HC Deb 10 March 1998 vol 308 cc311-3
13. Mr. Boswell

What activities in relation to Agenda 2000 have been initiated under the British presidency. [31809]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Doug Henderson)

The Council has approved the framework regulation for the accession partnerships, which will be the principal plank of the EU's relationship with the countries of central and eastern Europe over the coming years. We shall launch the European conference, which will bring together the member states and candidate countries, in London on Thursday.

We expect the Commission to table draft regulations for the reform of the common agricultural policy and the structural and cohesion funds, and proposals for the future financing of the EU on 18 March. Those are only the most immediate activities. We expect that the Cardiff European Council in June will record good progress on Agenda 2000 during our presidency.

Mr. Boswell

Although the Minister will have heard the discouraging noises coming from Brussels last week about the possible withdrawal of Community support for aid to the British regions, will he ensure, in the forthcoming conference and subsequently, that he sits down with our existing partners in Europe so that any burdens of transfer to the applicant countries under Agenda 2000 are fairly shared and so that British interests are robustly represented?

Mr. Henderson

I am happy to reassure the hon. Gentleman that the position that he outlines is the one that the Government will adopt. As we support the enlargement process, it is important to have a funding system, which means that some of the structural funds must find their way to central and eastern European countries to help them. That means that less funding will be available from the structural cake for the existing European Union states, so it is important to have a fair burden share. That will be a principal objective in our negotiations.

Mr. Bill O'Brien

Does my hon. Friend accept the great importance of the structural funds to many of our regions, particularly Humberside, because of the economic development of those regions? Will he assure the House that during our presidency, he will lay the foundations necessary to ensure fairness and equity in the distribution of the structural funds so that our regions may continue with their economic progress?

Mr. Henderson

I hope that I can reassure my hon. Friend that a principal objective in our negotiations will be to seek a fair solution, part of which is that areas within the European Union that have similar characteristics and a similar need for help will get help. Many areas near my hon. Friend's constituency would qualify, and I hope that we can protect them on the basis of achieving a fair settlement.

Mr. Gill

The Minister mentioned reform of the common agricultural policy; he will appreciate that to get any fundamental reform of the CAP will require unanimity. What realistic prospect is there of achieving unanimity in the European Union at present?

Mr. Henderson

There is a growing recognition in the European Union that the current agricultural policy is wasteful and that a better way in which to support agricultural interests in the Community could be found. That is recognised in many countries that have previously taken a pretty reactionary view. The prospect of enlargement will force the European Union to look at agricultural policy. I believe that with tough negotiation and perseverance, we can begin to make progress towards bringing agricultural prices in Europe down towards world prices, which will be good for the consumer. Finding the right sort of support for agricultural interests will give the greatest support to those parts of the industry with the greatest need.

Mr. Skinner

Is my hon. Friend aware that we have been talking about reform of the common agricultural policy ever since Britain joined the Common Market on 1 January 1973? I do not see it coming any nearer. If it ever comes about that a policy is presented here in Parliament to reform the CAP, those 142,000 people, or however many went on the countryside march, will be knocking at every single door here, telling the British Government that they do not want it. All those Tory and Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament who theoretically support CAP reform will say, "No, we can't afford it."

Mr. Henderson

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, but I had thought that he was more of an optimist and would be looking forward to changes in agricultural policy. I think that he can reassure me that, in the event of large numbers of sectional interests arguing against changing agricultural policy, he will be able to persuade many millions of consumers in our country that some of the changes, at least, will be in their interests—and they will turn up to show their support.

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