HL Deb 21 May 1998 vol 589 cc1755-7

11.7 a.m.

The Earl of Carlisle

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will press for the attachment of Estonian officials to the European Commission while the Republic of Estonia is conducting negotiations for entry into the European Union.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we support arrangements designed to prepare officials from Estonia and other candidate countries for the realities of EU membership. We are determined to be fully involved in the European Commission's proposals for institution building through twinning between government departments in central Europe and those in member states. Attachments to the Commission would fit naturally with this process. But decisions on such attachments would be a matter for the European Commission.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for her most helpful reply. Is she aware of the speech made by the Foreign Secretary of Estonia, Mr. Toomas Hendrik Ilves, on 31st March this year when Estonia started its negotiations for entry into the European Union? In that speech he stated that the attachment of officials to the Union would be most helpful in facilitating the negotiations. Will the noble Baroness press the Commission to ensure that the five plus one nations have exactly the same rights as those enjoyed by Austria, Finland and Sweden when they started negotiations some years back for entry into the European Union?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I regret that I was not aware of the specific speech to which the noble Earl refers but I think we can agree with the general terms on which he reports it to have been based. The twinning aims to strengthen the institutions and the administrative capacities of the applicants. The centrepiece of the twinning will be secondments between an applicant and a member state. We and other member states will inform the Commission by the middle of June of the expertise that we can offer and we will then firm up the arrangements with the applicants with the aim of getting the first twinning arrangements into place by October or November this year.

Lord Borrie

My Lords, if Estonia is admitted in due course, Estonian will be one of the official languages of the European Union. As only 5 million people speak Estonian—the noble Earl will correct me if I am wrong—will there not be a campaign by the Catalans, whose language is spoken by around 6 million people. who will wish the Catalan language to be an official language of the European Union as well? Is there not a danger of an extraordinary proliferation of languages as some of the smaller countries are admitted?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the question of official languages will have to be discussed during the course of the negotiations between the applicant counties, member states and the Commission.

Lord St. John of Fawsley

My Lords, will the Minister give an assurance that questions of numbers will not dominate her mind in relation to Estonia and the other Baltic states but rather their heroic tradition of suffering and their fidelity through the years to democratic ideals? Can we be assured that the Government will be supporting the application of these states for membership of the Union?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, the criteria used for all the applicant countries will be the same. Those criteria will have to fulfil the requirements in relation to human rights, in relation to the economic position of the country and in relation to political institutions. The criteria will be the same for all countries. It is not a question of numbers; it is a question of fulfilling the criteria.

Lord Moynihan

My Lords, on that point, Estonia has made major progress towards the integration of Russian minorities into its society. In the light of the Government's policy on human rights, do they support the amendments to Estonia's naturalisation laws'? If so, does the Minister therefore foresee a smoother passage of entry for Estonia into the European Union?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I refer to the answer that I just gave on the question of human rights. The criteria applied in respect of human rights will be the same for all countries. As the noble Lord is aware, Estonia, along with Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and Cyprus, began accession discussions at the end of March. As far as we can see, the basic criteria are already in place and we are now in negotiations with those countries.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that there are 1.5 million people living in Estonia of whom many speak three or four languages, including English? Is she further aware that our present excellent ambassador to Estonia, Mr. Timothy Craddock, was recently interviewed on Estonian television and spoke fluently in Estonian? Will the noble Baroness offer him her congratulations?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, not for the first time the noble Earl's intimate knowledge of Estonia considerably outdistances my own. I shall be very pleased to convey his congratulations to the ambassador.

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