HC Deb 16 December 2002 vol 396 cc537-51 3.31 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the European Council that took place in Copenhagen on 12 and 13 December. Negotiations were successfully concluded to admit to membership 10 countries from eastern and central Europe, and Cyprus and Malta. We hope that Romania and Bulgaria will be ready to follow in 2007.

Today, we take it for granted that the 10 countries are all democratic nations living by the same values as the rest of Europe, but for anyone who remembers the Hungarian uprising of 1956, the Prague spring of 1968 or the imposition of military rule in Poland in 1981, the transformation of those countries from tyranny to democracy and now to full European Union membership is a huge achievement of which Europe and Britain can be justly proud.

We have long been the champions of European enlargement. The negotiations for membership began during the British presidency of the EU in 1998, and I should like to pay tribute particularly to the Danish presidency and the Commission, which brought the negotiations to a successful conclusion.

Details of the final package are annexed to the conclusions of the meeting. Membership will bring immediate economic benefits to the candidates. It will create a single market of 450 million people. Our trade has increased nearly 10 times as fast with those new countries as with the rest of the world, and 14,000 UK firms now export to east and central Europe. Membership of the EU will boost the gross domestic product of those countries by nearly 1.5 per cent., and our own by up to nearly £2 billion.

The new member states are countries that have only recently rediscovered their national identity. They, like us, will want the further integration of the Union to be firmly rooted in the democratic accountability of the nation state. They shall be our allies in developing a European Union on those lines.

For some time, Turkey has been knocking on the door of the European Union. The response of the Union has rightly been to encourage a closer economic and political relationship, but to say that full membership would be possible only when Turkey met the necessary human rights criteria.

In the past year, Turkey has made enormous strides by abolishing the death penalty and adopting a range of human rights laws. The new Turkish Government have promised a detailed legislative timetable to accelerate that progress. I believe that it is massively in our interests to see Turkey as a modern democratic partner in Europe. For that reason, I have been urging our partners to offer Turkey a date to open negotiations for membership, provided that the so-called Copenhagen criteria are met. I am pleased to report to the House that that was achieved in Copenhagen.

The Commission will report on Turkey's progress and if, in December 2004, on a recommendation from the Commission, the European Council decides that Turkey fulfils the Copenhagen political criteria, accession negotiations with Turkey will open without delay. That agreement has contributed to a better climate on the long-standing Cyprus dispute. The Secretary-General of the United Nations and his special representative, Mr. De Soto, have been tireless in their efforts, as has our own special representative, Lord Hannay. A settlement remains within reach. I urge all parties to continue their efforts to find a comprehensive settlement, which would allow a reunited Cyprus to join the European Union, as set out in the conclusions of the European Council.

We were also able to resolve differences between Turkey and Greece that have delayed the agreement between the European Union and NATO necessary to allow the implementation of a European security and defence policy. We have now established the essential linkage with NATO, which means that where NATO is not involved the European Union can undertake peacekeeping operations using NATO planning, with the option of using NATO headquarters and NATO assets as well. As a result, the European Union stands ready to take over the military operation in Macedonia, in consultation with NATO, and to lead a military operation in Bosnia following SFOR.

The European Council issued a declaration on the middle east in advance of the Quartet ministerial meeting in Washington. The Quartet brings together the European Union, the United States, Russia and the United Nations, and its meeting on 20 December will take us a further step forward. In the short term, progress on the Israeli side will be limited by the general election campaign in Israel. However, I believe that we should use the intervening period to maximise the chances of successful implementation of the road map once a new Israeli Government are in place.

That means continuing to do what we can to secure an end to violence, and to reverse the deteriorating humanitarian situation. It also means ensuring that Palestinian reform is effective. To that end, I can announce today that I am inviting leading Palestinians to come to Britain in January for a conference, along with members of the Quartet and other countries from the region closely involved in supporting the reform effort. The participants will discuss progress on reform and consider how the international community can help. It is in the interests of Palestinians and Israelis that the reform efforts succeed, so that we can make a reality of President Bush's vision of two states, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security.

The European Council also issued a declaration on Iraq, giving its full and unequivocal support for Security Council resolution 1441 and urging Iraq to seize this final opportunity to comply with its international obligations.

