HC Deb 12 December 2000 vol 359 cc466-70
4. Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

If he will make a statement on the recent EU summit in Nice. [141963]

7. Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

If he will make a statement on the outcome of the European Council meeting in Nice. [141966]

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

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made a statement to the House yesterday on the Nice European Council.

The outcome secured Britain's strategic objectives. It opens the door to enlargement by agreeing the necessary reforms to the Council of Ministers, the Commission and the European Parliament. It provides Britain with the first-ever increase in its vote. It removes the veto of other countries in some areas where Britain wants progress, such as tougher management of the Community budget, but it respects Britain's red lines by preserving unanimity on both tax and social security. It is a good deal for Britain. It is also a good deal for the candidate countries, which have widely welcomed agreement to the treaty and want to see it ratified.

Mrs. Campbell

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his excellent success in Nice. Does he recall who said this? Considerable progress has been made … and qualified majority voting has enabled us to get some liberalising measures through against protectionist resistance by some of our partners.—[Official Report, 11 June 1990; Vol. 174, c. 103.] Does my right hon. Friend agree that those sentiments expressed by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) are still appropriate, and does he wonder, as I do, why the shadow Secretary of State has done a complete U-turn?

Mr. Cook

I really think that that is a question for the Opposition, not the Government.

Mr. Illsley

I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend on his success at Nice.

Despite the Opposition's scaremongering about, for instance, increasing qualified majority voting, the reweighting of votes, the possible loss of vetoes and possible further integration, is it not a fact that the British Government negotiated successfully? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the outcome of the Nice summit paves the way for further enlargement? [Interruption.]

Mr. Cook

I am sorry that the Opposition find such a good outcome for Britain a subject for mirth.

Yesterday, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) and many others tried to claim that we had never been under any pressure on tax. I hope that this morning they heard the statement by President Chirac and Pierre Moscovici, the French European Minister, stressing how hard they had worked and how much they regretted the fact that we had not moved. We were only able to maintain those red lines because we remained firm over four days, and because of the brilliant case put by the Prime Minister.

Mr. Edward Leigh (Gainsborough)

The Prime Minister told us yesterday that he had—as indeed he has—increased the United Kingdom's voting share in the Council of Ministers; but will the Foreign Secretary now tell us exactly what the percentage increase is? According to figures that I have been given, it has risen from 11.49 per cent. to 12.4 per cent. Is that the greatest diplomatic triumph since the treaty of Berlin?

Mr. Cook

Yes—it is much better than anything we got under 18 years of Conservative government. As a matter of fact, our share steadily shrank: with every additional enlargement, the British share of the vote went down. We have now secured a significant increase, which will see us through the joining of the first six countries. During that time, we shall see no net reduction of any significance in the current British share.

We have protected Britain's strength. We have a stronger Britain, in what can now become a wider Europe. I would expect the Opposition—who keep saying that they believe in Britain, and believe in standing up for Britain—to welcome Britain's obtaining more clout in Europe.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham)

Will the Foreign Secretary tell us in how many areas it was agreed that the national veto should be given up? Was it 23, as the Commission has said, or 39, as the right hon. Gentleman's own officials have apparently said? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree with us that the mainstream majority of the public here want to see a real process of decentralisation in the European Union, not this relentless march towards political union? That would make enlargement easier to accomplish, not more difficult.

Mr. Cook

I am not quite sure to what extent the Opposition have been observing what happened at Nice. For four hours over Sunday night and Monday, we argued with one particular country. That is not evidence of a superstate; that is evidence of substantial—[Interruption.] I am answering the question. It is evidence of the way in which the European Union pays respect to the views of one country.

Mr. Crispin Blunt (Reigate)

How many?

Mr. Cook

If the hon. Gentleman is quiet, I will answer the question. How can I answer it if I am constantly interrupted?

