HC Deb 07 December 1999 vol 340 cc689-90
12. Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

If he will make a statement on the agenda for the Council at Helsinki in relation to proposals to reform Community institutions. [99955]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook)

As I said earlier, we expect Helsinki to agree to an intergovernmental conference to prepare the European Union for the challenges of enlargement. In Britain's view, the essential reforms are to limit the growth in the number of Commissioners and to achieve a fairer weight of votes for the larger members.

We are willing to look at an extension of qualified majority voting on a case-by-case basis. Where QMV may be in Britain's interests, we will support it, but where key areas of national interest are at stake, such as treaty change, border controls, defence, taxation, social security and own resources, we will insist on retaining unanimity.

Mr. Atkinson

Will the Foreign Secretary take a firmer line on the extension of qualified majority voting? Surely the intergovernmental conference next year should concentrate on enlargement and on building a wider and more flexible Europe, and should not fiddle with details that can be left for a future occasion?

Mr. Cook

I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the IGC should focus on enlargement, and that is what we will argue at Helsinki. However, at Cologne, the three issues that were identified as relevant to enlargement are the three that I set out to the House. There may well be occasions when it would be in our interest to argue for qualified majority voting—for instance, we want reform of the European Court of Justice, and I understand that the Opposition do as well. It will be more difficult to achieve that, so long as every single member state has a block on reform.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, if we are to achieve enlargement of the European Union, that must be on a basis on which the institutions of the EU can work? It is therefore necessary to deal with the problem of the number of members of the Commission, and the issues of majority voting and languages. Those issues are fundamental to the efficient working of the EU. Is it not absurd for the Conservatives to claim that they want enlargement, but to do everything to stop the means that make it possible?

Mr. Cook

I addressed that question in the earlier intervention. The Opposition must decide whether they are in favour of enlargement, or whether they want to block the treaty.

On my hon. Friend's point, it is important that we get those changes. It is particularly important that we make sure that the Commission does not become so large that it becomes ineffective. We are therefore willing to concede Britain's second Commissioner, but only if we get adequate reweighting of the votes in the Council of Ministers. That is a fair package, which I hope that all member states will accept.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells)

Will the Secretary of State address himself to the matter of flexibility in the Government's position? Can he confirm to the House that the Government ruled out any discussion of flexibility on the IGC agenda? Can he also confirm that the Government are opposed to any extension of section 43 of the Amsterdam treaty covering closer co-operation? If that is the case, will he disown the Labour MEPs who voted in the European Parliament in favour of the European Parliament's own resolution on the subject and who seem to favour greater flexibility, alongside the Conservatives?

Mr. Cook

In the context of the IGC, I stated clearly to the House last week, and I repeat, that, if this IGC is to reach agreement, it will have to focus on enlargement and achieve its target of being completed in time for 2002.

On flexibility, no, we do not share the view of Opposition Members who want to achieve a pick-and-choose Europe. Such a view is not supported by the applicant countries either. One of the reasons why, at Amsterdam, we were adamant that there should be a veto on any flexibility provision was to prevent other countries forging ahead and leaving us behind. We secured that veto. I was rather surprised to note that, in the hon. Gentleman's speech earlier this week, he seemed to suggest that the Conservatives were in favour of abandoning that veto.

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