Finally, we speak against the background of serious problems confronting our fishing industry. In the past 30 years, cod stocks in the North sea have fallen from 250,000 tonnes to 35,000 tonnes. If fishing continues at the present rate there is a risk of there being no viable cod fishing industry left. That is why the European Commission has suggested a reduction in fishing of 80 per cent., to enable the cod stock to recover to its absolute minimum viable level. Scientists believe that the safe minimum is 150,000 tonnes.

We share the objective of enabling fish stocks to recover, but we believe that much more moderate measures could deliver recovery while maintaining a viable industry. I have talked extensively both with the President of the Commission at Copenhagen and with Commissioner Fischler previously. Fisheries Ministers are now meeting in Brussels to reach agreement on the issue.

The UK fishing industry has benefited over the past year from £36 million of funding to support adjustment through decommissioning. This includes the Scottish Executive's action to help preserve fish stocks and ensure the industry's long-term viability with a £27 million aid package. If there are further cuts arising from the ongoing negotiations in Brussels, the UK Government and the Scottish Executive stand ready to help the fishing communities affected. I will meet leaders of the industry in the new year, and financial assistance will be made available if necessary, but the priority for now must be to get a fair deal for our fishing industry.

The summit was a remarkable achievement. It redefines the future shape of Europe. It describes a future in which Europe is reunited, a Europe of proud and sovereign nation states, working together economically, socially and politically in their common interest. The prospect of Turkey's membership has even more dramatic implications. A nation that borders the Arab world, that is Muslim, that is none the less striking out on a path leading to liberal democracy, is set in time to join the traditional nations of Europe.

The implications for the future of Europe are profound. In time, all these new countries will be part of the European economy, part of monetary union, part of European defence, part of the European political system. For us in Britain, the implications are equally profound. It is our job to be part of the new Europe that is developing, to be a leading power within it and to understand the degree to which our national interest is bound up with it. Isolation from Europe in this new world is absolute folly. That is why we shall continue to fight for our interests, but recognise that they are best served inside the European Union, not on its margins.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and join him in welcoming the conference that he has apparently announced today for leading Palestinian reformers, involving representatives of the EU, the UN, Russia and the United States. We will await more details on that before dealing with it in detail ourselves.

This historic summit is a tribute to the long, hard and sometimes lonely battles fought by successive British Governments to extend the benefits of EU membership to the former communist states of central and eastern Europe. Like the Prime Minister, I, too, congratulate the Danish presidency and in particular Prime Minister Rasmussen, who has been a diligent and honest broker for a working settlement on enlargement. However, I think that I speak for many on both sides of the House, as well as for millions elsewhere in Europe, when I express my regret at how long enlargement has taken. As the Prime Minister knows, for all British Governments it is 13 years since the Berlin wall came down: 13 years of excluding central and eastern European countries from western European markets, all because Brussels insisted on full compliance with social legislation. Only now has the EU lived up to its obligations; as I have said, it was successive British Governments who tried to lead the way. Enlargement may be the European Union's finest hour, but its delay reveals the vested interests in parts of the EU with which we have become all too familiar.

The Copenhagen summit showed a side to the Franco-German axis with which the Prime Minister is also becoming all too familiar. Back in October in Brussels, he was outflanked by France and Germany when they delayed common agricultural policy reform—a move that will greatly increase the cost of EU membership to accession states and to existing member states alike. Last week in Copenhagen, he was again outflanked—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The House must come to order.

Mr. Duncan Smith

Last week in Copenhagen, the Prime Minister was again outflanked by France and Germany over membership negotiations for Turkey. The Turks wanted them to start before the current round of enlargement was implemented, and they were supported not just by the UK Government, but by the Spanish, the Italians and even the Greeks. Yet, once again, France and Germany prevailed. Negotiations have been delayed until December 2004—well after enlargement will have been completed.

Does the Prime Minister agree that those actions by France and Germany have been to the detriment of the European Union? Does he also agree that it is imperative that we encourage Turkey, as a NATO ally and as a secular, democratic Muslim nation, to play a full role in the European Union at the earliest possible opportunity? We are constantly urging the benefits of democracy on the Islamic world, yet here is the EU telling Turkey that she must prove her intentions all over again. Does not the Prime Minister think that direct negotiations would provide the strongest possible incentive for Turkey to meet the highest standards on human rights? Does he also agree that negotiations would provide the ideal opportunity to ensure that Cyprus—now to be an EU member itself—became a united island again? Was not the decision to delay these negotiations a snub for the Government of Turkey and for all those nations that supported her?

