HC Deb 20 July 1999 vol 335 cc951-3
3. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

What policy objectives he plans to secure under the Finnish presidency of the EU in relation to enlargement. [90457]

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

Negotiations to enlarge the European Union have made good progress since the launch of the accession process during the British presidency. Six of the applicant countries have opened detailed negotiations, covering 15 of the 31 chapters of European law. We are working for a commitment by the end of the Finnish presidency to open negotiations on membership with Bulgaria, Romania and others.

The Government are delighted that the Commission post with overall responsibility for external relations, including enlargement, has been secured for a British nominee, Chris Patten. I am sure all his hon. Friends in the Conservative party would wish to congratulate him.

Mr. Swayne

I am sure that the Secretary of State is right on that. However, at the conclusion of the United Kingdom presidency, the Finnish Prime Minister said that enlargement was more problematic than it had been a year before. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the most important item on the agenda of any presidency, and of the forthcoming intergovernmental conference, must be enlargement so that an outward-looking Europe can be secured?

Mr. Cook

I entirely agree with that sentiment. The British presidency's priority was, with full consensus, the launch and smooth start of the accession process. The recent agreement on Agenda 2000 provides the financial headroom to do that. I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's support, for once, on European policy, and I assure him that we shall press strongly to make a success of enlargement.

Mr. Donald Anderson (Swansea, East)

Will Turkey be invited to the proposed European conference in the later part of the year? Is there any indication of whether Turkey would accept such an invitation? How does my right hon. Friend envisage an improvement coming about in the strained relationship between the European Union and Turkey?

Mr. Cook

I regret that Turkey did not attend yesterday's meeting of European Foreign Ministers. The invitation remains open to Turkey, and we hope that it will be accepted. It is in the interests of both the EU and Turkey that we establish constructive working relationships, and we are ready to do so when Ankara proves ready.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

I join the Foreign Secretary in welcoming Chris Patten's appointment as a Commissioner. It is good to see the overwhelming victory of the centre right in the European elections reflected by the appointment of at least a few Commissioners of that persuasion.

I have been taking a look at Finland's published programme for its presidency of the European Union. It calls for the extension of qualified majority voting and the end of what it calls "harmful tax competition". Translated, that seems to me to mean a further surrender of the British veto and the imposition of a European savings tax. Can the Secretary of State guarantee that the British Government will vote against those proposals?

Mr. Cook

First, there is an IGC coming—I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on having acquired the information on that. It will follow on the Portuguese presidency, and the Finnish presidency will be responsible for making preparations for it. If we are serious about the point raised by the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne)—giving priority to enlargement—the European Union has to carry through the reforms necessary for that enlargement.

I remind the hon. Gentleman that if it had not been for qualified majority voting, we would never have been able to lift the ban on British beef—something that his Government never achieved in all their time in office.

Mr. Maples

Of course, it would not have been imposed in the first place without qualified majority voting. The two issues are linked, because the Finnish presidency document says: Work will be pursued on the proposals on the taxation of savings and interest and royalties with a view to reaching agreement before the Helsinki Council meeting. That will not wait for the IGC. These decisions are imminent and the British people want to know whether the Government will stand up for Britain's interests or conspire as usual to undermine them.

Mr. Cook

Of course the Government will stand up for the British interest. Part of that interest is in making sure that industries on the continent do not receive unfair subsidised tax breaks from their Governments. That is why Britain is proud of the fact that a British Minister is leading the working group on such unfair tax competition. If the hon. Gentleman would go out and talk to industry in Britain, he would find that it was as enthusiastic as we are about achieving a level playing field with our competitors.

Mr. Russell Brown (Dumfries)

Has my right hon. Friend seen statements from the Governments of Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic that they seek membership of the European Union? How does that square with the clear views of Conservative Members who wish to see Britain withdraw from the EU?

Mr. Cook

My hon. Friend makes a perfectly fair point. It is one of the remarkable features of the debate that the Conservative party constantly distances itself from Brussels while the whole of the rest of Europe is queueing up to join the bus that the Tories want to get off.

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