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16 Dec 2002 : Column 546—continued

The Prime Minister: I hope very much that all sides in the Cyprus negotiations take them forward constructively. There is no point in my entering into the details now, but the United Nations proposal is an immensely clever and intelligent proposal that offers a way forward. I still believe that it is possible for the countries to come to an agreement. For years and years, as a result of disagreements between Turkey and Greece, many of these issues have been held up. However, what is interesting about this summit and the way it took place is that Greece was in favour of Turkey being given an even earlier date for the opening of accession negotiations. A few years ago, I would have been surprised to have been told that such a change would happen now.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan): The Prime Minister mentioned cod stocks. However, he must be

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aware that, on the same scientific measurement, whiting and haddock stocks are at their highest for a generation and that they will be caught up in the same draconian cuts by the European Commission. Does that not indicate that time is required to come up with a management plan that conserves fish without provoking the economic destruction of entire coastal communities? The Prime Minister seemed surprised to find out that that view was emerging this afternoon in the talks. Will he now put his weight behind it and ask for a delay for pause and for thought, instead of rushing headlong to disaster over the next few days?

The Prime Minister: Of course that is precisely what we are trying to do. All that I have pointed out to the hon. Gentleman and to anyone else who has raised the issue is that we have to recognise that we will be fighting for the interests of the Scottish and UK fishing industry against the background of heavily depleted cod stocks. I agree that that is not the only issue, but it is important to recognise that it is the case. We will strive to get the very best deal that we possibly can, and that is precisely what Ministers are now engaged upon in Brussels.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Does my right hon. Friend agree that this historic and marvellous achievement has been brought about by work done by many people over many years to create pluralistic democratic societies in central and eastern Europe? Does he agree that the job is not yet complete? Other European states still wish to join the EU, so can we ensure that, over the next few years, we continue to give support for pluralistic civil society and democracy building in countries to the east of the existing EU?

The Prime Minister: My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I pay tribute to the work that he has done over many years to encourage countries that are now applicant countries and countries that may become applicant countries to improve their democracy. I have no doubt at all that, in years to come, for countries in the Balkan region, in particular, EU membership will be the same magnet for change and reform as European membership has been for the 10 accession countries now. It is extraordinary how much change they have managed to undertake in a short time, but they have managed to undertake it only because there has been the goal and the vision of EU and NATO membership to aim for.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): Does the Prime Minister agree on the need for a fair and balanced public debate in the candidate countries, especially in the run-up to their referendums on membership, to ensure genuine public support? If so, would he end the practice of EU budget funding for one side of the debate in those countries? Will he look into the known and documented abuses that have taken place and ensure that public money, some of which comes from this country, is not used in that partial way?

The Prime Minister: There are rules that have to be followed, and they should be followed. I know that the right hon. Gentleman is a sceptic about enlargement, but I think that European enlargement is of fundamental importance to our future peace and

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stability. As I said, there are rules in Europe. We are not pressing for changes, but any of those rules that are in existence have to be followed properly.

Jane Griffiths (Reading, East): May I, too, congratulate my right hon. Friend and all involved on achieving the historic outcome of the European Council? He will know that as each country has acceded to the European Union since 1973, British exports to them have surged. Does he agree that the economic and political future of Europe looks good for Britain and casts the carpers, nit-pickers and isolationists into the outer darkness where they belong?

The Prime Minister: There is no doubt that British companies have done well as a result of enlargement. We have increased our exports to those countries by something like 10 times. Those people who are hesitant about the benefits of enlargement fail to understand that in the end we all benefit from a more prosperous Europe. Every time the European Union has enlarged, there has been increased prosperity for existing EU members as well as for the new ones.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): As the Prime Minister says, this enlargement is merely the prelude to a new enlargement, and we can easily envisage 32 or 33 states in the European Union; but that further enlargement towards the Balkans will raise even more difficult questions because it will introduce income disparities of a factor of 10 between the richest and the poorest members. It is therefore essential that the union begin at an early stage to help the states prepare for membership. What does the Prime Minister think should be done about that? Where does he think that the eastern and south-eastern borders of the European Union properly lie?

The Prime Minister: In respect of the latter point, it is important that we encourage Balkan countries to move towards the prospect of European Union membership. As the right hon. Gentleman implies, that is obviously some way off, and the income disparity is very great. In the meantime, however, the European Union has conducted agreements with most of those countries—in fact, probably all of them—to help them in that process. Again, the advantages for us are immense. This is the first period for years and years—other than during the appalling domination of the old Soviet bloc—when those countries seem to be reaching towards some sort of stability. We have got to encourage that. The way to do it is to help them financially, which the European Union is doing, and also to start, over time, to offer them a more obvious path to European integration.

Mr. Gerald Kaufman (Manchester, Gorton): In congratulating my right hon. Friend on the indispensable role that he played at Copenhagen which resulted, among many other achievements, in the accession of two Commonwealth countries to the European Union and in the Turkish timetable, may I thank him for convening the conference with the Palestinians in London next month? May I also thank

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him for his courage in meeting the President of Syria, as the hazards of peace are much preferable to the death and danger of war?

The Prime Minister: I hope that we can make real progress on political reform. After all, we are only going to get the peace process moving again in the middle east if the right elements are in place. One key element is the political reform process in the Palestinian Authority, and I very much look forward to discussing that with those who will come and contribute to the meeting. I have no doubt that it is better to engage with countries and try to bring them towards the peace process than to isolate them.

Mr. Andrew Mackay (Bracknell): The Prime Minister was absolutely right to say that it is massively in our interests for Turkey to join us as a democratic partner in Europe. Was he not just a little saddened that at an otherwise excellent summit, where so many countries from central Europe joined the European Union, Turkey's application was so badly delayed owing to the behaviour of Germany and France? Will he redouble his efforts to get that application moved forward because, as he knows, Turkey's human rights record is considerably better than that of some of the later applicant countries now entering the EU?

The Prime Minister: If the right hon. Gentleman had asked me a week ago whether I thought it likely that we would get a firm date for opening the accession negotiations, I would have been doubtful, so we have come a long way in the last few days. It was not only France and Germany that took the position to which he referred. That may be common myth, as many of these things are. In fact that position was taken by France, Germany and probably a significant number of the other countries. It was we, along with the Italians, the Spanish and the Greeks, who argued for a more forward position for Turkey.

Those negotiations are two years away. [Interruption.] The process will start without delay. During our presidency, we began accession negotiations almost immediately, so it is possible that, in this process, Turkey's accession negotiations will start in two years. The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that Turkey has made great strides forward, but this is still a pretty good timetable. It is not quite as good as we would have liked, but as people in Turkey reflect on it, they will see that after 40 years of trying to get a firm date, they now have one, and it is only two years away.

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