The Prime Minister says that the Euro army has reached an agreement with NATO that will allow it to use the alliance's planning, assets and headquarters. This, he said, means that the Euro army "stands ready" to take over military operations in Macedonia. Is that not in fact an admission that the Euro army should have been inside NATO all along? Now we have the rather ridiculous sight of the Prime Minister pretending that the EU has no military competence other than NATO deciding what it will or will not do. Surely the Government's position on this throughout has been seen for what it is—baseless and solely part of a wider negotiation with France.

Last week I wrote to the Prime Minister asking him to raise the severe proposed cuts to British fishing quotas. There was not one word about the common fisheries policy in the presidency's conclusions. That seems strange, given that before Copenhagen the Prime Minister wrote that Scottish fishermen would have the Government's full backing right to the very top". According to today's statement, that amounted to the Prime Minister holding a conversation with Romano Prodi on the margins of the Copenhagen summit. With 40,000 jobs at stake on the basis of a contested scientific report, Britain's fishing community surely deserves better than just a conversation. Instead, it seems that the Government fully accepted that further savage cuts would be necessary. Why did the Prime Minister not force discussion of the fundamental issues of the CFP on to the table, as would have been required? It seems doubly strange that the conclusions refer to Spanish fishermen and Portuguese farmers, whose concerns were raised and registered at the same summit, whereas our fishermen have been left out.

The Prime Minister is right: this ought to have been a truly historic moment for our continent, when the cold war divisions were replaced with a new European settlement on prosperity, stability and mutual co-operation. Instead, all too often, the EU élites, to which he never refers, are bent on creating some sort of superpower. The common agricultural policy and the common fisheries policy, which the Prime Minister simply fails to sort out, are left unreformed as part of wider discussions. The forces of old Europe seem reluctant to let go: making them do so will take more than the Prime Minister talking tough before meetings and backing down after he has been there.

The Prime Minister: Where does one begin, Mr. Speaker? First, for the right hon. Gentleman to say that the enlargement process has been a great setback for the European Union is bizarre. [Interruption.] I am sorry, but he effectively said that it was disgraceful that it had taken so long. I think that it is remarkable that, 13 years after the Berlin wall fell, we have managed to get 10 countries into the European Union.

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes)

My right hon. Friend welcomed it.

The Prime Minister

If I may say so, it was a slightly grudging welcome. Given the interests at stake, it is a remarkable tribute to the vitality of the European Union that these countries have been accepted. The Leader of the Opposition had to make this attack because at the very time when a large part of the Conservative party is queueing up to get out, this other lot is queueing up to get in.

As for what the right hon. Gentleman said about Turkey, what happened was not to do with the French and German objections. It is correct that Britain, Italy, Spain and probably Greece would have gone further, but many countries were deeply hesitant about whether Turkey could fulfil the criteria. The key was to get a date, and we have got a date. It could have been a few months earlier, but it is, again, a tremendous step forward in Europe's relations with Turkey. Although I am a huge supporter of Turkey's membership of the European Union, there are issues to do with human rights that must be addressed. It is important that we address them and that Turkey's new leadership, who are really trying to address the issues, are given time to do so properly. It is churlish to suggest that the European Union was snubbing us or snubbing Turkey. Given where we were, it is a big step forward.

On European defence, the whole point about Macedonia is that NATO does not wish to be involved. That is why it is sensible for European defence, using the full support of NATO, to do it. The reason that it is so important to have European defence—but on the right basis, fully consistent with NATO—is precisely because there may be situations when, for whatever reason, NATO does not want to be involved. It is important, therefore, that Europe has the capability to do that for itself. The British Conservative party is against European defence, but even America now supports it as the right way forward for Europe and for NATO.

