HC Deb 24 June 2002 vol 387 cc611-28 3.32 pm
The Prime Minister (Mr. Tony Blair)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about the European Council in Seville on 21 and 22 June. This was the last summit of the successful and very professional Spanish presidency—although, thanks to the World cup, the Spanish President and I unfortunately had more in common than we had originally intended.

By 2004, the European Union will have welcomed up to 10 new member countries, with more to follow. This is an historic opportunity that the Government welcome. Excellent progress on the timetable has been made under the Spanish presidency, and at Seville we reaffirmed our commitment to complete the negotiations by the end of the year.

In preparing for a union of 25 member states we need to reform the way we operate. We have agreed a series of measures that will allow us to streamline the Council agenda in order to shorten Council meetings and to make sure that issues decided by specialist Councils are only, exceptionally, put before the European Council.

We have set a limit on the size of delegations. In order to prepare meetings of the European Council, the General Affairs Council will become a General Affairs and External Relations Council, split into two separate parts with separate meetings, separate agendas and, if member states desire it, different Ministers taking part. We have now opened up Council legislative meetings to the public.

We have further reduced the number of specialist Councils. There were more than 20 three years ago, and there are 16 now. We will further reduce them to nine, concentrating in one Council the whole of the European Union's agenda of competitiveness, which is at the heart of the economic reform agenda. Our campaign for simpler, better regulation, with proper consultation with business and industry, was endorsed.

The European Council itself will henceforth set a multi-annual strategic programme for the whole of the European Union for the following three years, with the annual work programme set by the General Affairs Council. This is a significant evolution in the role of member Governments in setting the EU's agenda.

In a letter to Prime Minister Aznar a month ago, I proposed that at Seville we should give a remit for action to strengthen the EU's borders, including Community funding; make progress on returns to Afghanistan now that normal government is being restored; and benchmark the performance of third countries and use our network of agreements to improve co-operation in handling migration issues.

Since the Tampere summit we have, across the European Union, introduced tough penalties for people smuggling and people trafficking, and agreed visa security rules and a Europe-wide database for identifying illegal immigrants. We are setting minimum reception conditions for asylum seekers and have established a European refugee fund to help countries, including our own, deal with this problem.

At Seville, we decided, first, on measures to combat illegal migration, including action on visas, readmission agreements and a repatriation programme, including early returns to Afghanistan. Secondly, this year we agreed to take steps to achieve co-ordinated management of external borders, including joint operations at those borders.

Legal migration can and does bring real and substantial benefits to countries, including Britain. Our aim is not to prevent legal migration; on the contrary, subject to proper rules, we welcome it. It is to stop illegal immigration and asylum seeking that is not genuine, because that debases the system and harms the interests of the legal immigrant.

Our aim is also to ensure that the people traffickers, who trade in human misery, cannot exploit weaknesses. We need only look at the success of the joint Anglo-Italian operation in Bosnia to see what can be achieved. There, an airport was being used to transit illegal immigrants into the European Union. Unaccounted arrivals have now been cut by 90 per cent., but we are dealing with clever, organised criminal gangs. If we shut down one route, they come looking for the next. So the third element is about the integration of immigration policy into the Union's relations with third countries based on the following: all new co-operation or association agreements with third countries will have a migration clause and a commitment to readmission; readmission agreements with all relevant countries will be completed as soon as possible; and there will be a systematic review of relations with third countries to gauge the extent of their co-operation in migration issues.

A majority of states, including Britain, wanted to go further in hardening the language on third country returns. A minority were concerned that this looked as though we were prepared to harm our development objectives. In the end, the compromise was that, in respect of any new agreement, returns to third countries would be an integral part of the negotiation on all aspects of the agreement.

In respect of existing agreements, where there is non-co-operation, we reserved the right to adopt any measures or positions in respect of a third country that we decide upon, provided that they are consistent with our contractual commitments and development objectives. I have no doubt that this will now form a key part of our relations with third countries, although the test, of course, will be the practical effect of the measures proposed.

The world summit on sustainable development meets in Johannesburg in two months' time. We have made clear for the last year our strong commitment to the aims of the summit. Many leaders, including me, will be there. The European Council gave a strong message of support for the policies of sustainable development. We reaffirmed our commitment to breaking down trade barriers, including on agriculture. We called for initiatives at Johannesburg on water, sanitation, energy and health—all top United Kingdom priorities. I urge the House to give this programme its full support.

The conclusions of the summit have been placed in the Library of the House. I draw the House's attention to the declaration that we issued on India and Pakistan and to the statement of the Council, which takes note of a national statement by Ireland.

Finally, we discussed the grave crisis in the middle east. We agreed that there must be an end to the violence so that the Israelis and Palestinians can relaunch the peace process as rapidly as possible. As I have said many times, this must result in a secure Israel recognised by its Arab neighbours and in a viable Palestinian state.

