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House of Commons

Tuesday 7 November 2000

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]


City of Newcastle upon Tyne Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Order for Third Reading read.

To be read the Third time on Tuesday 14 November.

Alliance & Leicester Group Treasury plc (Transfer) Bill [Lords] (By Order)

Order for Second Reading read.

To be read a Second time on Tuesday 14 November.

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked--

IGC Agenda

1. Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow): If he will make a statement on the agenda for the current intergovernmental conference regarding Community law. [135160]

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz): The intergovernmental conference is about making the institutional reforms necessary to allow enlargement to proceed. The issues remain those set out at the beginning of the conference; that is chiefly the size and composition of the Commission, the reweighting of votes in the Council of Ministers, the extension of qualified majority voting and closer co-operation between individual member states.

Mr. Gill: I know that you, Mr. Speaker, prefer brief questions, so will the Minister simply tell us whether the Government of whom he is a member will, at Nice, veto article 280A which seeks to create the position of a European public prosecutor?

Mr. Vaz: I assure the hon. Gentleman that we have made it quite clear that we do not support the idea, the concept or the proposal of an EU public prosecutor.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Is my hon. Friend aware that double standards are to be found in the position adopted by Conservative Members given that it was a Conservative Prime Minister who went the furthest to abolish the right of veto and introduced majority voting?

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Is it not a fact that, in any enlargement of the European Union--which the Opposition claim to support--it would be necessary to have an extension of qualified majority voting; otherwise the whole institutional framework would came to a grinding halt?

Mr. Vaz: My hon. Friend is right. As he correctly said, what is important is that the European Union and the Commission operate efficiently. As I have said to the House before, the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude)--St. Francis of Maastricht as I have described him--signed the Maastricht treaty and agreed to qualified majority voting on 42 occasions during the passage of the Single European Act and the Maastricht treaty. In 1996, 80 per cent. of the votes taken at the European Council were taken on the basis of qualified majority voting. The right hon. Gentleman will also know that in 1998 Britain was on the losing side only twice. Therefore, we want an extension of qualified majority voting when that is in our interests.

I say to my hon. Friend that the issue is not a question of double standards, but of treble standards. Conservatives have so many different views on Europe that I have lost count of them.

Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon): May we have an assurance that the Government, in any consideration of the expansion of the European Union, will not contemplate smaller countries being treated as second-class nations within the European Union?

Mr. Vaz: I certainly give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance. We believe strongly not in a two-speed Europe, but in a Europe where all the member states are treated equally. That is why we have said on several occasions that we support enhanced co-operation. However, we support it only on the basis that the decisions to be taken do not undermine the single market and treat all states the same. We will not tolerate a Europe with a hard core of countries; all countries should be treated equally.

EU Modernisation

2. Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet): What support has been received from other EU member states for the ideas on modernisation of EU institutions expressed in the Prime Minister's speech in Warsaw. [135161]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Robin Cook): My right hon. Friend's speech in Warsaw has been widely supported throughout EU member states and was warmly welcomed by the four Prime Ministers of candidate countries who were among his audience. My right hon. Friend set out a vision of Europe that harnessed the economic and political strengths of its member nations to achieve more together than they can alone, but which respected the separate identity and democracy of each member state. Yesterday, President Prodi said:

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Dr. Ladyman: My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will be aware that my constituency of South Thanet receives objective 2 aid and, because it is in east Kent, most local businesses look to the continent as their natural trading area. Both those benefits would be put under threat if the British public continue to feel disconnected from the institutions of Europe. In that context, does my right hon. Friend not agree that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister's idea of a second Chamber in Europe where national parliamentarians can be heard is not only exciting and innovative, but might be exactly what the British people need to make them feel connected again to Europe?