The treaty of Nice provides for qualified majority voting in 31 articles. Ten are articles from which Britain is already exempt because we are not part of Schengen. Three relate to the appointment and pensions of officials, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out yesterday. The remainder are substantial changes. I do not diminish them. They are substantial changes that we wanted because we wanted to get rid of the veto of other countries on tougher management of the Community budget; because we wanted to ensure that we have tight rules on structural funds, so that they cannot be mismanaged; and because we wanted to ensure that we can change the rules and procedure of the European Court of Justice, so that Britain can get its cases heard faster and more fairly. Those are gains for Britain.

The treaty is also a gain for Europe. Every hon. Member, including the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), has received a letter from the Federation of Poles in Great Britain urging—[Interruption.] Yes, the right hon. Gentleman has received it. The letter asks the House to be the first to ratify a treaty in the interests of central Europe. I would like to know what answer the right hon. Gentleman proposes to give the federation.

Mr. Maude

I will give the answer now—we would ratify tomorrow a treaty that was genuinely about enlargement. We would agree tomorrow the matters in the treaty that were genuinely about enlargement, reweighting of votes and the size of the Commission. We will not agree to ratify the relentless march towards full political union to which the Foreign Secretary has agreed.

On the defence initiative, will the Foreign Secretary answer the questions that were put to him yesterday? Does he understand that, at Nice, he and the Prime Minister signed up to establishing the Military Committee of the European Union and the Military Staff of the European Union … ? Does he finally understand that that is precisely what Defence Secretary Cohen and the other Americans are so concerned about? How can he ensure that NATO does not become a "relic of the past", in Secretary Cohen's own phrase, which he predicts will happen if the current arrangements are put into effect?

Mr. Cook

At Nice, we approved eight separate documents. They set out in great detail how, at every stage of any European security initiative, it will be firmly anchored in joint decision-making with NATO. Moreover, any decision by us to take part will be a sovereign national decision.

The point was put to the right hon. Gentleman by Jonathan Dimbleby on Sunday. He said that it would be a sovereign decision by Britain and added: That's not European control. The right hon. Gentleman replied: I regard us as being a European country. The truth is that there is nothing but scare in what the Opposition are trying to peddle.

I return to the question that we put to the right hon. Gentleman. He is plainly saying that he will say no to the Polish federation; to the Polish Prime Minister, who described the decision at Nice as "exceptionally favourable"; to the Foreign Minister of Estonia, who said that the agreement was "historic"; and to the Foreign Minister of Lithuania, who said: The doors of the EU institutions are open. The right hon. Gentleman should reflect that, when the Opposition are the only force in the whole of Europe that is taking a view of negativity, it is just possible that they are wrong and the rest of Europe is right.

Mr. Maude

Will the Foreign Secretary answer the question that he has been asked? Does he believe that Secretary Cohen is fundamentally dishonest, to use his casual phrase? Secretary Cohen said that the arrangements should be put together, so that there was no separate operational planning, and that: The European Union will erode NATO and US security ties with Europe if it insists on separate operational planning for its new rapid reaction force. Does the Foreign Secretary understand that that is precisely what he and the Prime Minister signed up to on Friday in Nice? Does he realise just how dangerous that is—all for the sake of one man's vanity, the Prime Minister's moment in the sunlight as a leader in Europe? If the harvest of that vanity is permanent damage to the most successful security alliance in history, which has kept the peace in Europe for 50 years, he will never be forgiven.

Mr. Cook

There is no operational planning capacity in the proposals for European security. What the documents say is that we have a guaranteed permanent access to NATO's operational planning capacity. It is that which we will use in any exercise.

Mr. Maude

Read the document.

Mr. Cook

I have indeed read all the documents. That is why I know that there is no provision for an operational planning capacity. The day after the speech from which the right hon. Gentleman quoted, Secretary Cohen said that he was in complete agreement with the British position.

I return to my earlier point. The right hon. Gentleman has just suggested that this is all about one man's vanity. The fact is that 30 different countries took part in the capabilities conference two weeks ago. There were 30 different countries. The matter has been driven not by one man's vanity, but by those countries combined desire and commitment to make Europe more secure and more safe. If Conservative Members really mean what their defence spokesman said yesterday and would drive a stake through our commitment to the force, 29 countries in Europe would regard Britain as having cheated them and let them down. That will not leave us with a strong alliance, on which our defence depends.