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Orders of the Day

European Communities (Amendment) Bill

[Relevant documents: Treaty of Nice, Cm 5090; Seventeenth Report of the European Scrutiny Committee, Session 1999–2000, The 2000 IGC, HC 23-xvii, and the Government's response thereto, HC 803; Sixth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 1999–2000, on Developments at the Intergovernmental Conference 2000, HC 384, and the Government's response thereto, Cm 4893; Fifth Report of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Session 2000–01, European Union Enlargement and Nice Follow-up, HC 318.]

Order for Second Reading read.

Mr. Speaker: I have selected the amendment in the name of the Leader of the Opposition.

3.32 pm

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Bill implements the key decisions of the Nice European Council enshrined in the Nice treaty. The treaty was signed on 26 February this year, but will not enter into force until it has been ratified by all 15 member states of the European Union. When that happens, we shall have put in place the final institutional reforms that the European Union needs to be ready for enlargement. I wish to open this debate by placing the Bill in its proper historical context.

Few have expressed that context more succinctly than President George W. Bush. Visiting Warsaw last month, he said:

He echoed his father, who, when in office, talked of building a "Europe whole and free".

Enlarging the European Union to take in the applicant countries of central and southern Europe has been a strategic aim of successive British Governments and our allies for more than a decade. We believe that co-operation in the European Union will bury the memory of cold war divisions just as surely as it has laid to rest the ghost of warfare in northern Europe and the spectre of dictatorship in southern Europe.

That strategic vision carries with it immense practical benefits for Britain and for existing European Union members, as well as for countries that are soon to be new member states. It will make all of us more prosperous, safer and stronger. Enlargement will mean that British companies will be able to benefit from access to the largest single market for trade and investment in the world, with up to half a billion consumers—more than the United States and Japan put together. It will give us more allies to help to counter the cross-border threats that we face: organised crime, drug trafficking and illegal immigration. It will also give us a cleaner environment, because candidate countries are making major improvements in their air and water quality to meet EU standards.

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I have described my approach to the European Union as that of a practical European. It is because the Government recognise the practical and strategic benefits that they have been a champion of enlargement since taking office.

We used our presidency of the Council in 1998 to launch negotiations with the first set of six countries. At every European Council since then at which enlargement has been an issue, we have pushed for and secured rapid progress. As a result, 12 countries are now negotiating their accession, and a 13th, Turkey, has been confirmed as a candidate.

Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley): Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the one thing that unites political parties across the spectrum in countries such as Romania is their wish to gain accession to the European Union? Those countries consider accession vital to the area to which he refers.

Mr. Straw: I recognise that. Although there is not complete unanimity on enlargement in every country—nor would one expect that in democratic states—there is overwhelming support for it across central and eastern Europe. In the last two days, I have discussed enlargement with the Foreign Ministers of the Czech Republic and Croatia. While they are at different stages in their relationship with the EU, both recognise powerfully the benefits that association with it will bring, and has already brought, to their countries.

Mr. Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife): During those discussions, did the Foreign Secretary emphasise not just the economic opportunity that the EU might provide, but the fact that membership would make it much easier for countries that have recently advanced towards democratic institutions to maintain them?

Mr. Straw: Indeed. Although the EU began as a limited common market for coal and steel, it is important to recognise today the much wider social and cultural benefits of our coming together in a union of nation states. We should also recognise that our history is shared with the countries of eastern, southern and central Europe. They are European nations, as firmly and as surely as France, Germany and the United Kingdom. We have a common heritage and a common culture, as well as a shared interest in securing a single common market for trade in goods and services.

I was talking about the work that we have put in to pursue enlargement. Most recently at the Gothenburg European Council, just three weeks ago, we argued for and secured an affirmation that the EU's commitment to enlargement was "irreversible". Our aim is to complete negotiations by the end of 2002 for candidate countries that are ready, so that they can participate as EU members in the European parliamentary elections in 2004. When I use the word "our" in that context, I am talking in a collective sense of the decisions made by the Heads of Government in the declaration that followed their meeting.

This timetable is bold and ambitious. If we are to achieve it, we must ratify Nice.

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Some hon. Members argue that the results of the Irish referendum—which, by coincidence, occurred on the same day as the United Kingdom referendum—

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): And produced a much better result.

Mr. Straw: I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman say that the result in Ireland was much better—from his point of view, that is—than the result in the United Kingdom. I am grateful to him for confirming that the Conservative party made Europe the key issue at the last general election. It was the Conservatives, not us, who said that it was a referendum on Europe—those were their exact words—and I am sorry to say, from their point of view, that their proposition was wholly rejected by the British electorate.

Mr. Simon Thomas (Ceredigion): The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the two contrasting referendums on Europe. One of the key features shared by the Irish referendum and the United Kingdom general election was low turnout. In Ireland, the turnout to decide the country's future within the Nice agreement was as low as 35 per cent. Does that not underline some of the difficulties that we face because Nice has not done enough to make the constitution of Europe clear to the average European citizen? We need further debate on how we can have a written constitution for Europe, and a clearer division of responsibilities and subsidiarity between nation states and emerging nation states in the EU.

Mr. Straw: I will come to that, but I agree that we must do much more to spread comprehension among the citizens of Europe about what the EU stands for. It is not the responsibility of our citizens to make sure that they understand. It is the responsibility of the EU's member states and central institutions—especially the Commission—to ensure that the project is properly and better understood by our citizens. The EU acts in their name and for their benefit. Ultimately, the future of the EU and of each state is in their hands.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East): Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Opposition should be cautious about enthusiastically espousing the result of the Irish referendum? Only 18 per cent. of those who voted there voted against the proposition, and the opposition was led by Sinn Fein—not the most plausible anti-militaristic campaigners. Is not the real lesson for all of us that we must connect with our electorates on European matters?

Mr. Straw: I agree. The alliance of forces that formed in the Republic of Ireland was interesting. The environmentalist Green party—whose views I respect, although I do not agree with them in totality—joined with Sinn Fein, one of whose objections to the Nice treaty was that it could lead to the "militarisation" of Europe. Of course, Sinn Fein members know far more about militarisation than many of the rest of us.

I shall deal in more detail with the Irish referendum. I have not concealed from the House my disappointment at the result, but we have to respect it. The question of

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turnout has been raised. In free democracies where voting is not compulsory, people are as free not to vote as they are free to vote. People must make their own choices about that, but everyone—those who do vote and those who do not—must respect the decision that is arrived at.

It would be hopeless if politicians were to say that a vote was not entirely legitimate because the turnout only reached a certain level. As far as I am aware, with the exception of Australia, where voting is compulsory, all western democracies recognise and respect the rule that people are entitled not to vote but that they must respect the decision reached by those who do vote.

It is fundamental to the democratic legitimacy of the EU that changes to the founding treaties do not take place unless and until the constitutional procedures of all 15 member states have been satisfied. However, for all of us the clear lesson of the Irish result is that we cannot afford to take public support for the EU for granted.

The Irish Government have made it clear that they will need to address particular issues with their electorate, just as the Danish Government did when their electorate rejected Maastricht in 1992. The other 14 member states formally resolved at the General Affairs Council three weeks ago that they were ready to help Ireland to find solutions. In the meantime, all 15 member states, including Ireland, have agreed that we should proceed with the enlargement negotiations and our own ratification procedures. Only by doing so will we be ready by the end of next year to admit new members. If, however, Ireland does not ratify, the treaty will not enter into force. The position is as simple as that.

No member state, and least of all the Irish Government, has followed the example of some Conservatives and called for a wholesale renegotiation of the Nice treaty.

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