HL Deb 29 October 1997 vol 582 cc1052-4

3.5 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle asked Her Majesty's Government:

What advances the Republic of Lithuania has made, over the past six months, to meet the membership criteria for early entry into the European Union.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Government support the Commission's recommendations on the central European applicants' readiness for EU membership. While Lithuania continues to make good progress towards fulfilling the criteria for membership, there are still a number of areas where further progress is needed before it will be ready for accession negotiations. That said, significant progress is being made, including efforts to prevent money-laundering and to impose more effective financial discipline on enterprises in Lithuania.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply. I am disappointed. It is not as positive or as encouraging as I had hoped. Does not the Minister agree that Lithuania has now met all the major objective criteria—political, social, economic and legal? Will Her Majesty's Government therefore take the lead at the Luxembourg council in December in pressing for access negotiations with Lithuania to begin in January 1998, a right that this great nation deserves for its record of progress over the last six months?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the answer is no. We accept in broad terms the assessment that has been made by the Commission and we are therefore in favour of commencing negotiations with those identified by the Commission. However, I think that the noble Lord and the whole House should understand that Her Majesty's Government and other member states wish to see an all-inclusive process for all applicants. In parallel with the former negotiations there will need to be an inclusive process—which we have termed the "European Conference"—which will encourage Lithuania and the others who are not in the initial five-plus-one to engage in effective pre-accession strategies which will meet the remaining outstanding problems relating to their applications.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case that there seems to be an assumption that membership of the European Union by countries such as Lithuania is desirable if they can achieve it? Is that not an assumption which ought not so readily to be made?

Is it not possible that countries such as Lithuania would be unacceptable as members of the European Union ipso facto?

Lord Whitty

No, my Lords. It is the opinion of the Government and our partners in Europe that it is desirable that Lithuania, and indeed all the central and eastern European applicants, should join the European Union. Our all-inclusive process envisages that eventually they should all join. The only question is differentiation in starting dates for the formal negotiations. We are very much in favour of enlargement and have been for some considerable time.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, will the Minister tell us whether it is a criterion for acceptability that an applicant should be demonstrably capable of meeting the financial criteria for EMU?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, no, the question of meeting the convergence criteria of the EMU is not a consideration in terms of application for membership of the EU itself.

Lord Walpole

My Lords, is it not true that Lithuania, in common with all the other central European countries who wish to join the European Union, has environmental problems of a very considerable nature?

Lord Whitty

Yes, my Lords. Indeed, the Commission identifies the environmental area as one of the areas in which the Lithuanian Government have not made sufficient progress. If I may quote from the Commission's avis on this matter, they say: Very substantial efforts will be needed, including massive investment and strengthening of administrative capacity to enforce [environmental] legislation". That is one of the areas to which Lithuania needs to pay attention and to catch up with those who are entering into formal negotiations.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, will the noble Lord explain to the House exactly why, from the point of view of the central European countries, it is such a good idea for them to join the European Union when all that most of them seem to want is access to the single market, which is constantly blocked to them, and defence through NATO? If the noble Lord is serious in saying that the Government wish to back the expansion of the European Union, can he say what progress is being made on the revision of the common agricultural policy, which is generally regarded as being absolutely essential for anyone else to be admitted, but under which the majority of countries are recipients and are unlikely to vote for its change?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it is certainly the case that substantial changes among the existing European Union countries will be necessary during the process of enlargement. The European Budget, and in particular the common agricultural policy, will play a major role in that. As the noble Lord will be aware, we, and indeed the previous Government, are anxious that substantial reform of the common agricultural policy should take place in that timescale.

With regard to the benefits of EU expansion to include Lithuania and other countries of eastern and central Europe, it is quite clear that both public opinion and their economic interest lie in eventual membership of the European Union. That will also be to the benefit of existing members of the Union.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, in light of the recent failure of the Amsterdam conference to prepare satisfactorily for the enlargement of the EU, do the Government agree with Commission proposals under Agenda 2000 to hold another IGC? What effects would that have on the likely timetable for future European Union enlargements to enable the smooth admission of eastern European countries, including Lithuania?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Amsterdam Treaty went a considerable way towards preparing for enlargement. A number of institutional questions were left over which the Commission indicated will require another IGC. We do not interpret that as meaning a full IGC process; but institutional questions such as the weighting of votes in Council and the size of the Commission will need to be resolved before any substantial enlargement takes place.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that such an unhappy state of affairs is more a reflection on the European Union than on countries such as Lithuania?

Lord Whitty

No, my Lords; nor do I describe it as an unhappy state of affairs. It was essential in that process that we identified those countries which could more easily join over, possibly in some cases, a long timescale. The fact that Lithuania is not identified as one of those countries at this point does not mean that Lithuania cannot catch up. Indeed, others who are not in the initial batch could catch up and the all-inclusive process of the European conference would aid that, together with pre-accession strategies in Lithuania and elsewhere.