HC Deb 10 June 1997 vol 295 cc939-41
10. Mr. Radice

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the Government's policy towards Europe. [1167]

Mr. Robin Cook

We believe that our membership of the European Union is vital to Britain's exports and jobs, improves the security of our continent and increases our clout in trade talks and world affairs. We are committed to developing a people's Europe that is more open to the citizens of Britain and the continent and more relevant to their concerns about jobs, crime and the environment. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer made excellent progress towards that objective yesterday when he obtained agreement at Ecofin to boost jobs through improving employability, completing the single market and promoting economic growth.

Mr. Radice

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his new position and thank him for his statement. Does he agree that last night's Division, in which the biggest pro-European vote ever was recorded in the House, is an overwhelming endorsement of the Government's new constructive approach and makes it much more likely that we will get an agreement in Amsterdam that is good for Britain and good for Europe?

Mr. Cook

As my hon. Friend will have observed, in our first month in office we have achieved our first objective in relations with the European Union, transforming the negotiating climate for Amsterdam. We shall go ready for some tough bargaining to secure hard gains for Britain. We have every prospect of achieving progress for Europe and a good deal for Britain, including a legal basis for our border controls, which was never obtained by the Conservatives.

Miss McIntosh

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the mood of the country is not to sign up to any further erosion of sovereignty or any moves towards federalism? Does he agree with the Director General of the Confederation of British Industry, Mr. Adair Turner, that the only way to maintain our sovereignty is not to sign up to the social chapter and not to give away any more powers to qualified majority voting?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to say that I shall meet Mr. Adair Turner later this week, when I shall have an opportunity to explore his views. This Government are here as a result of the views of the British people who, every time they have been asked, have come out overwhelmingly in support of the social chapter. I find it depressing that, despite the result of the last election, which contributed to the outcome of last night's Division, the Conservatives seem to have learnt no lessons and not changed their tune, despite their overwhelming rejection by the British people.

Mr. Derek Foster

I welcome my right hon. Friend and his colleagues to their Front-Bench positions. Now that the Prime Minister has put Great Britain at the heart of Europe, will he explain to our European partners that, if economic and monetary union is to succeed, it has to address the people's agenda of jobs and growth and that, if it does not address that agenda, regardless of whether it goes ahead on time, it cannot succeed?

Mr. Cook

I am pleased to say that my right hon. Friend said firmly in Sweden that what is important for the peoples of Europe is that we strengthen our economies, not necessarily that we integrate them. That is why we are opening up an agenda addressing the concerns of the people of Europe that will tackle the economy and growth and will focus on their worries about the environment and about organised crime, which knows no borders. If Europe switches to tackling the issues that affect the quality of life of the citizens of Europe, we can restore popular legitimacy for the European project.

Mr. David Heath

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm one issue on which there is a scintilla of doubt? Does it remain the Government's clear intention to introduce proportional representation in time for the 1999 elections to the European Parliament?

Mr. Cook

I am happy to repeat what I said during the month before the general election. It is our wish and intention to introduce a new electoral system based on lists and proportional representation for the next European elections. I said at the time that the timetable is very tight and that legislation will need to be carried through this winter if it is to happen. We are still examining whether that is possible, but we have certainly not ruled it out.

Mr. Gapes

I welcome my right hon. Friend to his post. Will he confirm that the policy of this Government, as opposed to that of their predecessors, will be to work co-operatively—to build alliances rather than to seek inglorious isolation?

Mr. Cook

Glorious isolation did not prove a useful position from which to negotiate. We have demonstrated that by going to Europe in a spirit of partnership, seeking solutions to common problems. We get a much better hearing and a much better answer than if we go in a spirit of sterile, negative opposition, which the Conservatives chose. We go to Europe to do a deal, not to strike postures for a domestic audience as the Conservatives did.

Mrs. Ewing

The Foreign Secretary has rightly placed employment at the heart of the policy issues for the European Union. On behalf of the coastal communities of the United Kingdom, I ask him to respond more effectively to the points raised yesterday about quota hopping by my hon. Friend the Member for North Tayside (Mr. Swinney) and by the right hon. Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor).

Mr. Cook

The hon. Lady raises a serious and important point, and we have stressed that the issue of quota hopping and the economic future of our fishing communities is one of our high negotiating priorities for Amsterdam. We are hopeful that our discussions with the Commission will produce a package that we can confirm at Amsterdam and that will bring significant economic gains to those communities.

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