The most disastrous thing that we could do in respect of the CFP would be to adopt what I assume is now the policy of the Conservative party and withdraw from it. That would give us no protection whatsoever. It would not actually stop cod stocks being fished before they migrate to British waters—it would not actually help our fishermen at all. We must recognise that there is a huge problem. We are fighting hard to get the best deal possible, but it is a cruel deception to pretend to the fishing industry either that there is not an issue or that there is some simple solution—neither is correct.

As for the Leader of the Opposition's statement that with the Conservative party we should get a better deal in Europe, I do not know of a Conservative party—it will be interesting to see whether Opposition Members can name one—anywhere else in Europe, in the existing EU, in the countries that are about to join or in countries that may join later, that supports the completely foolish, backward and isolationist policy of the British Conservative party.

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Skye and Inverness, West)

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and join him in congratulating the successful Danish presidency.

Judging from the House's reaction to the remarks of the leader of the Conservative party, it widely shares the view that we felt no sense of history when the right hon. Gentleman described a time of such historic groundbreaking achievement for Europe and for the spread of democracy, stability, peace and security across the continent as 13 wasted years. I thought that that referred to a different period in history relating to the Conservative party.

None the less, the 18 years of unbroken Conservative Government in this country certainly helped to build the single European market. It helped to extend qualified majority voting—thanks to Mrs. Thatcher and the Conservative party—and it even helped to pave the way for the enlargement process on which Conservative Members seem to be trying to pour cold water today. They have no sense of history and even less sense of the future—that is the Conservative party.

Given that some of the continuing entrenched aspects of the common agricultural policy have become even more entrenched as a result of some of the decisions that were reached at the summit, what prospect does the Prime Minister see, with enlargement ahead of us, of achieving the genuine, long-term reform of the CAP that is inevitable, desirable and will come about only if our country plays its full part at the top table of Europe? It will not be achieved on the country club membership basis advocated by certain people.

Would not Britain's hand in Europe be strengthened more generally if we showed greater political resolve on the single European currency? Increasingly, we risk marginalising ourselves, as well as suffering domestic economic disadvantage, due to continuing uncertainty about a referendum and about the Government's long-term political commitment on the issue.

I welcome the decision reached about Turkey. It is important that over the next two years there is full and active engagement with the Turkish authorities—not least as regards human rights—to ensure that as and when accession negotiations with Turkey are held, they are based on stability and dependable understanding as regards not only the commitment of the Turkish democratic authorities to Europe itself, but the need to maintain the fundamental values of human rights that Europe enshrines and to which we are signatories.

Does the Prime Minister agree that it does not help intelligent discussion of matters European in this country to speak in a completely misleading fashion, bandying about such shorthand terms as "Euro army"? In fact, there is a strategic and sensible basis on which NATO and the EU can co-operate when they want to do so or whereby they can pursue different or varying agendas when that is the most sensible course. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that that message from the summit, following the most recent NATO discussions, is welcome and must be the sane way forward?

Fisheries are a major concern to many of our communities, not least those in Scotland, so I welcome today's statement from the Commission that it wishes to defer decisions on quotas for a further three months. In his discussions with the leaders of the fishing representatives after the turn of the year, will the Prime Minister take every opportunity to carry them with him on the discussions that must ensue about the scientific evidence? The fact that our domestic fleet has already made a good contribution must be recognised in Brussels to a greater and more sensitive extent than it has been so far.

Finally, I welcome the Palestine conference, which the Prime Minister has announced today, but will he underscore the need for Europe to be seen to be contributing to restarting the middle east peace process? Will he acknowledge that it would be appropriate for the Defence Secretary or the Foreign Secretary to make a statement before the recess about any possible British troop deployments vis-à-vis Iraq during the parliamentary recess?

The Prime Minister

I agree entirely with the right hon. Gentleman about enlargement. It is worth pointing out that Britain has always done best in Europe when it has been engaged. Although, of course, the Conservative party's history in Europe when it was in office has been somewhat rewritten, the fact is that Mrs. Thatcher was engaged in Europe for the first seven or eight years of her premiership, and the Conservatives were responsible for putting through the single market proposals. It is important to realise that, in the end, they were a lot more sensible then than they are now, and perhaps the same could be said of us.