I repeat my praise of the six months of the Spanish presidency. On economic reform, reform of the Council and the sensitive issues of illegal immigration and asylum, it has made substantial progress. The direction of policy is clear—it is the pace that we need to quicken. However, that is a far cry from where the agenda of reform stood five years ago. For Britain, the policy of constructive engagement is right, it proves itself consistently and, under this Government, it will be maintained.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

I thank the Prime Minister for his statement and join him in condemning the bombings in Spain over the weekend. Violence is no way to advance a political agenda, be it in Europe or the middle east.

We support the Council's declaration that a lasting solution to the conflict in the middle east must be based on Israel being recognised by its Arab neighbours, feeling secure within its borders and living peacefully alongside a Palestinian state. Does the Prime Minister agree that now is the time for members of the European Union to lend their full support to American efforts to bring about negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians?

We also welcome the Council declaration on India and Pakistan and the progress that it has made on sustainable development, although the latter message would carry greater conviction if the EU gave more aid to developing countries rather than to aspirant member states.

None of those things, however, can obscure the underlying message from Seville: that for all the Prime Minister's talk of leading in Europe and winning the argument, he has once again lost the argument and been left behind. He went to Seville seeking an agreement that would penalise countries that failed to co-operate with the fight against illegal immigration—as he and his Foreign Secretary put it. He was supremely confident. Only last week, he stood next to the Prime Minister of Spain and said: I have no doubt…we will reach agreement. Will the Prime Minister confirm not only that his plan was rebuffed but that the Swedish Prime Minister referred to the idea as stupid, unworkable and "an historic mistake"? Perhaps he had been speaking to the Secretary of State for International Development. The Prime Minister not only failed to carry the rest of Europe with him—he could not even carry his own Cabinet to Europe with him.

Instead, the Prime Minister has returned with an agreement that supports the principle of setting up an EU border police. Only last Friday, the Foreign Secretary boasted that such is the opposition to the principle of a European Union border police that it will not feature". However, yesterday, after the welcome in the final declaration, the EU's Justice Commissioner said that he expected the border force to become a reality within five years. Is that what the Minister for Europe meant when he said yesterday that the truth is we got everything we wanted"? I thought that this was supposed to be the post-spin era of the Government.

I am also sure that the House would be grateful to hear what discussions the Prime Minister held with the Spanish Government on the Gibraltarians' right to a referendum to decide their legal status.

The Prime Minister tells us that Seville made progress on enlargement of the European Union, but it did not deal with the structural funding issue, and discussions on reform of the common agricultural policy have yet again been postponed. Given that his Minister for Europe maintains that quick reform of the CAP is imperative for enlargement to take place, can the Prime Minister seriously guarantee that negotiations with applicant countries will be completed by the end of this year?

Does the Prime Minister agree with NATO's supreme commander in Europe when he says that NATO should have primacy over the Euro army and that his deputy should have strategic control over EU-led operations? If the Prime Minister agrees—he has never made that clear—why has he allowed the Euro army to be described as operational when, again, no agreement has been reached on the sharing of military assets with NATO.

Like all summits, the meeting at Seville will be judged not by the spin of the Prime Minister and the Minister for Europe, but by what it actually delivers. The reality belies the Prime Minister's usual rhetoric and all the padding that came out of his statement today. For the past five years, he has constantly maintained that he alone could get things done and that he could get things from Europe that it did not want to give—a modern, outward-looking and decentralised Europe and an EU" in which Britain maintains control over its own destiny.

Seville has shown that that is just another piece of shallow spin. The Prime Minister has been isolated on his own asylum proposals. He has been bounced into accepting EU border patrols. Once again, he has failed to get CAP reform on the agenda and he has stood by impotently as NATO's future has yet again been drawn into question. The Government can no longer advance Britain's interests abroad, nor look after them properly at home".—[Official Report, 31 October 1996; Vol. 284, c. 781.] Those were the Prime Minister's own words in opposition. After last weekend, that is the one prime ministerial soundbite with which the whole country can agree.

The Prime Minister

It is in the nature of the position in which the right hon. Gentleman has put the Conservative party that Conservatives have to say that Britain fails in Europe the whole time. That is their position.

The big difference between now and five years ago is simply this: when we came to power five years ago and went to our first European summit, the agenda was set by somebody else. It is true that we could block certain things, but the general direction of Europe was set by others. The difference now is that the agenda at Seville and at the earlier summit that the Spanish held was set by us. Of course there will be countries that block certain parts of that agenda—that is bound to happen—but the idea that we would now be in a better position if we had pursued the policies of isolation that we had five years ago is absurd.

The right hon. Gentleman has to say that we achieved none of our objectives at Seville. Let me take the two points that Seville was about. On asylum and immigration policy, the agenda conclusions say that any future cooperation, association or equivalent agreement which the European Union or the European Community concludes with any country should include a clause on joint management of migration flows and on compulsory readmission in the event of illegal immigration. With respect, that is precisely what we asked for and what was achieved. It is correct to say that we would have gone further in respect of existing agreements, but it is also the case that, in respect of those agreements that we now conclude with any third country, this is at the heart of the agenda—and that, with respect, is a substantial step forward.

