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House of Commons

Tuesday 18 January 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Madam Speaker in the Chair]


United Reformed Church Bill [Lords]

Read the Third time, and passed.

City of London (Ward Elections) Bill (By Order)

Order for further consideration, as amended, read.

To be considered on Monday 24 January at Seven o'clock.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--


1. Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): If he will make a statement on Turkey's EU candidature status. [104187R]

Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Keith Vaz): We welcome the Helsinki European Council's decision that Turkey is a candidate for EU accession. Turkey is an important partner for Britain and the EU, a NATO ally which provided vital support in the Gulf and Kosovo crises, and a major market for UK exporters. The UK has been working hard for a more constructive relationship between the EU and Turkey. We have now secured that. Turkey will enjoy all the benefits of other candidates, including financial assistance. For its part, Turkey must meet the same criteria for accession as other candidates. In particular, it will need to improve its record on human rights and protection of minorities before accession negotiations can begin.

Mr. Chapman: Does my hon. Friend agree that Turkey's candidature status represents a historical juncture for Turkey and the EU? Does he also agree that this valued ally and important geo-political country will now face both challenges and opportunities, and that it will have to deal sensitively with both internal issues and external perceptions? Will he join me in welcoming Mr. Ecevit's decision to await the views of the European Court of Human Rights before referring the case of Abdullah Ocalan to his Parliament?

Mr. Vaz: I pay tribute to the work that my hon. Friend does as chairman of the British-Turkey parliamentary

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group, which has been helpful in cementing relationships between our countries. He is right to say that this is a historic moment for Turkey. We were delighted that it achieved candidate status without conditions. He is also right that it is important that Turkey considers its human rights record. The decisions to refer the case of Mr. Ocalan to the European Court of Human Rights and to suspend the death penalty are welcome, and we hope that the Turkish Government will respect the court's decision.

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury): What positive help do the Government intend to give Turkey to help with the reforms necessary for accession negotiations to begin?

Mr. Vaz: Turkey will get all the support that it needs, as will all applicant candidates. At the moment, we give 375 million euros through the European Union's NEDA programme. We also intend to ensure that we help Turkey to prioritise the various difficulties that it will face in the future, so that it can begin its negotiations as soon as it meets the Copenhagen criteria on political and economic issues.

Mr. Jeremy Corbyn (Islington, North): The Minister will be well aware that many people are deeply concerned about the news of Turkey's candidature, given the Turkish occupation of northern Cyprus, the abuse of human rights in Turkey and the situation of the Kurdish people. Will he assure the House that the British Government will spend no further money on the Ilusu dam project until a full environmental impact assessment has been made of the entire project and consideration has been given to the effects on the villagers in the area and on the Kurdish people whose land is about to be flooded for the benefit of big business--apparently supported by several western Governments?

Mr. Vaz: I know of my hon. Friend's interest in those matters. He is a passionate supporter of the Kurdish people and he will know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry has made it clear that he is minded to grant export credit to Balfour Beatty, provided that various assurances--such as those my hon. Friend mentioned--are met. When those assurances are forthcoming, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will make the right decision.

EU Intergovernmental Conference

2. Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne): If he will make a statement on the Government's proposals for the next European Union intergovernmental conference. [104189]

11. Mr. Laurence Robertson (Tewkesbury): If he will make a statement on the plans to extend qualified majority voting at the intergovernmental conference. [104199]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): The Government argued successfully at Helsinki for an IGC focused on enlargement with a target of completion by the end of the year. I outlined the Government's objectives in detail to the House on 1 December. We place particular importance on securing a shift in the weighting of votes within the Council of Ministers to reflect more fairly the

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population of the larger countries such as ourselves. The Government believe that key matters of national interest are better resolved by unanimity, but where majority voting may help to overcome obstacles to reform it could be in Britain's interest to support it.

Enlargement may nearly double the number of member states of the European Union. All Members of the House who support enlargement will want the IGC to reach agreement enabling Europe to open its doors to the new democracies of central and eastern Europe.

Mr. Waterson: I am grateful for that answer. Will the Foreign Secretary confirm precisely the areas in which he intends to sign up to qualified majority voting where it does not apply at the moment? Why cannot he embrace the Conservative vision of a more flexible and outward-looking Europe, which is in tune with the views of the great majority of the British people?

Mr. Cook: If I were to embrace the Conservative vision, I should find myself in opposition, as that vision was rejected by the British people at the last election.

As I have said often before, and am happy to repeat to the House today, there are matters that we consider to be off limits for majority voting. They include border controls, defence, taxation, social security, own resources matters, and treaty amendments. There may well be other occasions when it could be in our interests to secure majority voting--such as reform of the European Court of Justice, for example. Other member states appear before the court much more often than Britain does, so it could well be in our interests to establish procedures that will enable us to get justice faster against other member states.

Mr. Robertson: Is not the alternative to extending qualified majority voting for the European Union to engage in fewer matters and to interfere in fewer areas of our national life? Does the Secretary of State recall that the previous Labour Government promised that the British Minister would always have a veto, and that it was only on that basis that the British people ever agreed to be members of the European Union in the first place?

Mr. Cook: Actually, the rate at which directives are issued from Brussels has slackened off since the height of the single market, when the Conservative party was in office. In that period, the then Conservative Government agreed the extension of majority voting in 42 different articles of European Union affairs--the largest expansion in the use of majority voting in the EU's history.

