cyprus and Malta. Does it not make more sense to give priority to the Visegrad countries?

Mr. Rifkind

Cyprus and Malta have already been promised that enlargement negotiations will begin within six months of the end of the intergovernmental conference. The applications of the Visegrad countries and other countries are subject to an opinion by the Commission on whether they are ready to start negotiations. It is quite possible that the Commission will record in favour of the commencement of negotiations. Therefore it is possible that those negotiations could begin at the same time as those with Cyprus and Malta. There are certainly some attractions in such an approach but we must await the judgment of the Commission, which has been asked by the European Council to report on their readiness to start the detailed accession stage.

Mr. Robin Cook

Does the Foreign Secretary recall the Prime Minister telling Parliament that he was not in favour of referendums and did not intend to propose one for the British people? When did the Prime Minister change his mind?

Mr. Rifkind

The Government and the Conservative party believe strongly that it is important that, in circumstances where a general election might not be able to resolve a matter of this importance, the electorate should be able to do so through a referendum. The way in which the Conservative party is uniting on its European policy compares favourably with recent developments in the Labour party. After the hon. Gentleman proudly claimed that he spoke for a party that was unanimous on European policy, a week or so ago 50 Labour Members announced an organisation to campaign against the policy of their Front-Bench spokesman. I should have thought that he would show a little more caution in his remarks, especially today.

Sir Terence Higgins

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that many hon. Members believe that a referendum is incompatible with our system of representative parliamentary democracy? Does he agree that, if members of a Cabinet were to campaign for a single currency in a referendum—putting forward all the arguments—and lose, it would be fatuous for them to say that they had changed their mind? They would have no option but to resign.

Mr. Rifkind

I have no doubt that in any referendum it is crucial that the judgment of the electorate is fully respected. I have no doubt that that will apply in any future referendum.

Mr. Corbett

Can the Foreign Secretary reconfirm the strong support of the United Kingdom Government for the admission of both Cyprus and Malta to the European Union? Will he make it clear that, while we hope that the negotiating process will contribute towards a solution to the differences between the two Cypriot communities, those will not be allowed to block admission and, therefore, in effect give Turkey a veto?

Mr. Rifkind

No third party could have a veto on whether Cyprus might join the European Union. That must be a matter for the EU and the applicant country. If it is possible to achieve political progress that helps towards the reunification of the island, that will make negotiations infinitely easier than they would otherwise be. There can be no hiding the fact that a divided island is going to be a difficult issue for the European Union to deal with if it is contemplating the accession of a new member. To say that it is difficult, however, does not make it impossible—something that has to be borne in mind by all concerned.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that, if Parliament agreed to go for a single currency, any referendum following that would probably need a 60 per cent. majority, as we have accepted that there would be constitutional change?

Mr. Rifkind

I do not accept that. If there were a referendum on a single currency, a simple majority would be the proper way of addressing the judgment of the electorate.

Back to
Forward to