The right hon. Gentleman said nothing about Council reform, which, again, is hugely important. The fact that the agenda for the EU will now be set by the European Council at intergovernmental level is extremely important for the future of Europe.

The right hon. Gentleman's comments on the EU border police are, quite simply. wrong. A study has been going on for months in the EU—nothing new was decided on this at Seville—about whether it is right to have European border police, but what he forgets is that, as a result of the protocol negotiated by this Government at Amsterdam, none of that applies to Britain at all, so his point, which is that somehow our police will be supplanted at Dover by European police, is factually wrong. In any event, even those things—

Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

Are you against the European border police?

The Prime Minister

I will explain exactly what I believe. As a result of what we negotiated at Amsterdam, Britain has a complete veto on this. In any event, the proposal on the European border police can be agreed only by unanimity. I am not against such a study being conducted because, when we take new countries into the EU, I do not think it foolish to consider the idea of Europe giving help to countries on our eastern frontier, where a large number of people are coming in illegally as the result of the activities of organised criminal gangs. The only reason why the right hon. Gentleman is against even discussing the idea is that it has the word "European" in it.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman fails, again, to understand that European defence can be undertaken only where we have agreement between the EU and NATO. That is clearly stated in the conclusions, and I believe that, if possible, it is sensible for Europe to try to improve its defence capabilities. Unlike the right hon. Gentleman, who believes that we should not even engage in European defence, I think the fact that Britain is able to make European defence compatible with NATO is essential for the future best interests of this country.

Whether it be on economic reform, the euro, asylum and immigration policy or defence, Labour Members believe in engaging constructively, whereas Conservative Members would opt out of the argument altogether. We remember where we were five years ago—opted out of every major debate in Europe, unable to set the agenda and completely isolated—and from what the right hon. Gentleman has just said, it seems that, if he ever got the chance, he would return us to precisely that position. As I have said on many occasions, that is not the satisfaction of the national interest; it is the betrayal of the national interest.

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

I think that the Prime Minister would wish to acknowledge that there is a bit of salutary sense in the process leading up to the summit and in its eventual outcome. Among the salutary messages and lessons that emerge are, first, that attempts that advance bilateral fixes between individual member states do not necessarily work, far less deliver; and, secondly, that imposing sanctions and punishments on the poorest nations is not a tenable way forward. In many respects, the language is modified when one compares the vocabulary used by the Government in this country in the run-up to the summit, as opposed to the agreed statement on the outcome of the summit, which pledged a systematic review of relations with third countries to gauge the extent of their cooperation in migration issues. That is a considerably more balanced and tolerant presentation of a serious and complicated issue, which can be adequately addressed, far less resolved, only at a European level. Liberal Democrats certainly subscribe to the view of the Secretary of State for International Development that the earlier approach that was outlined by the Government would be morally repugnant.

Is this not a good opportunity to make the positive case, in our domestic politics, for long-term, planned immigration? It is economically essential to Britain. We need look only at the demography of our country, for decades and generations ahead, to see that we can learn a lot from the past and that we must plan better for the future. We must not give in to some of the more strident voices on this issue. Over the course of this weekend, Europe has—to coin a phrase—been something of a candid friend to the British Government, and that should be welcomed.

On the issue of enlargement, which we strongly support, and the intended progress, which is also very much to be welcomed, can the Prime Minister explain how that can be squared when no meaningful decisions have yet been arrived at and, apparently, no substantial discussions have taken place on reform of the common agricultural policy. Surely one must predate the other.

Greater transparency in the international institutions that govern the European Union is, of course, welcome. On the central issue of the single European currency, however, does the Prime Minister agree that the debate needs to be led in this country? It can be led only by the Prime Minister and the Government, and the absence of a positive lead leaves us in the weakened position in which we saw ourselves as an EU member state last weekend in Spain.

The Prime Minister

On the latter point, I am afraid that I simply do not accept what the right hon. Gentleman says. It is absolutely correct that we would have gone somewhat further in Seville than other countries, but we were probably in the majority in wanting to do so.

The point that I was making earlier to Opposition Members was that the difference now is that we set the agenda on economic reform, defence or asylum and immigration—[Interruption.] No, we do not lose it. Of course, one never gets all that one wants, because unanimity applies at European Councils, but each new EU agreement must now contain a migration clause and a readmission clause. In respect of existing agreements, we have a proposal to assess whether those countries are co-operating. If they are not co-operating, we reserve entirely the right to act.

We made it clear from the very outset, if I may quote from what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said at the Justice and Home Affairs Council, that we should take measures without undermining the need to better focus aid on the reduction of poverty in low income countries". We never thought that it was sensible to penalise poor countries and make them poorer, because that would operate against the policy of encouraging them to take action against migration flows. We are saying, however, as we do now in relation to the Cotonou agreement with African and Caribbean countries, and as we have just done in relation to Balkan countries, that the totality of our relationship with those countries whom we are assisting must also include the issue of trafficking in illegal immigrants. That is entirely sensible—[Interruption.] I am sorry, but that is precisely the proposition that we put.

