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The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz): Last Thursday, my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary met Heads of Government and Foreign Ministers from all the candidate countries for European Union membership at the meeting of the European conference in Nice. I have met all the applicants Ministers for Europe in the past 12 Months. As my hon. Friend will know and as the Foreign Secretary has just said, the Government are a champion of enlargement.
Ms Keeble: I thank my hon. Friend for that reply. What discussions is he having with other Ministers on protecting national interests and dealing with some of the problems of enlargement, particularly the financial costs of extending regional and agricultural aid programmes to new members?
Mr. Vaz: I am pleased to tell my hon. Friend that negotiations are going well. The first six countries that applied to join the European Union have completed negotiations and, on average, have closed 29 chapters of the 31 chapters of the acquis. The so-called Helsinki six have opened on average a total of between 9 and 13 chapters. The negotiations are going very well, and, as the Foreign Secretary has just said, they will be improved enormously by the spirit for enlargement demonstrated at the Nice summit. We shall continue to work with all the applicant countries to achieve that.
Indeed, just before Nice, I and two ministerial colleagues went to visit Bratislava. We are the first country to have had such bilateral visits. I want more such visits to take place, not only between Foreign Secretaries and Prime Ministers, but between Members of Parliament from Westminster and from the applicant countries.
Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk): Given the crucial importance of enlargement, what arrangements does the hon. Gentleman envisage for reform of the common agricultural policy--without which the process cannot enduringly take place? When will that reform be made?
Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock): Will my hon. Friend the Minister, when he next meets the ambassadors of the Czech, Slovak and Polish Governments, say that if they read the comments of the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) in Hansard, they may be reassured that the spirit of Neville Chamberlain--who spoke of a far-away country of which we know little--is alive. In contrast, the Government recognise our moral obligation to allow expansion of the European Union to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic. That obligation was won by brave pilots who fought above this place in 1940, and whom Winston Churchill referred to as "the few". Therefore, although enlargement is an economic, commercial and political issue, above all else it is a moral issue, and it needs to be addressed.
Mr. Vaz: I am sure that the whole House will have been moved by my hon. Friend's Churchillian tones. He is absolutely right--not only will I remind the ambassadors for those three applicant countries, but I will remind the ambassadors for all applicant countries. I congratulate my hon. Friend on his frequent visits to the applicant countries. This kind of bilateral relationship is extremely important because the applicant countries know, as the Foreign Secretary has just said, who is the friend of enlargement. They also know that the Conservative party would block enlargement.
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Keith Vaz): We agreed at Nice, under President Chirac's chairmanship, on arrangements that will open the door to the enlargement of the European Union. My right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary next expect to meet President Chirac during the UK-French summit planned for 9 February next year. France will cease to hold the EU presidency in 19 days, when it will be passed to Sweden.
Mr. Butterfill: When the Foreign Secretary meets President Chirac, will he discuss with him the relationship between the European declaration on human rights and the European convention on human rights? At present, legislation passing through the House has to comply with the European convention on human rights. It is suggested that the European Commission believes that it can direct this House to amend legislation to comply with the
Mr. Vaz: I am not in a position to give the hon. Gentleman legal advice on these matters. As a former vice-chairman of the Back-Bench committee on foreign affairs, he is very knowledgeable about European issues. He will know that Commission proposals are always welcome.
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Commission is entitled to put its views forward. Indeed, it has a website, especially for that purpose, exclusively available to the whole world. Obviously, we will look carefully at what it says, but the Government's position on these matters is very clear, and any legal challenges will have to be dealt with in the normal way.
Mr. Gray: The entire tone of the post-Nice statements, including during Question Time today, has been one of swaggering boastfulness about how successful it was. However, two big things are missing from what the Government have been saying about Nice. The first is any kind of discussion of the reform of the common agricultural policy, as mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring). Perhaps because of that, something else that is very important is missing from Nice--any setting of, or promise to set, a firm date for enlargement. When will enlargement of the European Union take place?
Mr. Vaz: The hon. Gentleman will know the statements that we have already made on the subject. Nice cleared the way for enlargement. I am not surprised that Conservative Members are depressed and sad about Nice, because they know what a success it was. That was demonstrated by the way in which, once and for all, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister dealt with the Leader of the Opposition on this subject yesterday.
Nice was a negotiating triumph because of the negotiating skills of my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, who were up until 4.30 yesterday morning. [Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude) may laugh--the only time that he is up at 4.30 in the morning is when he comes swaggering out of the Carlton club. The success was not only for Britain but for the rest of Europe--the countries involved in enlargement and those of the European Union. The only political party in Europe not to get anything out of Nice was the Conservative party, so I have taken the trouble to get Conservative Members something from Nice--a packet of Nice biscuits.
Mr. Vaz: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Of course there is no rational argument from the Conservative party on such matters. A party that, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, is prepared to hold a referendum on the pension rights of the Court of Auditors, but not on the Maastricht treaty, which was signed by the right hon. Member for Horsham (Mr. Maude), shows that it has no policy whatever on Europe.
Mr. Bill Rammell (Harlow): Is not the most significant development in the European Union, underlined at Nice, that we are increasingly moving from a Europe led by the Franco-German axis to a multi-faceted Europe, where Britain increasingly plays the leading role? Is not that light years away from the notion of a European superstate, about which the Conservative party consistently and misleadingly tries to frighten people in this country?
Mr. Vaz: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I pay tribute to the work that he does in the European movement. He is right because this country wants to see a Europe of nation states. At Nice, the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary established that principle more clearly than ever before. No motor or axis runs Europe; it is a continent and the EU is an organisation of first-class nation states, all of which are equally treated. That is why we are delighted that the provisions on enhanced co-operation agreed at Nice will not create a two-speed Europe.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): When the Minister is swapping stories with President Chirac about his triumphs at Nice, will he take the opportunity to ask for clearer and more timely information about exactly what he and the Prime Minister have signed up to at Nice, so that he has a clear idea of the areas where he has surrendered our vetoes? Yesterday, the Prime Minister referred to qualified majority voting on the pensions of court auditors--which is reported at column 355 of Hansard--and the Minister has just referred to the pensions of the Court of Auditors. Will the Minister apologise to the House and confirm that, in fact, no provision on that issue was agreed to at Nice? That is not surprising, as the institutional provisions on the pensions of the Court of Auditors were introduced under article 247 of the Maastricht treaty and are already decided by QMV. Of course, the Prime Minister and the Minister may have been tired and failed to understand the detail, but is not it about time that they made accurate statements when they are signing away this country's powers?
Mr. Vaz: The hon. Lady is getting too excited--she should have one of these biscuits. I refer her to article 247 of the treaty, and if she has problems understanding what we have done at Nice, she should go to the Foreign Office website. We have just set up an interactive line. She can
Mr. Vaz: I do not mind, Mr. Speaker, because the shouting betrays the vacuum that currently exists in Conservative party policy. Conservative Members cannot stomach the fact that a British Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary can go to a European Council, such as Nice, and come back with every single one of the British Government's objectives maintained. We will take no lectures on QMV from the hon. Lady, who is sitting next to St. Francis of Maastricht--the person who negotiated 30 different changes to QMV.