HL Deb 26 June 1996 vol 573 cc928-30

3.30 p.m.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Chalker of Wallasey) rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 10th June be approved [23rd Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, on 17th July 1995, Tunisia became the first Mediterranean country to sign a new Euro-Mediterranean Association Agreement with the European Union as part of the EU's overall aim to develop relations with the region.

The agreement aims to intensify political and economic links between the European Union and Tunisia. That is to be achieved in a number of ways: through regular political contacts, including annual ministerial meetings; through increased reciprocal trade in agricultural products; through the progressive establishment of a free trade area in accordance with WTO rules; and through expanded economic, cultural and social ties.

The gradual opening of the Tunisian market will make Tunisia an even more attractive place for inward investment. It will provide new opportunities for European Union business. British companies can and, I hope, will play a full part in that process. But it will also make a substantial and practical contribution to the greater economic prosperity of Tunisia. That will lead in time to greater political stability and security, not only in Tunisia but in the rest of the Mediterranean region as a whole. That is in everyone's interest.

The Tunisian agreement is the first step towards a full Euro-Med partnership. I ask the House to support that important objective by giving its approval to the principles behind the agreement. I commend the order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 10th June be approved [23rd report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Chalker of Wallasey).

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, we welcome this agreement. As the Minister said, it will help to foster trade between the European Union and Tunisia and will promote co-operation between Europe and the Mediterranean countries of North Africa more generally.

Good relationships need to be forged between those countries which line the Mediterranean on both sides. That is obviously of particular importance to our southern European partners in the EU. Clearly in the case of Tunisia there are considerable disparities between its level of economic development and that of the European Union average. However, that is not a reason for rejecting an association of this kind as set out in the agreement and I note that the European Union will support economic reform, structural adjustment and social development in Tunisia through the agreement.

While I wholeheartedly welcome the agreement, perhaps I may put three or four questions to the Minister. The transitional period allowed before a free trade area is finally established is to be a maximum of 12 years. I wonder whether the Minister will say what is the Government's present estimate as to how long that transitional period will actually take.

Secondly, will the Minister tell the House the current level of trade between the UK and Tunisia and how that compares with German/Tunisian trade and French/Tunisian trade? Will she also tell the House what plans there are for similar agreements with other Maghreb countries?

The Maghreb is an important area and one where closer ties and greater integration are needed between its countries. Finally, will the Minister say what steps are being taken by the European Union to encourage that integration and to avoid a situation in which each of the countries making up the Maghreb region simply indulge in a competition to get closer the EU rather than closer to each other?

Lord Thomson of Monifieth

My Lords, from these Benches, we welcome this agreement.

Baroness Chalker of Wallasey

My Lords, as I said in my opening remarks, the EU-Tunisia agreement is the first important building block in the Euro-Med partnership. I could not say for certain which other countries will immediately follow but a number are making preparations. However, there is no doubt that Tunisia is the most advanced. I believe that this progress is in the interests of the UK as well as the EU. Therefore, we should give our firm support to it.

The noble Baroness asked me about the possible length of the transitional period. The answer is not entirely in our hands. Twelve years is the maximum time but given that the long-term goal of the Euro-Med free trade area is that that should be in place by the year 2010, I imagine that the first and standard bearer for the other Mediterranean countries will take about that time. But it will depend to some degree on the access to agricultural products, which is something with which some of the southern European countries have the greatest difficulty.

The noble Baroness asked me about trade between Britain and Tunisia. I do not have the figures here and I certainly cannot give her the figures in relation to Germany and France. For many years France has had a very close trading relationship with Tunisia. However, I shall write to the noble Baroness with all the comparative figures and leave a copy of that letter in your Lordships' Library.

It is true that we are very keen to see greater integration by the Maghreb countries. They already meet on—I think it is—a twice annual basis. Certainly Morocco is extremely interested in this procedure. Morocco and Tunisia have a very special interest because everyone wishes to see moderation in North African politics. One way of bringing that about is by enhancing the level of trade. There is no distance between us there. We believe that there should be greater integration. Tunisia is already enjoying almost unrestricted access to the European Union under the 1976 co-operation agreement for industrial goods. But this new agreement will start the process of a free trade agreement according to WTO rules and that is why it may take up to 12 years because there are quite a number of differences to be bridged.

Tunisia will gradually remove tariff and non-tariff barriers on non-EU goods. The other Maghreb countries will be watching very carefully to see how that is done and how successful it is. I have no doubt that their work will be based on the work of Tunisia.

Certainly the operation of the free trade area will be much enhanced by the competition provisions and the harmonisation of laws in other areas. I thank the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, for his welcome of the order. There is much to be done. This is a starting process. We shall supply further information to your Lordships as we proceed down this very important path.

On Question, Motion agreed to.