In the end, of course, that is not the only thing that we need to do. It is important that we co-operate at the external borders of Europe and also take our own measures here in respect of asylum, because we cannot make those measures count simply through the European Council. The fact is that that agenda now exists. We have made substantial progress on it, and the fact that we do not get everything that we desire does not mean that we get nothing. That is the truth, whether on that issue, on Council reform, or on the other issues.

People must ask themselves whether we are in a better position trying to set the agenda, as we have done on economic reform, Council reform and asylum and immigration, or whether we should be in the Conservative party's position, which is next door to the exit sign. The idea that we would be in a better position if we were sitting there resolutely hostile to absolutely everything that Europe proposes is absolutely ridiculous.

On the right hon. Gentleman's point about the euro, we have the right and sensible position. The economic tests have to be passed and, if they are passed, we will put the matter before the British people in a referendum. That is the right position and it distinguishes itself from those people who say that we should join irrespective of the economic conditions—I never know whether that is the right hon. Gentleman's position but, if it is, I disagree with it—and it certainly distinguishes itself from the position of the Conservative party, which is against joining the euro under any circumstances. Conservatives Members may nod their heads at that, but it is a foolish and futile position that is not in the best interests of the country.

David Winnick (Walsall, North)

My right hon. Friend mentioned the middle east. Are not the terror organisations that mastermind the suicide bombing of civilians totally opposed to any form of peace process, and do they not use religion and politics to carry out those monstrous crimes? Would it not be useful for the Israeli Government to understand—if only from the colonial history of European countries such as ours—that people, such as those in the occupied territories, cannot be ruled against their overwhelming wishes? Israel must understand that it is Israel proper that needs to be defended and not land that it holds on to illegally.

The Prime Minister

I understand that, but I also think that we must be aware of the fact that Israel has been subject to terrorist attacks on its civilians in the heart of Israel. Some of those terrorist attacks were undoubtedly organised from the occupied territories, so the problem that Israel has is how to take action against a terrorist threat that comes from the occupied territories without it going into the occupied territories. That is why I think that, in the end, Israel will take security measures and that we must be at least reasonably sympathetic to the fact that any country faced with this number of its citizens being butchered in terrorist attacks would take action. We must be sympathetic to that while saying that the only long-term solution to the problem is to ensure that we have a political process capable of resolving it.

That political process must be based on the security of Israel and a viable Palestinian state. I continue to think that if, each time there is a terrorist outrage, we scrap all thought of a political process, we hand the keys of the process to the terrorists. That is why we need to understand that Israel will take reprisals, and to condemn totally the terrorist outrages that are happening. However, we also need to do everything that we can—and we will—to try to make sure that a political process gets under way.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)

Does the Prime Minister agree with those EU Governments who say that a country has to introduce compulsory ID cards if it wishes to be successful in dealing with illegal immigration?

The Prime Minister

No, I do not agree with that. The issue of ID cards must obviously be decided by each country according to its merits. People sometimes say that the reason for the pressure on asylum here is the absence of compulsory ID cards, but let us get some facts straight. First, this country, if we consider it proportionately in terms of population, is in the middle of the pack on asylum applications, and not at the top. Indeed, I think that in terms of overall applications Germany has now outstripped us again. Secondly, the pull factors here are often to do with the strength of the economy, particularly in the south-east.

The other point that I would make to the right hon. Gentleman is that our asylum applications declined by 11 per cent. in 2001, whereas those in France increased, I think, by 22 per cent. and in Germany by 12 per cent. It is a common European problem. Although ID cards may form part of the solution—he knows the discussions that are going on about them—I do not think that they provide a full answer. One part of the answer is undoubtedly to work with third countries so that—as with Afghanistan, for example—if there is a change in their circumstances, we make sure that the third country illegal nationals are taken back.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

I commend the Prime Minister for his work on tackling illegal immigration, especially the appalling commercial trafficking in human beings. Will he consider seeking a ministerial meeting of the cross-channel commission with France, so that we can speed up the security arrangements at Frethun, which allow illegal immigration to continue and play havoc with our freight exports?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is right: it is important to address the problem at a bilateral level with France. That is why the Home Secretary is meeting his opposite number in France—tomorrow, I think—and obviously he will discuss such issues, including security at Frethun.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle)

Did the Prime Minister agree with the leader of the Liberal party when he said that enlargement would be impractical unless there were major changes to the common agricultural policy? Was there agreement at Seville on the major changes in the common agricultural policy necessary to enable countries in central and eastern Europe to join the European Union? If not, why not?

The Prime Minister

Because it never was the case that we were going to discuss the common agricultural policy in detail in Seville. It is being discussed by the Agriculture Council, and in the context of the accession negotiations with individual applicant countries. It is very important that we get reform of the common agricultural policy. Indeed, it will be unsustainable without reform, which is the position of this country and many others, including Germany.

