HC Deb 18 July 2000 vol 354 cc200-3
2. Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

When he next plans to meet the French Foreign Minister to discuss EU institutional reform; and if he will make a statement. [129541]

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

I have a high regard for the French Foreign Minister, whom I meet regularly to discuss institutional reform. The hon. Gentleman will no doubt warmly welcome Mr. Vedrine's statement of last week that he was a pragmatist rather than a federalist.

Mr. Swayne

Does the Foreign Secretary agree with the French Foreign Minister that a constitution for Europe is an aspiration?

Mr. Cook

I read with interest the whole text of Mr. Vedrine's statement last week. He made it clear that it was difficult to conceive of a constitution for Europe, because it would require a people of Europe. There is therefore no proposal from the French Foreign Minister for such a constitution.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that there is no consensus among EU Governments in favour of either the French or the German long-term view of the European Union, and that therefore—much though the Conservative party might wish it—the federalist nightmare is not upon us? Does he also agree that if the European Union enlarges there will need to be change, and that that change should focus on, as much as anything, the need to reconnect national Parliaments with decision making in the European Union?

Mr. Cook

The proposal for a pioneer group of European member states has encountered criticism from various countries, from Finland to Italy. The Prime Minister of Italy has said: Federalism is the model of the past. Although Opposition Members may wish to scare us with the bogey of federalism on the march, the fact is that most member states agree with us that there is no case for a federal superpower, and that this is not a debate from which we should run away as Opposition Members wish us to.

Mr. Mark Oaten (Winchester)

In his discussions with the French, will the Foreign Secretary still call for swift progress on enlargement, as promised in the Government's annual report, or does he now accept that there has been a cooling off on the issue, with 2006 being the earliest date at which countries will be able to join?

Mr. Cook

I assure the hon. Gentleman that there is no cooling off on the part of the Government of Britain on that issue. We remain firmly committed to enlargement, and enlargement as soon as possible. Indeed, when this morning in Berlin, I met the German Foreign Minister, I repeated Britain's conviction that we should stick with the timetable that we set out recently at Helsinki, which is that the European Union should be ready for new members by the end of 2002. There are countries in central Europe that are making major strides, very painfully, towards membership. We should encourage, not discourage, them.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

When the Foreign Secretary prepares for his meeting with his French opposite number, he will have to read the draft treaty of Nice. Does he understand that, in that draft treaty, it is proposed that a large number of powers should transfer from our elected Parliament to an unelected European Government, including powers to tax? Will he now tell the House if he will rule out transfer of such powers under that treaty?

Mr. Cook

I have repeatedly told the House—I am happy to say to it again for the right hon. Gentleman's benefit—that the Government will not agree to qualified majority voting on tax; but I notice that he is credited with having introduced Mr. Paul Sykes to the Conservative party. Perhaps, therefore, he can shed light on why it is that he belongs to a party—and was in a Government—which went into the European Community without a referendum, which signed the Maastricht treaty without a referendum, and which would deny us a vote on the single currency if it were ever in power again; and explain why he has suddenly decided that a referendum on the treaty of Nice would be appropriate. The answer is that it has nothing to do with what might be in the treaty of Nice and everything to do with Paul Sykes and what he might put into Tory party bank accounts.

Ms Rachel Squire (Dunfermline, West)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that there would be little or no benefit to Britain if our approach was to stand and whinge on the sidelines like the Tory party? Does he further agree that the best place for Britain to be is at the centre of the European stage, working for reform and enlargement to build a more democratic and accountable European Union?

Mr. Cook

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It is important for Britain to be at the centre of Europe and to be a leading partner in Europe. We will be a leading partner only if we retain the support that we have received from the countries that are seeking to be the new members of Europe. I believe that it is very important for Britain to champion enlargement and to be regarded by those countries as their ally and friend. That is why I view with bewilderment the Conservative party's decision to campaign strongly against the treaty that is necessary for enlargement and to throw away that support from central and eastern Europe.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that EU enlargement through membership of the former communist states of central and eastern Europe is a political and, indeed, moral imperative? Can he, despite his assurances, therefore comment on recent reports that the enlargement process is being delayed to 2005 or 2006 because of the EU' s unwillingness to carry through the necessary reforms? Does he agree that, for enlargement to succeed, the EU will have to reform itself as well as the candidate countries?

Mr. Cook

Absolutely—of course Europe must reform itself. That is precisely what we are doing in the enlargement intergovernmental conference, which will culminate in the treaty of Nice. It is the hon. Gentleman and his party who are proposing to campaign against the treaty of Nice. If it is a moral imperative to enlarge the European Union, perhaps he can explain why the Tories will oppose the very reforms necessary for it. The reality is that he represents a party that, far from enlarging the European Union, frequently sounds as if it would rather shrink the European Union by taking Britain out of it.

Mr. Spring

But is not the real barrier to enlargement the unreformed common agricultural policy? Why are the British Government not leading demands at the intergovernmental conference to tackle that? Is not their failure to engage seriously in the debate raging on the continent about the future shape of the EU yet another example of Britain being, to use the Prime Minister's own self-description, "insufficiently assertive"? Why is it that the Government have no vision whatever of what the enlarged European Union should look like?

Mr. Cook

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has recently joined us as his party's European spokesman. He may, therefore, have forgotten—or not noticed—that, at the Berlin summit, Britain did lead the campaign to reform the common agricultural policy. [Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks what that got us. It has got every household in Britain £64 off its food bill compared with the food bill when he was last in office and the previous Government were in power.

The hon. Gentleman has totally failed to answer the question that I put to him. If Conservative Members really believe that it is important for Europe to be enlarged and for these countries to be encouraged, why are they proposing to oppose the treaty of Nice? Is it not that they would rather have Paul Sykes in their party than 13 more countries inside the European Union?

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