The key is to ensure that we carry on getting the best possible deal for Britain. That is also true in relation to CAP reform. The leader of the Conservative party was quite wrong. CAP reform was not blocked at the Brussels summit. Indeed, the disagreement was about over insistence that the mid-term review should go back into the conclusions of the Brussels summit, so the agriculture reform programme continues, as the Commissioner indicated a few days ago.

The right hon. Gentleman knows that the position on the euro has not changed. I agree with what he says about Turkey. On the CFP, I also agree that it is important that we try to work out the very best deal that we can possibly secure for our fishing industry, recognising that there is a genuine problem. I simply say that people who complain that the Government are not doing enough but refuse to recognise that a fundamental issue has to be tackled—whoever was in government would have to tackle it—are not doing a service to the Scottish fishing industry because they are pretending that there is an easy solution when there is not one.

The right hon. Gentleman is right about European defence. The benefit of engagement is absolutely clear. The tragedy is that if we were not engaged as a country in the debate about European defence, it would not mean that European defence would not take place; it would simply mean that it would take place without us.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Is it not a fact that, for many people in central Europe, what has been agreed this weekend will represent a remedy to the great outrage of Munich and to the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939? Is it not a great tragedy that the great statesman from Chingford cannot rejoice about the fact that the sacrifice of those 17 per cent. of the few who fought above this place, recklessly in our interests as well as theirs, will have the satisfaction that their countries will come into the family of European nations?

May I ask the Prime Minister whether he will now ensure that the United Kingdom Government and those in our commerce and industry go on an offensive to ensure that we get in on the markets of the new member states? Under the Labour Government, Secretaries of State for Trade and Industry have been insufficiently in attendance in those countries, and I hope that—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


The Prime Minister

I am sure that we will make every effort in that regard. Important commercial opportunities will exist for our business and industry. Those countries that will come into the European Union under enlargement will offer tremendous opportunities for our companies and we must ensure that we seize them.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

In welcoming much of the Prime Minister's statement, may I ask why there was no mention of Zimbabwe? Was not the plight of southern Africa in general, and the terrible fate awaiting Zimbabwe in particular, raised during the summit? We were assured by a Foreign Office Minister last week, in an appearance before the Foreign Affairs Committee, that it would be raised. Why was it not?

The Prime Minister

It was discussed at the Foreign Ministers meeting. I say again to the hon. Gentleman—I know that he feels passionately about this issue, as everybody does—that we must have the specific remedies that will work in this situation.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)

I welcome enlargement, which is a tremendous cause for celebration. Given the impressive and widespread use of English in many of the enlargement countries, will my right hon. Friend lead an effort across Government not only to encourage industry to take opportunities in the new market, but to increase public awareness in Britain of the significance of this historic achievement?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right on this matter, and I know that she has done a lot of work on it. It is interesting, as my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has pointed out to me, that of the 13 countries to come in under this enlargement or to come in subsequently, 12 gave their addresses in the English language.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, when in Copenhagen, he discussed with other Heads of Government their support for military action against Iraq? Can he tell us how many are so persuaded of the moral case for war, as against a legal cover afforded by the Security Council resolution, that they are prepared to pledge troops and assets in a military deployment?

The Prime Minister

Of course the issue was raised and discussed on the margins of the summit with many countries. I assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that all the countries to which I talked are fully in support of the UN resolution and recognise that if there is a breach of that resolution by Saddam, action should follow. Whether they participate or not is up to them.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

May I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the personal role that he has played in the enlargement process? As well as being a champion for enlargement, will he continue to be a champion for reform, and ensure that the points that he set out in his joint letter with Chancellor Schröder of 25 February this year, which will see the reform of the European Union, are followed? We will have a Europe of 25 nations. I know how much he enjoys these summits, but with 25 countries at a summit, it is very important that it should be as efficient and as effective as possible.

The Prime Minister

Likewise I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, and all that he did when he was Minister for Europe to push forward the process of enlargement, which was important. Secondly, in relation to the Council and the Convention, one of the interesting things is that when we talk, in the European Convention, about the reform process in Europe, most people recognise that we must make fundamental changes in the way that Europe works. It was interesting that when President Giscard d'Estaing addressed the Council he made it clear that we had to strengthen all parts of the European Union, including the European Council.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke (Rushcliffe)

Will the Prime Minister accept whatever share of the credit is his due for the success of the Copenhagen summit? Will he agree, however, that probably the lion's share of the credit should go to the Danish President of the Commission, who is, I believe, the political ally of the British Conservative party—[Interruption.] He is a Danish Conservative. Would the Prime Minister agree that that underlines the special urgency of achieving institutional reform of the European Union within the next 12 months, during which it will be decided whether we can have a better decision-making process for 25 member states than we have at the moment for 15?