We are under the particular difficulty that any agreement has to he agreed unanimously. Although there is qualified majority voting in the Agriculture Council, that is not the case at the European Council, which is why it is extremely important that we continue to put every pressure we can on other countries, a minority of which are standing out against that reform. However, I would not want to send out a contrary signal on enlargement. The enlargement process has been a big success. We pushed for it, and it would be unfortunate to send out a signal to any applicant country that we intended to hold up the process. At the same time as we pursue the accession negotiations, we have to pursue reform of the common agricultural policy, which is vital.

Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North)

In the discussions on migration and asylum seeking, did the conference discuss why people seek political asylum, what poverty and forms of political oppression they are fleeing from, and what support can be given to the poorest countries in west and east Africa to assist people to have a better standard of life there? Did it also consider the large volume of arms sales by western European countries to many of the poorest and most oppressive regimes around the world, which cause people to flee to Europe in the first place?

The Prime Minister

In respect of the latter point, we are making a big push towards conflict resolution in different forums. Part of that is a responsible arms sale policy. On the first part of the question, the Council drew a clear distinction between legal migration and help for genuine asylum seekers, which we support totally and should do more to help, and support for development aid. This country is increasing its development aid budget significantly, and the purpose of part of that money is to reduce the pressures of poverty that cause the migration flows.

However, it is not inconsistent with that position to be wholly opposed to illegal immigration, and in particular to what comes with it—the trafficking in human beings and the organised crime, and the people who come into the country not on the basis of proper rules and a proper system, but on the basis of who can pay the organised criminal most. That is why it is important for those of us who believe in the potential of legal migration to take the initiative on illegal migration; otherwise, we vacate the field and leave it to extremists who adopt a hard ultra right-wing agenda that is against any form of immigration, as we have seen in certain parts of Europe. That is not right and does not help. It is important to take action on the illegal side so that we can better present the case for legal migration.

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire)

The Prime Minister told us that there would be no Euro army, and there will be; he told us that there would be no corpus juris, and there will be. Why should we believe what he says about border control and Euro border guards?

The Prime Minister

The Conservative party is wrong about the so-called Euro army. Let me explain it again. There is a proposal for Europe to have the capability, where it decides to do so and where NATO is not engaged, to undertake European defence operations for peacekeeping, humanitarian and other limited purposes. That is important, because we cannot be in the position where we are not able to act unless America acts. The proposal is not anti-American. On the contrary, it applies where America, for various reasons—for example, in Macedonia today—decides that it may not want to act. In those circumstances, we should have the capability to act, but in respect of each operation there is a sovereign decision of each country whether to participate.

There is no question of Britain committing its armed forces to a standing European army. That has never been the proposal. The idea is to have the capability, if we want to use it, for Europe to undertake operations where America does not want to be engaged. I think that that will add a string to our bow, not take one away.

As for the European border police, if we were the previous Government we would probably have said, "We are not having any discussion of this whatever." Instead, we have entirely secured our own position, because of the protocol at Amsterdam. No one can impose anything on us. We have a complete veto on anything that is agreed. However, I do not think that it is foolish to consider the feasibility—[Interruption.] People should listen to what I am saying instead of shouting out. When we take 10 extra countries into the European Union and when we extend the border of Europe many miles eastward—that is precisely the point, with some of these countries, where illegal people trafficking is happening—I do not think that it is foolish for Europe at least to ask the question whether—[Interruption.] It is not foolish to ask the question whether it is not better that Europe can do something together.

None of that imposes any obligation on us, but it makes sense. In the end, that is the difference between the attitudes of the two political parties. The Conservative party is in the position where, basically, it wants to oppose what Europe does. We are in the position, for sensible reasons, of taking a completely different approach. That is why there is a difference between us. We believe that it is important to engage constructively, and in that way we are better able to get our own way.

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

Given that France, Portugal and Italy have been given more time to eliminate their budget deficits, is there not a need for us to examine the stability and growth pact with more flexibility? Is it not a good thing to have small public deficits sometimes, if they lead to investment?

The Prime Minister

It is necessary to keep the basic principles of the pact because that is important for the stability of the euro. What my hon. Friend says about necessary flexibility to take account of different circumstances is right, and that is our position too.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

As the Council unanimously accepted the proposal for the European border police, will the Prime Minister confirm that it was agreed by the members taking part, or spelled out in the conclusions, that Britain's exemption was there, and was legal? Secondly, what was agreed about Gibraltar, which is part of the EU? Will the European police force operate in Gibraltar?

The Prime Minister

First, in respect of the position on our protocol agreed at Amsterdam, that is in the treaty. I point out once again that nothing new was agreed on European border police at the Seville summit. A study has been ongoing for about eight months, and that study was referred to in the conclusions. No new position was taken at Seville. For the reasons that I have just described, I think that it is entirely acceptable that a study be undertaken. It imposes no obligation on us. As I have said many times, perhaps especially because of our European relations, it is important for Gibraltar as well as Spain and Britain that we try to reach agreement.

Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow)

I welcome the changes to the workings of the European Council of Ministers, which I think can help to ensure the primacy of elected governments over the unelected Commission. Should we go further and appoint a president of the European Council for a period of up to five years? What progress was made on that issue?

The Prime Minister

There are many interesting ongoing discussions, and that is something that will form part of the agenda of the European convention. It is clear that with 25 members it would be foolish for us to continue with the existing rotating six-monthly presidency. I cannot see that that would he in the interests of Europe. It cannot be efficient and it cannot be right. There is increasing recognition in Europe that that is the case.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton)

If the Prime Minister had a setback in Seville last weekend, it was because in anticipation, he had over-hyped the claim that he was setting the agenda. Does he accept that it is unlikely that we will really set the agenda until we have joined Europe's biggest project, the euro? Does he accept that unless he goes out and explains to the British people, and some of the journalists who write editorials, it will not be understood that some issues are now European issues that can be solved only at a European level, which therefore override national blockages, just as we overrode a national blockage during the 1980s, when we were opening up the single market? The only way to solve the asylum problem is at a European level. Does the Prime Minister agree that it would be critical if we failed the nations that are joining us, and did not help them with their policing of a common border, and with the institutions right across Europe, against traffickers in people who are exploiting their countries as well as ours? [Interruption.]

The Prime Minister

They always shout on the Opposition Front Bench, but the comments of the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) would strike most people outside as reasonably sensible. Yes, the issue is a European issue, and it is important that we try to deal with it at a European level, for the simple reason that whatever measures we can take in this country, there is a limit to what we can do as one country alone. That is precisely why we put the matter on the agenda. Because of that, a substantial additional element of European policy was decided at Seville. Until now, that did not form a mandatory part of the negotiation with any country of a new co-operation or association agreement. Now that will be the case. In respect of existing agreements, obviously there was a compromise, which I have just outlined. However, it is not the case that no progress was made on that agenda. Progress was made; we would like to have seen more, but if we had not tried to set the agenda we would have got nowhere at all.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Paragraph 14 of the conclusions refers to the European Union taking over from NATO in Macedonia. From the Prime Minister's previous answer, is it not clear that there is a very dangerous situation in Macedonia? What is being done by the Community as a whole to carry out the promise that we thought was made during the bombing, that there should be a rebuilding of the Balkans?

The Prime Minister

On the first point, in relation to Macedonia, de facto the Europeans, with a NATO hat on, have undertaken that. The conclusions make it clear that it would be sensible for European defence to do so, provided that the permanent arrangements between the European Union and NATO…are then in place. That is the complete answer to those who say that that conflicts with NATO; it does not. Yes, it is correct that it was anticipated that European defence could do that.

In respect of the other point about the Balkans, we are rebuilding the region. In Kosovo, Serbia, Macedonia and other places in the Balkans, we are doing an enormous amount of work. A great deal of aid and help is being given to those countries. One of the most exciting prospects for the European Union is the prospect of those countries, which were riven by civil war and ethnic strife, sorting themselves out so that in time—it may take some considerable time, obviously—they can become members of the European Union. Such a project would have seemed impossible a few years ago—and I say respectfully to my hon. Friend that if Milosevic were still in Serbia, it would be well nigh impossible.

Mr. John Maples (Stratford-on-Avon)

The Prime Minister has gone through some of the sensible steps that were taken over immigration and asylum at Seville, and of course there is a European dimension to that. However, the vast majority of people in this country would regard it as going much too far to allow a non-British police force answerable to the European Union to operate within the United Kingdom.

The Prime Minister has muddied the waters a little, as if it had nothing to do with him, but paragraph 31 of the conclusions states that the European Council, of which he has told us he is the leading member—presumably, if he sets the agenda, he has some say over the minutes—welcomes the study that has been carried out on the matter. The Prime Minister implied that he was instituting a study. In the final paragraph of the conclusions, paragraph 39, the European Council—presumably he was still its leading member at that stage—called for a report to be submitted at the June 2003 summit to see how the practical implementation of the guidelines could be put into action. Of course we know that we have a veto, but what we want to hear from him is that there are absolutely no circumstances in which his Government would agree to the operation of a European border police force within the United Kingdom.

The Prime Minister

I have already explained to the hon. Gentleman why that is the case: the protocol in the Amsterdam treaty that we negotiated makes it clear that nothing can be done without our consent. Therefore, the whole idea of European police taking over from British police at Dover or anywhere else in the UK is fatuous and wrong. [Interruption.] We have no intention of consenting, as we have made it clear that we have the protocol that was negotiated at Amsterdam.

However, the point that I was making—I should like to correct the hon. Gentleman on this—is that the feasibility study is still being carried out; it has not yet been completed. I am not against its being carried out, for the reasons that I have just given. When the new countries are taken into the European Union—true, this is for us, but it is not directed at us, or, indeed, Spain or France—the issue is that when we open up the whole of our eastern European border to them, it is not foolish, although there are other ways of dealing with it, to say that some of those countries on that border will need help with policing their borders. Provided that we have a veto over what happens, which we do—

Mr. Maples

Will you use it?