Mr. Cook: My hon. Friend states one of the great truths about our membership of the European Union, which is that almost 60 per cent. of our exports go to other EU members. That is why it is so important for us to make a success of that membership. Part of that success will be reconnecting the democracy of Europe with EU institutions, and that is why my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister proposed that there should be a place in those institutions for British democracy and the democracy of other states through their national Parliaments.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): As part of the modernisation of the EU, how many of the 50 British vetoes will have to be surrendered to pursue the national interest as the Foreign Secretary is suggesting? Will not the British veto and our right to self-government disappear into the Bermuda triangle that is the Government's European policy, and that they are not in line with the EU and their colleagues, but are struggling from the rear?

Mr. Cook: The right hon. Gentleman will be relieved to hear that we are confident that we will keep to our bottom line of having no extension of majority voting to defence, taxation, social security, treaty changes or border control. Those will remain subjects for unanimity, and I am sure that he will welcome that.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will be disappointed to hear that the Government could not, even if we wished, increase majority voting and abolish the veto to the extent that the previous Government did when he was in the Cabinet.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one way to protect the democracy of member states is to preserve the veto, and that any erosion of the veto erodes that democracy?

Mr. Cook: I do not agree with my right hon. Friend that any erosion of the veto is necessarily against British interests. We are pressing for majority voting on a number of matters in the treaty. For example, it would be in our interest to have majority voting on the rules of procedure of the European Court of Justice to get round those who impede its effectiveness and efficiency. It would be in our

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interest to remove the veto on the site of the European Parliament which enables France to insist that it continues to sit in Strasbourg.

Majority voting would be in our interest in several matters. In the past two years, we have succeeded in majority votes more than any of the other large countries, which could have exercised their vetoes on proposals that we supported if they were subject to unanimity.

Mr. Francis Maude (Horsham): Why does the Prime Minister still refuse to press for the flexible, multi-system European Union that the mainstream majority of the British public want? If he is serious, as he says he is, about wanting to make way for enlargement, why does he not press for reform of the biggest single obstacle to enlargement--the common agricultural policy? Why have not the Government even asked for that to be on the agenda at the Nice IGC?

What is the difference between the European Union becoming a superpower, as Mr. Prodi and the Prime Minister have suggested it will, or becoming a superstate? How reassured is the Foreign Secretary that the President of the Commission, who has talked about the Commission becoming the Government of Europe, says that he agrees with and supports the Prime Minister?

Mr. Cook: On the issue of a superpower, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made it clear in his speech that we want Europe's economic strength to be harnessed, but not in ways that create the mechanism of a superstate. In Nice, we will be preparing for a treaty that will pave the way for enlargement by making reforms, so that Europe will be ready to receive a record increase in membership.

The right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) has pledged that his party will demand a referendum on that treaty and campaign strongly against the treaty. Would he care to go to Warsaw and make a speech explaining to the countries of central Europe why the Conservative party will block steps that are necessary to enlarge the European Union?

Mr. Maude: I make it very clear that nothing in the Nice treaty that is controversial is essential for enlargement. The right hon. Gentleman well knows that the biggest roadblock to enlargement is the common agricultural policy, and the Government are not even discussing that.

On the charter of fundamental rights, which is part of the modernising agenda, does the Foreign Secretary agree with the Commission, which has said that the charter will become mandatory through the courts' interpretation of it, whether or not it is incorporated in the treaty, or does he agree with his Minister for Europe, who says that it will be no more useful than the Beano? Will he confirm that whatever the treaty of Nice contains, it has already been agreed that another intergovernmental conference will be held to discuss further treaty changes when the ink is barely dry on the last?

Mr. Cook: If the right hon. Gentleman is insisting that I choose between the Commission and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, I will happily choose the view of my Minister of State, who expressed himself robustly and clearly.

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Returning to the right hon. Gentleman's position on the treaty of Nice, is he now telling us that there is nothing controversial in the treaty? If so, why do the Tories continue to resist it? Has the right hon. Gentleman dropped his demand for a referendum on that treaty? Has he dropped his commitment to campaign strongly against it? Is that because the penny has dropped that it would make the Tory party as totally unpopular among the 12 applicant countries, as they are already with the 15 member states?

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