Does the Prime Minister intend to stick to his principles of a clear leadership of the Council of Ministers, a clear leadership role within the Union for the Council of Ministers, intergovernmental approaches to foreign and security policy rather than the Community method, and greater democracy at the same time? Does he think that he can achieve all that? Will the new members be on his side or not in the difficult negotiations over the next 12 months?

The Prime Minister

I certainly pay tribute to the Danish President. I agree that the negotiations were conducted superbly by him, but he is actually President of the Council, not the Commission. I do not know whether he is an ally of this Conservative leader—but who knows whether he may not be an ally of any other Conservative leader.

I agree entirely with the right hon. and learned Gentleman's other points. The proper red lines for our national interest in the convention are that we have the Council able to play its full role and that it is properly organised. In our judgment, there cannot be a Communitisation of the common foreign and security policy. We have to make sure that we increase the democratic accountability of the European Union.

I entirely agree about the new members of the EU. After all, these states fought to be nations again. I said in my statement that they had rediscovered their national identity, but they have always had their national identity. What they have not had is the opportunity to express it. These countries will be our allies in the EU, which is why it is important that they see us playing our full part in the EU and are not at its margins.

Mr. Wayne David (Caerphilly)

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister on a truly historic summit that was good for Britain and for the whole European continent. However, will he use his good offices to apply pressure to the Turkish Government who, in turn, should apply pressure on the Turkish Cypriots to come to an agreement for the unification of the whole of the island under the Kofi Annan plan?

The Prime Minister

I hope very much that all sides in the Cyprus negotiations take them forward constructively. There is no point in my entering into the details now, but the United Nations proposal is an immensely clever and intelligent proposal that offers a way forward. I still believe that it is possible for the countries to come to an agreement. For years and years, as a result of disagreements between Turkey and Greece, many of these issues have been held up. However, what is interesting about this summit and the way it took place is that Greece was in favour of Turkey being given an even earlier date for the opening of accession negotiations. A few years ago, I would have been surprised to have been told that such a change would happen now.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

The Prime Minister mentioned cod stocks. However, he must be aware that, on the same scientific measurement, whiting and haddock stocks are at their highest for a generation and that they will be caught up in the same draconian cuts by the European Commission. Does that not indicate that time is required to come up with a management plan that conserves fish without provoking the economic destruction of entire coastal communities? The Prime Minister seemed surprised to find out that that view was emerging this afternoon in the talks. Will he now put his weight behind it and ask for a delay for pause and for thought, instead of rushing headlong to disaster over the next few days?

The Prime Minister

Of course that is precisely what we are trying to do. All that I have pointed out to the hon. Gentleman and to anyone else who has raised the issue is that we have to recognise that we will be fighting for the interests of the Scottish and UK fishing industry against the background of heavily depleted cod stocks. I agree that that is not the only issue, but it is important to recognise that it is the case. We will strive to get the very best deal that we possibly can, and that is precisely what Ministers are now engaged upon in Brussels.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that this historic and marvellous achievement has been brought about by work done by many people over many years to create pluralistic democratic societies in central and eastern Europe? Does he agree that the job is not yet complete? Other European states still wish to join the EU, so can we ensure that, over the next few years, we continue to give support for pluralistic civil society and democracy building in countries to the east of the existing EU?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to the work that he has done over many years to encourage countries that are now applicant countries and countries that may become applicant countries to improve their democracy. I have no doubt at all that, in years to come, for countries in the Balkan region, in particular, EU membership will be the same magnet for change and reform as European membership has been for the 10 accession countries now. It is extraordinary how much change they have managed to undertake in a short time, but they have managed to undertake it only because there has been the goal and the vision of EU and NATO membership to aim for.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)

Does the Prime Minister agree on the need for a fair and balanced public debate in the candidate countries, especially in the run-up to their referendums on membership, to ensure genuine public support? If so, would he end the practice of EU budget funding for one side of the debate in those countries? Will he look into the known and documented abuses that have taken place and ensure that public money, some of which comes from this country, is not used in that partial way?

