HC Deb 27 November 1996 vol 286 cc317-8
1. Sir David Knox

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he proposes to have discussions with his European Union partners concerning the strengthening of intergovernmental cooperation on foreign policy. [4585]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

This subject is high on the agenda of the intergovernmental conference. We also discuss it regularly on a bilateral basis with our EU partners. I expect it to be raised when the European Council meets in Dublin on 13 and 14 December.

Sir David Knox

Have any particular areas been identified in which European Union collective co-operation might be helpful in the next few months?

Mr. Rifkind

Clearly, there is a lot of discussion on the immediate issues. For instance, at the meeting of the General Affairs Council on Monday we had an important discussion on the situation in Zaire and on the ways in which western European countries could work with other members of the international community to help with the difficult problems of that country. That is an example of how Europe can very often make an important contribution.

Mr. Grocott

Will the Foreign Secretary join his European counterparts in condemning the rigged referendum in Belarus which gives near-dictatorial powers to the President? Will he send a message of support from the British Government to the chairman of the Parliament, Mr. Sharetsky, who has been so determined and courageous in standing up for democracy in that country? What steps can the right hon. and learned Gentleman take with his European colleagues to ensure that a country so newly independent is able to move again down the democratic path?

Mr. Rifkind

We are deeply concerned by recent developments in Belarus. That is true not only of the United Kingdom and western Europe. Russia has also expressed concern, and a very senior Russian delegation went to Minsk before the referendum to try to encourage a more restrained and constructive approach. Sadly, that has not happened, and we must watch carefully to see how the situation develops. If Belarus does not act in a proper and constitutional way, it will damage its relations with western Europe and will cause increasing concern in Russia.

Mr. David Shaw

How can we possibly co-operate with France on anything while the French lorry drivers' strike is causing enormous inconvenience to my constituents? There are 500 lorries backed up outside Dover and the French have still not paid compensation for the previous strike. Will my right hon. and learned Friend seriously consider altering the arrangements for co-operation with France in Europe unless we get compensation this time around?

Mr. Rifkind

I can understand my hon. Friend's deep concern, and we are gravely disturbed by the serious inconvenience to British lorry drivers and others as a result of the industrial action. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport has written to his French counterpart, and I know that my right hon. Friend would agree with my hon. Friend's observations.

Forward to