I have no quarrel with that, as the previous Conservative Government were right to act in that way. Any rational member state would have agreed to do so. However, I am not sure that the hon. Gentleman will be persuaded by what I have said, judging by the speech that he made last year, in which he asked whether the European Union was the new Soviet Union. The answer that he appeared to give to that question was yes.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley): Does my right hon. Friend agree that arms sales should be a matter for qualified majority voting in the European Union? It appears that the EU's decision to lift the embargo on arms sales to Indonesia was not unanimous. Would not that be a proper

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subject for discussion at the next inter-governmental conference, especially as it is known that the military in Indonesia are still responsible for human rights abuses in many provinces, such as Aceh, Irian Jaya and the Spice islands? In addition, British-made equipment has been used in the Moluccas in the past two weeks. Is not the matter of arms sales a proper subject for discussion and for qualified majority voting?

Mr. Cook: I have just told the House that we would not accept majority voting in defence matters. I should be in some difficulty if I were to accept an obligation to abide by an arms embargo on the basis of a majority vote. The arms embargo on Indonesia was introduced on British recommendation and with our strong support. At the time, major atrocities were being committed in East Timor and Jakarta had not respected the outcome of the referendum in East Timor. Both problems have been remedied. East Timor is currently administered by the United Nations, and the United Nations' mandated force guarantees peace there. In addition, the new Government in Indonesia have accepted that East Timor must become an independent state.

I welcome the democratic process that has resulted in a new democratic presence in Indonesia. I welcome especially the changes that have been made to bring the army under control, and the appointment of Indonesia's first-ever civilian minister of defence. Nevertheless, we made it clear last week in Brussels that we want the lifting of the embargo to remain under continual review. In the event of a return to the sort of disturbances that occurred in East Timor, we would want the embargo to be reimposed.

Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West): Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the extension of qualified majority voting could be to our advantage in connection with a number of issues to do with Gibraltar? At present, Spain is blocking the extension to Gibraltar of a number of measures that apply to the rest of the United Kingdom.

Given that Conservative Members generally like to present themselves as great defenders of Gibraltar, is my right hon. Friend surprised that, in this instance, they refuse to support a measure that would be greatly to the advantage of Gibraltarians?

Mr. Cook: I am very glad that my hon. Friend was able to get the second part of her question in. She gives a perfectly good example of how majority voting can be in our interest. The problem with the veto that has occurred on some occasions has been to do not with the issue being voted on, but with the linkage made by one member state to another issue that has nothing at all to do with the matter under consideration.

Mr. Archie Norman (Tunbridge Wells): Further to the question raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Waterson), does the Secretary of State remember that, last December, he failed to distance himself from the Labour MEPs who voted in favour of putting flexibility on the intergovernmental conference agenda? Will the right hon. Gentleman now distance himself from Simon Murphy, the third Labour leader of the MEPs in the last year and a so-called "Blairite", who voted in favour of a resolution extending qualified

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majority voting to certain aspects of taxation? Last month, Mr. Murphy voted in favour of a resolution deploring the "lack of political vision" displayed by leaders at Helsinki, of whom the Prime Minister is presumably one, and complaining that the IGC agenda was "inadequate". Alternatively, does the right hon. Gentleman agree with me that it is yet another example of Labour keeping quiet in Britain but voting in favour of deeper integration in Brussels?

Mr. Cook: I have been plain to the House, and I have been plain everywhere in Britain, on what our objectives at the IGC will be. I have stated those objectives again today, and they are not changed by any debate in the European Parliament. However, I am happy to share common cause with parties in developing a constructive engagement in Europe with Simon Hughes and the other Labour MEPs--[Hon. Members: "Simon Murphy"]--him as well--on that point.

The hon. Gentleman should explain to the House why six Tory MEPs have now formed common cause with the UK Independence party, which is committed to withdrawal from the European Union. Is he content to have people in his party and standing for his party committed to a platform of withdrawal from the European Union?

Mr. Ben Bradshaw (Exeter): Will the Foreign Secretary confirm that the two biggest expansions of qualified majority voting in the European Union took place under the regimes of Mrs. Thatcher and the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major)? Does he agree that it is intellectually dishonest to claim that one supports the expansion of the European Union while refusing to countenance an expansion in qualified majority voting?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend goes to the heart of the point. If we could retain the British veto while everybody else lost theirs, it might be a fair trade-off. Conservative Members are campaigning not only to keep a British veto on everything but to keep a Belgian, a Dutch and a German veto and, after enlargement, to keep a Slovak veto and a Cyprus veto as well. In those circumstances, it may be difficult to get through some decisions that are very important to Britain's national interests.

Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham): May I congratulate the Foreign Secretary on his recent interventions on Europe, particularly with regard to monetary union? Will he endorse the conclusion of the former Chancellor, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), that in its first year of operation, the euro was a considerable success and that we should be part of the system soon?

Mr. Cook: Congratulations from any quarters are always welcome and happily received. However, I repeat that the Government's position is well known: we will decide whether to join the European single currency on the basis of the tests of economic conditions and whether joining would be in the interests of the British people. The Conservative party has said that, even if it was in Britain's economic interests, it would not join, nor would it agree, as we would, that the British people should decide for

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themselves. The Conservative party would deny the British people a referendum. With that sharp contrast in mind, I am happy to fight the next election on that issue.

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