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European Affairs

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Ainger.]

6.50 pm

The Minister for Europe (Peter Hain): Next week, on 14 and 15 December, the Belgian presidency of the European Union will host the final European Council of the year at Laeken, at which Britain will play a strong role as a European power, now, under the Labour Government, more influential than at any time since we joined the rest of Europe in the early 1970s.

By co-operating with our fellow members of the EU, Britain gets practical benefits: more jobs, faster economic growth, safer food, cleaner beaches, cleaner air, purer water, less crime and, crucially, better security. In the modern world, our strength as a nation derives from the strength of our partnerships and our alliances. Nations are stronger when working together than when alone. In the modern world, sovereignty shared is sovereignty regained. We should be more confident and get more real about our sovereignty. Does getting more involved in Europe mean that we will give up our sovereignty? No, because there is a difference between giving up and choosing to pool sovereignty because doing so promotes Britain's interests.

We have already given up our right to do what we like in defending Britain, because we are members of NATO. We already pool sovereignty with the United States of America and others because by doing so Britain has stronger defences. Anyone attacking us invites retaliation from all the NATO nations.

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): We are discussing a matter of fundamental interest to our country. Would my right hon. Friend care to comment on the fact that although Labour Members are paying great attention to his speech, there is not a single Conservative Back Bencher—

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells) rose

Mr. Allen: Oh, forgive me. I withdraw that remark. One Conservative Back Bencher is present in the Chamber. What does that tell us about the views of the Conservative party?

Peter Hain: I do not want to intrude on the Conservatives' private grief. Presumably, their desire for a truce in their internal civil war over Europe is the reason why all their rabid Back Benchers are away.

More than 50 years ago, we gave up our right to do as we liked in foreign policy by joining the United Nations. Its Security Council resolutions have the force of international law, and everyone, including Britain, has to respect them, but as a permanent member of the Security Council we can make the laws. By pooling sovereignty, the British people have greater influence in building a safer, more stable world.

Mr. Michael Trend (Windsor): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Peter Hain: The hon. Gentleman will reply to the debate later, but why not?

Mr. Trend: Perhaps the Minister might care to comment on the fact that had the Government not lost

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control of the business last night and today, the start of this debate would not have coincided with the meeting of the 1922 Committee. That is why Conservative Members are not here.

Peter Hain: I know that many of my hon. Friends want to speak, so I shall be reluctant to take any more interventions from Conservatives, especially interventions of that quality.

Pooling sovereignty can entail compromises. That is sometimes hard for some commentators and politicians to understand, but real people know that in real life we cannot always get exactly what we want, and nor can other countries in those international bodies. We can better advance British interests by being right at the centre of NATO, the UN and, indeed, the EU.

In recent weeks, the EU has acted with great resolve and rapidity to tackle the threat of terrorism. Already we have agreed that there will be a common European arrest warrant, a common definition of terrorist offences and common measures to freeze the assets of terrorist suspects. None of those measures could have been achieved outside the EU. By co-operating with other countries we strengthen our defences against terrorism—an evil that knows no national boundaries.

There is more to do. We have to boost co-operation between our national law enforcement and counter- terrorist agencies, approve without delay the Commission's proposals to improve air transport security, and ensure that all member states ratify the UN convention on the suppression of the financing of terrorism and strengthen their domestic legislation. The EU has emerged as a key player in the global fight against terrorism. The natural alliance between the countries of north America and Europe is at the core of the international coalition.

At Laeken, we have the opportunity to show once again the strength of the EU's backing for the current military campaign and to renew our commitment to the diplomatic and humanitarian tasks, which are just as vital if we are to defeat the terrorist threat. The signing in Bonn this morning of the agreement on Afghanistan's future is a significant achievement. We pay tribute to the UN and to the Afghan leaders—men and women—who have grasped the opportunity to begin to rebuild their country. It is a victory for the international coalition against terrorism. A stable Afghanistan with a broad-based Government is as important to our own security as it is to the Afghan people, who have been liberated from the clutches of the odious Taliban. At Laeken we shall reaffirm our support for the efforts of the United Nations Secretary-General and Lakhdar Brahimi to deliver on today's deal and build a broad-based, multi-ethnic Government in Afghanistan.