The Prime Minister

There are rules that have to be followed, and they should be followed. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is a sceptic about enlargement, but I think that European enlargement is of fundamental importance to our future peace and stability. As I said, there are rules in Europe. We are not pressing for changes, but any of those rules that are in existence have to be followed properly.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East)

May I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend and all involved on achieving the historic outcome of the European Council? He will know that as each country has acceded to the European Union since 1973, British exports to them have surged. Does he agree that the economic and political future of Europe looks good for Britain and casts the carpers, nit-pickers and isolationists into the outer darkness where they belong?

The Prime Minister

There is no doubt that British companies have done well as a result of enlargement. We have increased our exports to those countries by something like 10 times. Those people who are hesitant about the benefits of enlargement fail to understand that in the end we all benefit from a more prosperous Europe. Every time the European Union has enlarged, there has been increased prosperity for existing EU members as well as for the new ones.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

As the Prime Minister says, this enlargement is merely the prelude to a new enlargement, and we can easily envisage 32 or 33 states in the European Union; but that further enlargement towards the Balkans will raise even more difficult questions because it will introduce income disparities of a factor of 10 between the richest and the poorest members. It is therefore essential that the union begin at an early stage to help the states prepare for membership. What does the Prime Minister think should be done about that? Where does he think that the eastern and south-eastern borders of the European Union properly lie?

The Prime Minister

In respect of the latter point, it is important that we encourage Balkan countries to move towards the prospect of European Union membership. As the right hon. Gentleman implies, that is obviously some way off, and the income disparity is very great. In the meantime, however, the European Union has conducted agreements with most of those countries—in fact, probably all of them—to help them in that process. Again, the advantages for us are immense. This is the first period for years and years—other than during the appalling domination of the old Soviet bloc—when those countries seem to be reaching towards some sort of stability. We have got to encourage that. The way to do it is to help them financially, which the European Union is doing, and also to start, over time, to offer them a more obvious path to European integration.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton)

In congratulating my right hon. Friend on the indispensable role that he played at Copenhagen which resulted, among many other achievements, in the accession of two Commonwealth countries to the European Union and in the Turkish timetable, may I thank him for convening the conference with the Palestinians in London next month? May I also thank him for his courage in meeting the President of Syria, as the hazards of peace are much preferable to the death and danger of war?

The Prime Minister

I hope that we can make real progress on political reform. After all, we are only going to get the peace process moving again in the middle east if the right elements are in place. One key element is the political reform process in the Palestinian Authority, and I very much look forward to discussing that with those who will come and contribute to the meeting. I have no doubt that it is better to engage with countries and try to bring them towards the peace process than to isolate them.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell)

The Prime Minister was absolutely right to say that it is massively in our interests for Turkey to join us as a democratic partner in Europe. Was he not just a little saddened that at an otherwise excellent summit, where so many countries from central Europe joined the European Union, Turkey's application was so badly delayed owing to the behaviour of Germany and France? Will he redouble his efforts to get that application moved forward because, as he knows, Turkey's human rights record is considerably better than that of some of the later applicant countries now entering the EU?

The Prime Minister

If the right hon. Gentleman had asked me a week ago whether I thought it likely that we would get a firm date for opening the accession negotiations, I would have been doubtful, so we have come a long way in the last few days. It was not only France and Germany that took the position to which he referred. That may be common myth, as many of these things are. In fact that position was taken by France, Germany and probably a significant number of the other countries. It was we, along with the Italians, the Spanish and the Greeks, who argued for a more forward position for Turkey.