The Prime Minister

I have told the hon. Gentleman already about our position on Britain. In respect of the rest of it, I will listen to what the feasibility study says, because I want to see what arguments there are. I will make up my mind on the arguments. [Interruption.] This is an astonishing thing to hear—apparently I should be saying that I am not going to listen to the arguments, but veto it anyway. With the greatest of respect—and we have just heard this from the Conservative party again—that is the Conservatives' policy: if something has the word "European" in it, we veto it, whether it is good or bad. That is why we ended up with no influence in Europe, and it is a policy that I will not adopt.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

The Prime Minister will be aware that British customs officials are already working in Bulgaria and Romania, that our police force has already been giving advice to countries in central and eastern Europe, and that other countries, including Germany, are doing the same. Does he agree that if European Union enlargement is to occur and we are to enjoy the benefits of a bigger market and the historic unity of our continent, it is absolutely vital that we can all feel secure that the smuggling of people and drugs through the Balkans has been stopped?

The Prime Minister

My hon. Friend is absolutely right; that is precisely why it is important that we consider all the potential methods that can help. I have just been reminded of the fact that British policy and passport officers now operate in Paris, at the Gare du Nord. That is not considered a breach of French national sovereignty; it is a sensible arrangement, because we are dealing with a proper problem. We should be looking at whatever works, in order to deal with the problem. If that means greater co-operation in Europe, let us co-operate more in Europe so that we get the problem dealt with.

Mr. Andrew MacKay (Bracknell)

What is the point in our alleging that we set the agenda, if that agenda is then comprehensively rejected by our partners? Why does the Prime Minister say that Seville was a success for this country, despite the fact that the Anglo-Spanish proposal on immigration and asylum was also rejected? If that was a success, what would he define as a failure?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong on the facts, I am afraid. Let me repeat it to him: we made substantial progress at Seville, but as I said, we did not get everything that we wanted. [Interruption.] If he and his colleagues will stop shouting from a sedentary position for a moment, I will explain to them exactly what we got on asylum and immigration. First, we got the agreement that any future co-operation—[Interruption.] They have started again. They are unbelievable; they will not listen.

First, any future co-operation or accession agreement will contain both a migration clause and a compulsory readmission clause. Secondly, in respect of existing agreements, there is an analysis of whether there is co-operation on illegal immigration or not. Thirdly, if there is a finding that nations are not co-operating, we reserve our right to adopt positions or attitudes in respect of those nations that we can decide upon. In other words, in respect of future agreements, it is completely a part of them that they include migration and readmission clauses. In respect of existing agreements, we reserve our right, once an analysis has been conducted of whether co-operation is taking place. In addition, we have immeasurably strengthened the whole issue of joint border co-operation on the visa and security regime and action on the illegal smuggling of people. I agree that that is not the sole answer to the problem, but it is absurd in these circumstances to say that we have got nothing.

As regards the other part of the agenda coming from this country, which is the Anglo-Spanish proposal—or rather, the Anglo-German proposal—on Council reform, the bulk of that was agreed by the Council. The point about setting the agenda in Europe is that one never achieves everything that one wants; the question is whether one achieves some of it. In this case, we have.

In other areas, too—economic reform, for example—we need to go far further, but at long last the whole agenda and policy direction is in favour of reform. Yes, we need to do more, but would we be in a better position if we were isolated, without any influence, simply sitting there letting others determine the agenda and saying no? The answer to that is obvious. That is where we were when we took over five and a half years ago, and it was a disaster for this country.

Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West)

The Prime Minister stressed the benefits of legal migration and proper procedures for asylum seekers, which I support. The countries that have had the greatest burden have been those immediately adjacent to crisis areas, whether Pakistan in the case of Afghanistan or, at an earlier stage, the African countries that surrounded the area where the Rwandan genocide took place. Is it not therefore important, if not vital, for the European Union to be able to take immediate long-term measures on aid for those countries to help them to tackle such issues in a compassionate and humane way?

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. That is precisely what we have done as regards the agreement on the Balkans, for example. That is a classic example of using the totality of our relationship with those Balkan countries to insist that we will help them to deal with migration flows, but they have a responsibility to respond to that help.

On Afghanistan, it is worth pointing out that 1 million Afghan refugees have returned to Afghanistan since the conflict took place, many of them from neighbouring states. We are entering into agreements with the new Afghan Government so that Afghans who have claimed asylum and no longer need it owing to the change of Government can return to their country. We have to engage with the issue systematically.

It is also worth pointing out that this, too, is not a problem for Europe alone; it is a problem all over the developed world, including in countries such as America, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. We must obviously take measures here, but, as my right hon. Friend says, we must also ensure that where there is a crisis and a migratory flow erupts as a result, we put in place the right system of measures on aid and assistance to stop it.

