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2 Dec 2002 : Column 682—continued

Sir Teddy Taylor : Does the Secretary of State agree that it would help to strengthen the European Union and all that it stands for if provision were made in the constitution for member states to withdraw if they want to do so?

Peter Hain: The hon. Gentleman will no doubt support President Giscard's draft text because it proposes exactly that.

Sir Teddy Taylor: Does the right hon. Gentleman support it?

Peter Hain: I do not see a problem with it. If anybody is silly enough to want to withdraw from the EU, they should be entitled to do so. I guess that the hon. Gentleman would be in the lead.

Some critics have argued that the convention is about giving up even more national powers to Europe. That is simply not the case. The discussions that we have held about who does what, or, in Euro-jargon, "where competences lie", have not been about moving those competences to the EU; rather, the concern has been to make the current set-up clearer so that everybody knows where responsibility lies. That is a crucial element in making Europe more accountable.

The basic premise of our confident engagement in Europe is our ability to take decisions and support ideas that are in Britain's interests. Crime and immigration are at the top of people's agendas. Tackling those issues is partly a domestic policy matter for national Governments, but there is also a strong European dimension. Moving away from the unanimity rule in some areas of justice and home affairs will enable decisions on such crucial matters as crime, drug dealing, asylum and illegal immigration, for example, to be made more easily, and action to be taken more speedily, to make all of us safer and more secure.

Lifting our veto and agreeing to such common EU decision making on border security measures or a common arrest warrant is not selling out British interests. Quite the contrary, it is common sense. However, we have said firmly and repeatedly that we will not tolerate attempts to take fundamental decisions, for example about taxation and social security, out of the hands of national Governments. Such a move would clearly not be in Britain's interests.

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Mrs. Browning : The right hon. Gentleman will be aware of the Franco-German proposal on tax harmonisation as it was clearly spelt out on the front page of the Financial Times today. Will he use the British veto on that matter?

Peter Hain: I understand that the French spokesman in Brussels said that no such proposal as that reported in the FT exists and that he said something even more uncharitable about the report off the record. I shall obviously not repeat that as the House is family oriented.

Nor do we countenance a shift away from the current intergovernmental approach to the EU's foreign and security policy or to defence. Yes, those areas must be made more effective and efficient—as must the rest of the EU—but such matters must remain in the hands of national Governments, co-operating freely. For example, we have said that we could support a single legal personality for the EU but not if it jeopardises the national representations of member states in international bodies; not if it means a Euro-army; not if it means giving up our seat on the United Nations Security Council; and not if it means a Euro-FBI or a Euro police force.

There have been, and there will continue to be, ideas in the convention with which we do not agree. Such is the nature of open and broad debate. However, we are at the centre of the debate. By engaging actively and dynamically and by working in partnership with others, Britain is helping to set and shape the European agenda, and our confident approach is getting results.

As the world becomes more global, people are thinking more locally. People only want the EU to act when it genuinely has something to add. They want it to work on the issues where working together is better than working alone; to combat cross-border crimes, such as drug and people trafficking, but not to tell us how to police the streets; to agree limits to the industrial pollution affecting our continent, but not to tell us whether we can build roads or houses on individual sites; and to provide opportunities for our students to study abroad, but not to tell us how to run individual schools.

The Government are clear about where we stand in Europe. We support the enlargement of the Union because it will make Britain stronger, safer and richer.

David Winnick: My right hon. Friend was good enough to say yes to the questions I put to him earlier. On enlargement, would it not be appropriate for him, given his special responsibilities, to make it as clear as possible that Britain welcomes the strong possibility that Turkey will join the EU and for him to dissociate himself from the notorious remarks that I quoted earlier?

Peter Hain: I welcome my hon. Friend's question. My answer is yes, we want to see Turkey join the EU. That is EU policy. Turkey is one of the officially recognised candidates for accession. The president of the convention was speaking for himself alone when he declared his opposition to Turkey's membership.

We support the work of the convention because it is the best way to deliver the practical benefits that British citizens want: more jobs, greater prosperity, safer

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streets, cleaner skies—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton) shakes her head. Does she not want cleaner skies or safer streets?

Ann Winterton: After European enlargement we shall actually have less of that famous influence in Europe that the Prime Minister is always going on about.

Peter Hain: There speaks the true voice of the Conservative Back Benches, opposed to enlargement, to reunifying Europe and to welcoming back Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary and all the other countries that were divided from us by the cold war. Is that really Conservative party policy?

We relish the debate about Europe, conducted in the plainest terms, because we are confident, unlike the Opposition, about rising to the challenge to deliver in Britain's interests in the convention.

8.18 pm

Mr. Michael Ancram (Devizes): I shall try to be somewhat briefer than the Minister, given that more than a sixth of the time that we have to debate this issue has already passed.

The debate will inevitably touch on accountability in Europe—indeed, it already has—but I would like to ask some questions about accountability at home. Who in the Government leads on the future of Europe—the Foreign Secretary, who is not here, the Minister for Europe, who is here but did not lead, or the Secretary of State for Wales, who has led tonight, but not for Wales? Seriously, if in future we want to know the Government's position on the convention, do we table questions for the Wales Office or do we still table them for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office?

Peter Hain: That issue was made absolutely clear by the Leader of the House last Thursday, when the same question was raised. I remain the Government's representative on the convention. Is it not interesting that, since I have been in that position, Britain's agenda is finding favour and the French and Germans have put their Foreign Secretaries on the Convention on the Future of Europe? What does the right hon. Gentleman think I am doing here? I also appeared before the European Scrutiny Committee to answer questions only the other week.

Mr. Ancram: The right hon. Gentleman may not have noticed, but he is not the Foreign Secretary. I note that the Minister for Europe is not trusted to set out the Government's policy on the convention. Perhaps that is because of what he said last week:

That cannot be very clever, when nine of the 15 member states have centre-right Governments, and Austria has just decisively re-elected one.

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Denis MacShane): The difference is that all those centre-right Governments believe in Europe, unlike the anti-European right-wing

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party to which the right hon. Gentleman belongs, which will never be elected as long as it maintains its anti-European course.

Mr. Ancram: Once again, we see the hon. Gentleman correcting his words. He should be careful about what he says, because I am sure that his remarks last week will have been noted with great care in some of the chancelleries of Europe.

With enlargement—which we welcome—on course, Europe is at a crossroads. Its challenge is to give back to the peoples of Europe a sense of ownership over the EU institutions. A bigger European Union must not become an even more distant one. At Laeaken, it was rightly declared that

The convention has been disappointing in that regard. It had a great opportunity comprehensively to review how Europe was working and to jettison those practices and rules that were distancing it from its peoples. It has failed to do that. In particular, it has failed to tackle the problem of remote institutions.

Indeed, the Giscard draft treaty seeks further to centralise employment and social law, which even in the United States of America is left to the individual states—hardly a decentralising charter.

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