HL Deb 22 January 1997 vol 577 cc679-81

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

What progress is being made towards the enlargement of the European Union, and in particular the inclusion of Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, the European Commission is due to present its assessments of each country's application to join the EU immediately after the IGC has finished in June. The Council will then decide later this year which are ready to begin accession negotiations. These should start in the first half of 1998 at the latest; incidentally, during the UK presidency.

Lord Hylton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Does he agree that the countries mentioned in my Question, together with Slovenia, are essentially and historically part of the European family? Will Her Majesty's Government work towards their earliest possible admission, their access to European Union markets on favourable terms and for long transitional periods?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, we welcome the progress which Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are making in preparing for EU membership. The Council will decide which are ready to begin negotiations on the basis of the Commission's opinions. We should not forget that they are only four out of 10 central European countries which have applied for EU membership. Until negotiations begin, we cannot predict the type and length of any transitional periods. Those will depend on individual circumstances, but they must not be so long as to create second-class membership.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the prospect of further enlargement of the Community makes it imperative that the Rome treaty should be revised, especially with regard to the possibility of integration and the so-called harmonisation of laws?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, it is true that the EU, as well as the countries which are applying, needs to prepare for enlargement. Any specifics which need to be included are for discussion and negotiation.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the Minister aware that it will be impossible for the countries named in the Question to join the European Community so long as the common agricultural policy as it now is remains in existence? Will the Government, after 20 or 25 years, make some effort to change radically the whole of the disastrous common agricultural policy?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, as I said in answer to my noble friend Lord Renton, the EU, too, needs to prepare for enlargement. The common agricultural policy is already overdue for further reform and the prospect of enlargement makes that all the more vital. In addition, the structural and cohesion funds need revision to make enlargement affordable and sustainable. I am delighted that on this matter I am in total accord with the noble Lord, Lord Bruce.

Lord Beloff

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that even on the most optimistic prediction it will be some years, if ever, before these countries are admitted to the European Union? In the interim, will Her Majesty's Government press the other members of the Union to give access to their markets, which they could do immediately, since it is what those countries and their people most want at the moment?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, the point is under discussion and it is desirable. However, we must also consider any possible implications under GATT.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, when considering the applications from the eastern European countries and others which are not mentioned in the Question, will the European Commission consider asking the High Commissioner for National Minorities of the OSCE to give it a report on each of those countries from the point of view of treatment of ethnic and religious minorities?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I believe that the Commission may well be looking at that matter in forming its opinions. It might help the House to know that all the applicants are being measured against the criteria set out in the conclusions of the Copenhagen Council in June 1993. Those conditions are set out very clearly. It is against those criteria that the Commission will be forming its opinions.

The Earl of Lauderdale

My Lords, will my noble friend tell the House whether the accession of new members of the European Union will involve derogation of the current custom whereby each member has a representative on the Commission?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, that is all part of the negotiations which are taking place at present.

Lord Barnett

My Lords, while I accept that there is a considerable need for changes to the common agricultural policy, will the Minister agree that in order to achieve that it will be necessary, or certainly helpful, to change the qualified majority voting system?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I believe that we are going slightly wide of the Question on the Order Paper.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the common agricultural policy requires a majority of 62 votes in order to change it; and so, further to the answer that he gave to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, can he explain how that will be possible when the majority of voters on the common agricultural policy are recipients of its largesse?

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I refer my noble friend to my previous answer.

Lord Richard

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that we on this side of the House agree entirely both that enlargement of the Community is desirable and that it should take place as soon as can be reasonably devised? I wonder whether the noble Lord does not consider, as I do from time to time, that in view of what is said in this House by, for example, two of the noble Lords who have just spoken about the European Union, it is passing strange that no fewer than 10 countries are hammering on the door.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, I am delighted to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Richard, on that. I should just make it clear that our vision is of a wider European Union which extends security and prosperity across Europe and which is outward looking, free trading and democratic.