HC Deb 13 January 1998 vol 304 cc129-31
3. Mr. Spring

If he will make a statement about the Government's objectives in respect of enlargement during the UK's presidency of the European Union. [20414]

11. Mr. Paice

If he will seek to establish target dates for the next stage of European enlargement during the United Kingdom presidency. [20423]

Mr. Robin Cook

Enlargement will be one of the central themes of our presidency. In accordance with the conclusions of the Luxembourg European Council, we shall open the accession process on 30 March and begin accession negotiations with the six applicants that are ready, very soon thereafter. On 12 March, we shall inaugurate in London the European conference, which will be open to all current candidate countries. Our aim is to give the enlargement process as much momentum as possible before the end of the British presidency.

Mr. Spring

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, only last month, the Prime Minister said that successful enlargement could come about only with the resolution of the problem of the common agricultural policy? Why, therefore, when the Prime Minister listed the important concerns for the United Kingdom presidency only last week, did he make no allusion to the common agricultural policy and its solution in connection with enlargement?

Mr. Cook

We have repeatedly pressed the importance of reform of the common agricultural policy—[Interruption.] With all due respect to hon. Members, I must tell them that we have done so repeatedly, in the context not only of our election manifesto but of the presidency, as I did again only last Sunday.

Of course, we must be frank about the fact that, although during our presidency we can take forward the detailed proposals made by the Commission and ensure that those are worked up into specific proposals, we cannot hope to complete the work in the six months of the presidency. It sits ill for Opposition Members, after 18 years of leaving the problem behind, to demand that we solve it in six months.

Mr. Paice

Is not the real reason why the Prime Minister did not mention CAP reform that he knows full well that it is not only unachievable in the six months of the presidency, but that it is highly unlikely to be achievable in a longer time? [HON. MEMBERS: "Eighteen years."] I must point out to Labour Members that the Conservative party was in power when the CAP was reformed in 1992. Is it not the case that, until the German elections are out of the way this autumn, the German Government will not agree to move on any reform of the CAP that would mean a reduction in the subsidies to their farmers—the principal obstruction to any reform in the future, as it was on the previous occasion?

Mr. Cook

The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong in being defeatist about the prospects for change. At the November Agriculture Council, 14 out of 15 member states backed the Commission's proposals, which we shall take forward during our presidency; for instance, to cut the price support mechanism for cereal. I note the hon. Gentleman's support for that, and I am sure that his constituents will welcome it.

As to the future, there are two major pressures on Europe to reform the CAP. The first is the immediate pressure of enlargement, because we must reform the CAP if we are to be able to afford enlargement. The second pressure is the growing liberalisation of world trade, which will not indefinitely allow what is essentially a protectionist instrument.

Mr. Corbett

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that neither threats from Ankara nor bluster from North Nicosia will delay the opening of negotiations on the entry of Cyprus to the EU, while it making clear to Turkey that it would be a welcome participant in the London conference on 12 March?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend's question points out the delicate tightrope that anyone involved in those negotiations must walk. We have persistently made it clear that we support the right of the Republic of Cyprus to apply for membership of the EU, and we believe that that application must be considered on its merits and cannot be vetoed by any third party. At the same time, we wish to have positive and constructive engagement in dialogue with Turkey. I spoke to my Turkish opposite number only last week and I continue to press Turkey that, if it wishes to come to the European conference, the door is ajar and we should welcome Turkey to discuss matters of mutual concern.

Mr. Mackinlay

Will the Foreign Secretary review the amount of funds available through the UK know-how fund and European Union programmes to help the applicants to begin the lengthy and difficult process of harmonising their domestic laws with those of the EU in advance of accession? Will he ensure that more resources are available to help civil servants and people from business, commerce and industry from the applicant countries to gain skills in EU languages?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes a fair point, but I am happy to respond by saying that there is already a large budget in the EU to assist the applicant countries through accession partnerships to prepare themselves for full membership. Britain is running a scheme to train negotiators among the first wave of applicant countries. That is precisely because we do not regard those negotiations as confrontational, and we want to enter into them in the spirit of making the negotiations succeed and to bring in those countries to create a wider, stronger Europe and a more stable and secure central Europe.

Mr. Wilkinson

Does not the Foreign Secretary view it ill that the EU should adopt an invidious policy towards the accession of the Baltic states—inasmuch a s Estonia, rightly, has enjoyed a fast track, but Lithuania and Latvia are in the slower lane towards accession—while the United States, in its charter for partnership towards the Baltic states, is adopting an all-embracing policy of open welcome and political partnership leading, hopefully, to the accession to the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation of all three states?

Mr. Cook

Like the United States, we seek warm and constructive relations with all three Baltic states. However, the partnership agreement proposed by the United States is a much less complex task than accession to the European Union, with the acceptance of all the European acquis that is necessary. It is the Commission's advice that Estonia is ready to begin the task of detailed negotiation. Until Latvia and Lithuania have achieved the same point of a functioning market economy, it is not necessarily right for them to enter those detailed negotiations. I entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is important that we do not send a negative signal to those countries that are not in the first wave. That is why all three Baltic states will be invited to that European conference and there is no bar on any member that is not in the first wave catching up on those that are.