Dr. Jenny Tonge (Richmond Park): Is it not a little early to say that we have a stable Afghanistan?

Peter Hain: I did not say that the job was finished, but the hon. Lady, for whom in other respects I have considerable respect, should recognise that many of her arguments in relation to the international coalition's action in Afghanistan have been proved wrong. The people of Afghanistan—including and especially women—are enjoying greater freedom than they have had for many a long decade.

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Between us, EU member states and the Commission have already committed 320 million euros to the international humanitarian effort in and around Afghanistan, and the EU will have a continuing commitment to the region. Our kind of Europe has a collective duty to act as a more effective force for good in the world, so two years ago my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and President Chirac launched a British-French initiative on security and defence that the EU has been developing ever since.

In the aftermath of 11 September, it is all the more important to underpin our security with the capacity to carry out humanitarian and peacekeeping tasks where NATO as a whole is not involved. Far from weakening NATO, as some have alleged, we have an opportunity to strengthen NATO by strengthening the capabilities of EU member states.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle): The fact that there is a crisis in the aerospace sector is widely recognised, and today aerospace workers lobbied the House of Commons. Will the European Governments at Laeken address that crisis in aerospace industries throughout the EU? Might consideration be given to bringing forward orders that have already been committed for the A400M—the military version of the Airbus? That would do a great deal to help us in the north-west.

Peter Hain: My hon. Friend speaks forcefully, as always, on behalf of his constituents, and I know that many hon. Members have interests in the aerospace industry. Those points will be taken on board because we want to ensure that Airbus Industrie has a positive future—I think that it builds the best aeroplanes in the world. Given the difficulties it has already experienced, the aerospace industry overall should take advantage of all the opportunities that might lie ahead.

The European security and defence capability has been welcomed by President Bush, by all NATO members, by all candidate countries, and by almost everyone else across the world—except that fount of all wisdom, today's Conservative party.

I especially welcome Ankara's confirmation this week of support for Turkish participation in European defence—an outcome that our officials and my right hon. the Foreign Secretary have worked hard to secure. At Laeken, we expect to be able to draw the realistic conclusion that the EU is now able to conduct some crisis management operations, and will be in a position to take on increasingly demanding operations as the assets and capabilities at our disposal increase. However, our best weapon in the fight against terrorism is international solidarity. Alongside existing EU members, applicants for admission to the EU have backed the international coalition and the anti-terrorist measures agreed by the EU.

Britain has long been a champion of enlargement. We used our presidency in 1998 to launch negotiations for the first set of six applicant countries. Since then, we have pushed for and secured rapid progress. As a result, 12 countries are now negotiating their accession. A 13th—Turkey—has been confirmed as a candidate. Our Prime Minister was the first European leader to call for the first new member states to be admitted in time for

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the 2004 European parliamentary elections. At the Gothenburg European Council in June, that objective was agreed. At Laeken, in 10 days' time, we shall take the matter further forward. All 10 of the candidate countries with target accession dates by 2004 have now closed 19 or more chapters of the 30 that make up the EU acquis.

The Commission's recent strategy paper confirms that we are on track for our goal of completing negotiations with the best prepared candidates by the end of next year. As the paper reaffirms, while a political settlement of Cyprus's problems is plainly desirable, it is not a pre-condition for that country's entry to the EU. Only yesterday, the first meeting between the leaders of the two Cypriot communities agreed to direct talks. We continue to support a just, viable and lasting settlement to the Cyprus problem.

With the Bill having passed through this place and having completed consideration in Committee in the other place, we are now on target to ratify the Nice treaty, which is essential for enlargement to proceed. At the Nice summit a year ago, and for the first time since we joined the common market in 1973, we won an increase in Britain's voting weight relative to the smaller countries. We succeeded in providing for a smaller and more efficient Commission. We secured more qualified majority voting in areas where the UK's interest lies in reform and change while preserving our ability to defend the status quo and vital national interests where that is necessary.

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