David Burnside (South Antrim)

The Prime Minister has been fulsome in his praise of the Spanish presidency. In his private moments discussing football, no doubt his Spanish host remarked that the referee in the last Spanish game abused his position at least once, if not twice. Did the Prime Minister point out that in the six months of the Spanish presidency, they abused their position as regards fisheries policy, further to the detriment of the British fishing fleet?

The Prime Minister

The Spanish have not succeeded in the aim attributed to them in media reports, and we can and will ensure that they cannot. I think that on balance the totality of the Spanish presidency has been successful.

Mr. Gwyn Prosser (Dover)

My constituents in Dover are more familiar than most with the Dublin convention and the bilateral agreement with the French. What progress has my right hon. Friend made towards allowing us to send asylum shoppers back to the safe countries through which they have passed?

The Prime Minister

As I should have said in answer to another question a moment ago, another matter that we agreed was a set of timelines on action, including the negotiation of Dublin II by the end of this year. We must ensure that that timetable does not slip, as it has before. Better ordering of the procedures under the Dublin convention is essential, because what happens to Britain in particular is that people go through what are effectively safe third countries, then end up here when they could easily have claimed asylum in the safe country through which they passed. Tough negotiating will be necessary before Dublin II is agreed, but at least we have a firm mandate and we have set out a timetable in the Council conclusions.

Angus Robertson (Moray)

To which specific suggestions by the Scottish Executive, the Welsh Executive or the Northern Irish Executive did the Prime Minister give voice at the Seville summit? For example, did he raise the point that my colleague from Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for South Antrim (David Burnside) made about the common fisheries policy and the way in which Spain handled it? Yes or no? Will the Prime Minister take the opportunity to commend President Chirac of France and Prime Minister Persson of Sweden for blocking a morally repugnant proposal to tie aid for developing countries to their immigration policies?

The Prime Minister

There was the usual consultation with the devolved Administrations about the full range of Council issues. The Spanish presidency is of the European Council; we raise matters such as the CFP in our bilateral discussions with Spain. There were no bilateral discussions at the Council between the Spanish Prime Minister and me, but they do happen on many occasions.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East)

The House will welcome the positive steps at Seville towards a more transparent and efficient European Council. Will the Prime Minister give a commitment that the Government will continue to take the lead on reform until all the points mentioned in his letter to Chancellor Schröder and all Javier Solana's proposals have been implemented in full? We have made enormous progress, but much remains to be done.

The Prime Minister

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He is right, and he played a part in pushing the reform agenda forward when he was Minister for Europe. Most European countries basically accept it. Germany and the United Kingdom are not traditional allies on Council or European institutional reform, but the fact that we were able to combine and make joint proposals is a great step forward. The European Council works through unanimity; forming alliances and gaining agreement is therefore the only way to get any proposal through. That is right, and I am sure that we will continue to press for all the reforms. A big part of the European reform agenda must be making the European system work better and more accountably.

Mr. Roger Gale (North Thanet)

The Prime Minister has had ample opportunity this weekend to discuss with other European Ministers matters that are of general concern to the people of the United Kingdom, and are of especial concern, for obvious reasons, to the people of east Kent. He claimed that the discussions were successful. When may we expect rail freight to resume through the channel tunnel, in compliance with European regulation? When will the Government try to enforce the Sangatte agreement? It was signed after the Dublin convention, and permits the return of illegal migrants who use the channel tunnel. When does the Prime Minister expect the Red Cross centre at Sangatte to close?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman and his colleagues keep mentioning the agreement under which we were entitled to return people to France. As a result of the Conservative Government's negotiations, the agreement lapsed when the Dublin convention came into force.

Mr. Gale

It was signed afterwards.

The Prime Minister

It is correct that it was signed after the Dublin convention, but a specific term of the agreement provided that it should lapse when the Dublin convention came into force—in October 1997, I think, from memory. Consequently we have to renegotiate with the French, and we are doing that. I believe that we shall make progress on that and on Frethun, but it will be easier to do so in the context of European action.

I did not say that we gained all our objectives at Seville; I said that we gained many of them. We also made sure that the issue was on the agenda much more clearly.

Mr. Gale

Rail freight?

The Prime Minister

That depends on reaching agreement about Frethun. I am reasonably optimistic about that, but it must be negotiated with the French. That is why the Home Secretary is meeting his French counterpart—tomorrow, I believe.

Mr. Tom Clarke (Coatbridge and Chryston)

I welcome what the Prime Minister said about sustainable development and the forthcoming talks in Johannesburg. Does he agree that the lesson of last week's mass peaceful lobby of this place was that we can make more progress by being objective in presenting our views on, for example, falling commodity prices and unfair subsidies, than by simply carping from the sidelines?

The Prime Minister

If international agreements require unanimity, we can block an agenda set by others. We cannot, however, gain our own position in any way other than by getting the agreement of others, which is why constructive engagement is so manifestly the right policy. My right hon. Friend's comments on trade issues are absolutely right. It would bring great shame on the developed world if we did not take significant action to open up our markets further to the goods of the poorest countries in the world. Access to our markets is what they need—possibly as much as, and sometimes more than, aid.