Those negotiations are two years away. [Interruption.] The process will start without delay. During our presidency, we began accession negotiations almost immediately, so it is possible that, in this process, Turkey's accession negotiations will start in two years. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that Turkey has made great strides forward, but this is still a pretty good timetable. It is not quite as good as we would have liked, but as people in Turkey reflect on it, they will see that after 40 years of trying to get a firm date, they now have one, and it is only two years away.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston)

The Prime Minister would have been justified in making more of the progress made on the European security and defence policy and the way in which the EU and NATO can work together. When it comes to further negotiations on Turkey, may I have his reassurance that we will have objective assessment criteria, such as the Copenhagen criteria, not ones based on the desire of some people in Europe to maintain a European Union of Christian countries?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right. The important thing is that the Copenhagen criteria on political and human rights are clear, and we should follow them without fear or favour, treating Turkey exactly the same as any other country. It has no desire to be treated as a special member of the club. One of the great potential benefits of Turkey's membership of the EU is the notion that Europe can welcome in a nation that is predominantly Muslim, especially as almost all EU nations—including certainly our country and many other large countries—already have a significant Muslim population.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Does the Prime Minister agree that the first presidency of the enlarged European Union in 2004 will be a very important job? Will he therefore be allowing his name to go forward?

The Prime Minister

Thank you—I am very happy being the British Prime Minister.

Mr. James Plaskitt (Warwick and Leamington)

My right hon. Friend was surely right to describe the agreement as redefining the European Union. The EU will be much larger but it will also be very different. Does he agree that the young democracies coming in from the east should be joining state-of-the-art democratic institutions, not ones that are in many cases 40 years old and prone to democratic deficit? Will he use enlargement to help to speed up the process of reform?

The Prime Minister

Yes, it is extremely important that we do so because there is no way Europe can function effectively as a Union of 25 or, as some have pointed out, perhaps 30 countries with the existing rules. The only point that I would make is that people often see this as a battle between the Council, the intergovernmental approach, and the Commission, the Community approach. In fact, we need to strengthen both. We need a strong, independent Commission to drive through processes such as economic reform, but we also need a strong Council, able to handle the management of the affairs of 25 or more nations, to give the EU a strong external voice and to set the agenda for Europe.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Did the French President express appreciation both of the Prime Minister's sycophantic eulogy to him in Paris Match and of the fact that the British Prime Minister should take refugees from Sangatte? Why did the Prime Minister not include in his statement any comment about the immigration implications of enlargement? Why have the British Government decided to waive a transition period on immigration from countries coming into the European Union?

The Prime Minister

First, the President did express appreciation of that eulogy in Paris Match, and I received it gratefully. Secondly, of course we take seriously immigration issues to do with enlargement. However, we took the right decision in being forward—after all, we have been forward on the whole enlargement process. My advice is that that does not pose a great problem for us, and it is far more important to make sure that the enlargement process goes through in those countries. Many of them, such as Poland, will be fighting referendums on that issue, and it is important that they succeed.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Just a word of caution after the cheering has ended. Does my right hon. Friend agree that when those visionaries way back in the early 1970s took part in that historic vote to take us into the Common Market, we were promised economies of scale and that we would be able to compete with the rest? If we joined the six, we were told, it would be wonderful. We had the same thing with the Single European Act and Maastricht. When the Union was enlarged to 15, we were told we would be able to trade more effectively. In all that time, they have never bought a cobble of coal from Britain, even though it is the cheapest deep-mined coal in Europe.

What reassurance can my right hon. Friend give me that 450 million people in the enlarged Europe will change their ways and buy British goods? Our manufacturing industries have been going to the wall throughout that period. A fortnight ago, the balance of trade deficit was the largest ever. At some point, that must end. All I say to my right hon. Friend is that the summit can be historic in many ways, but it ain't been all that good for people here who are working at the sharp end.

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend knows of my admiration for his general political perspectives on these things—

Mr. Skinner

Unlike the Opposition, I never change my mind.

The Prime Minister

Perhaps we can leave that aside for a moment.

If we were outside the European Union, that would not help our industry. In fact, tariffs would be imposed on our goods going into Europe. My hon. Friend is right that we need to knock down a lot of barriers that still exist—that is extremely important. However, we are better placed to do so if we are inside rather than outside.

Finally, someone famously asked what good has come out of Europe in the past 50 years. I would say peace, security—they are important—and rising prosperity for years and years.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)


The Prime Minister

Yes, of course NATO has played a part, but the European Union has too—[Interruption.] Now I am told that Europe has done nothing in the past 50 years. I know that the alternative leadership has left the Chamber, but I simply tell the Conservative party that until it adopts a sensible attitude on Europe, it will find itself a long way from office.

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