Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Mr. Ben Chapman (Wirral, South): Does my right hon. Friend agree that Turkey's road to candidature has

13 Dec 1999 : Column 37

been long and sometimes disappointing? Does he also agree that Turkey's accession is important not only because it is a secular democracy, a valuable geopolitical power in a troubled region, an important ally and partner in NATO, WEU and the Council of Europe, and our bilateral relations are good but because the candidature process involves it in opportunities and obligations?

The Prime Minister: I fully agree. It is interesting that the step forward with Turkey has been greeted well in both Greece and Turkey. It is unusual for that to happen. My hon. Friend is right to point out that Turkey is a valuable NATO ally.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): As it is patently obvious that the rules and arrangements for a Europe of 15 cannot function in a Europe of 25 or 26, what confidence can we have that the intergovernmental conference next year will tackle the matter with greater urgency and efficiency than the Amsterdam conference, which was a total cop-out?

The Prime Minister: It is right that the so-called Amsterdam left-overs are important. We must tackle them, or we cannot make enlargement or a properly functioning European Union a reality. We have already made it clear that we want to maintain a veto on key matters such as defence, treaty change and taxation. However, we must also be prepared to take a view of the European Union that allows decisions to be made in the enlarged body; otherwise, we, as well as the European Union, will be the losers.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North): Is not it a fact that, while there is justified concern--which I have shared for many years--about Turkey's human rights record, Turkey has, for a long time, successfully resisted all attempts to turn the country into a fundamentalist state where no human rights would exist? Is there not a far better chance for the improvement of human rights in Turkey if that country is a serious candidate for European Union membership?

The Prime Minister: That must be right. It is the reason for our strong support of the initiative that the Finnish presidency has succeeded in pulling off.

Sir Peter Tapsell (Louth and Horncastle): Although I do not believe that I have ever been accused of being a Thatcherite--certainly not in the ignorant way in which the Prime Minister habitually uses that epithet--does he understand that, while the proposed withholding tax poses a serious threat to the City of London, and must be resisted--I congratulate him on the vigour with which he resists it--it is only the tip of the much larger iceberg of general tax harmonisation? Will he accept that the leaders of the European Union believe, almost unanimously, that the single currency will not work until there is general tax harmonisation? If Britain were included in that, our taxation rates would be much higher, and comparable with those of Germany. Many Germans, at every level of prosperity, are trying to get their money out of the country because of the high rate of German taxation.

The Prime Minister: It is simply not right to say that the rest of Europe is in favour of tax harmonisation. Even

13 Dec 1999 : Column 38

if there were a substantial body of opinion in favour, the proper role for Britain would be to get into the argument and stop it, and we could not do that if we were removed to the margins of Europe. The hon. Gentleman put his question to me in a fair way; let me put it back to him. If I were to adopt the position that his leader has urged on me and say in relation to next year's intergovernmental conference that I would block enlargement unless we agreed a clause on flexibility--which no other European country would agree to, and which would not be in our interests anyway--I would lose any influence I had in Europe whatever. I would then face the choice of either complete humiliation, because none of the other countries would agree to that, so I would have to withdraw my block on enlargement, or blocking enlargement, in which case I can tell him that the arguments in respect of Britain would be gone altogether.

Defence is another example. The defence initiative was not invented when we came to office; it already existed as part of earlier treaties agreed to by the Conservatives. We have made sure--and we will make sure, because I shall not agree to it otherwise--that defence policy is made in such a way that it is fully consistent with NATO and does not undermine it in any shape or form. If the British voice were not there arguing that case, Britain would be worse off.

Mr. Barry Gardiner (Brent, North): Does my right hon. Friend agree that one of the best ways to help the people of Chechnya is to provide maximum assistance to the Russian authorities in combating the international financial crime and money laundering that lie at the root of so much of the terrorism that the Russians fear from the Chechens?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right about that, which is why we have to choose with care what instruments we use to try to put pressure on Russia in this situation. For example, we have agreed that some provisions of the partnership and co-operation agreement should be suspended as a result of what is happening in Chechnya, but he is quite right to say that we would be misguided if we tried to undermine our memorandum of understanding with the Russians in respect of organised crime and money laundering because it helps us to try to sort out the situation in Russia. We understand the concerns that Russia and the Russian people have about terrorism, but nothing can justify a disproportionate response in Chechnya.

Mr. Michael Colvin (Romsey): During the discussions in Helsinki about collective European defence, what was said about the size of our national defence budgets? Is the Prime Minister aware that the United States of America spends nearly 4 per cent. of gross domestic product on defence and this year has increased its budget by 10 per cent. while in Europe the figure is 2.2 per cent. of GDP and falling, as member states scramble to maintain the convergence criteria for the euro? If he wants to give a lead in Europe, should not Britain set an example by increasing its defence budget to overcome the problems of overstretch and to bear a fairer share of the burden of collective defence in NATO?

13 Dec 1999 : Column 39

The Prime Minister: The constraint on defence budgets is nothing to do with euro convergence; it is to do with public spending discipline. Like any other country, we have to remain disciplined in our approach to public spending. The hon. Gentleman is right in a sense, however, because the whole purpose of the initiative is to get European countries including Britain--although Britain probably has less to do than most--to consider what they are spending money on and whether it is being spent wisely. He may be right about the 2.2 per cent., although I do not know the precise figure, but the plain fact of the matter is that although, some countries are spending that much, or in some cases more, if one analyses the defence capability that they achieve as a result, one sees that it is not as impressive as it should be, even for such spending.

The Americans should support the initiative, done properly, because a common complaint of theirs, which they make with some justification, is that Europe expects America to bear the entire burden of defence spending. I am saying that we need a better relationship in which we analyse and improve our own capability and make sure that it can do what we want it to do while remaining entirely knitted together with America on the key NATO issues.

Several hon. Members rose--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am afraid that we must move on. There is other important business to protect.

13 Dec 1999 : Column 40

Point of Order

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire): On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. During the debate on transport on 8 December, the Deputy Prime Minister said, at column 837 of Hansard, among other places, that his view was that Conservative members of the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee wholeheartedly supported his Bill to establish the Strategic Rail Authority. That is quite incorrect. The report to which he referred makes it plain in paragraph 5 on page viii that the official Opposition wholeheartedly oppose the establishment of the Strategic Rail Authority.

Has the right hon. Gentleman indicated his intention to come to the House to correct that misleading statement? Is there any procedural rule to protect the rights of Back Benchers on pre-legislative hearings of Select Committees who, although perhaps perfectly content to allow a report to be unanimous, none the less want to protect theirown position as members of Her Majesty's official Opposition?

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving notice of his intention to raise that point of order, but he must know that this is a matter for interpretation and debate. The Chair has no knowledge that the Deputy Prime Minister is intending to make a statement, but the Transport Bill is due to be debated and that will provide an opportunity for matters of argument and interpretation to be determined.

Next Section

IndexHome Page