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3.8 pm

Mr. Tom Levitt (High Peak): This, I believe, is an historic debate. The Bill will implement a treaty whose time has come, as it represents the continuing evolution of the European Union from six countries to nine, then 15, and now 25. We are in this process because we recognise that the economy, trade and the environment are continental, not national issues, and give rise to problems that require international solutions and international regulation. We have set out to work in common with our European colleagues, implementing the principle of subsidiarity to ensure that appropriate decisions are taken at the most appropriate level while still retaining the capacity to make decisions at a European level where required. We do all that without any diminution of national identity. Certainly, for those members who have been in the European Union for getting on for 50 years now in one form or another, there has been no diminution of national identity—perish the thought that there should be. However, the European Union is changing, and not just in the number of countries involved. Its nature is of course evolving as well.

The debate is about whether the EU should be deeper or wider, and the Bill is about how wide we should go at this stage. Certainly, the EU should become wider. As other hon. Members have said, the face of Europe changed when the Berlin wall came down in 1989, and we are now welcoming countries that, in many cases, have undergone years of totalitarian regimes, and it is

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worth pointing out that they are joining other countries already in the EU whose people have lived under fascist regimes in recent history—Greece, Spain and Portugal. We welcome them all in the recognition that the natural boundaries are now the Atlantic, the Mediterranean and possibly the Urals.

At the same time, NATO has expanded, and the idea of common defence, with European countries looking after one another's interest, is now well established. The expansion of the EU has been perhaps slower than that of NATO, and perhaps more controversial, but it is nevertheless just as crucial.

I do not believe for a moment that those countries will enter a Europe that is significantly deeper because those national identities that I talked about have been removed, but I believe that, since we have had the treaties of Rome, Maastricht, Amsterdam, and now Athens, the EU is significantly different. To pick up a point that the right hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) made when he said that there had been 34 referendums on constitutional issues since 1997, it is interesting to note that there were also a handful of referendums on constitutional issues in this country, as I recall, between 1974 and 1979. I do not remember a single referendum on a comparable issue taking place between 1979 and 1997. Of course we will be heading for one, sooner rather than later, I hope, on the more constitutional aspects of membership of the euro itself.

What has been very significant—my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) mentioned this from his experience—is the enthusiasm for membership of the EU found in the applicant countries. The Czech Republic, Hungary, Lithuania, Slovenia, Slovakia and Malta have already said yes. Poland goes to the polls in a referendum in early June, and I want to concentrate some of my remarks on the situation in Poland, which despite, or perhaps because of, its geographical situation, is perhaps one of the more western-looking countries of eastern Europe. With 42 million people, its accession will represent the most significant increase to the numerical size of the EU, and it already has 10 years of successful economic reform and growth behind it.

I first visited Poland in 1988, when it was a completely different country from how it is now. I met a certain trade union leader—Lech Walesa—in a clandestine meeting in a church crypt, and it was a fascinating first-hand experience to see the situation that Solidarity and the Polish people were in at the time. It was interesting to see a command economy in operation—if operation is the right word—eating through the black market, and how Poland had probably suffered over the years because of the loss of talented people who left the country.

I do not claim that Poland has it all easy now. I think that there is an economic and political necessity for it to join the EU. It foresees difficulties in the first few years. Indeed, Poland expects to be a net contributor to the EU budget for two or three years, but its long-term future in the EU is certainly bright, which is more than could be said if it were to stay out at this stage. However, Poland has 17 per cent. unemployment and 60 per cent. of its farmers are subsistence farmers in a countryside that has barely changed in the past 50 years. It is worth

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mentioning subsistence farmers, because of course by not selling into the market they are not involved in subsidies.

Polish Governments have had a relatively short life expectancy, which has made long-term planning difficult, and its transport infrastructure is weak. Perhaps many of Poland's economic problems are caused by the natural and very close linkage that it has had with Germany. We should not take what has happened in Germany in the past few years because of its decision to go in for unification, which was taken for political and economic reasons, as being typical of what is happening in the eurozone. Other hon. Members have mentioned the cost of that unification, and it has distorted the German economy, but that is not typical of the eurozone as a whole.

Mr. Hendrick: Does my hon. Friend agree that the effects of the experience of German monetary union, whereby there was an exchange rate of 1 Ostmark to 1 Deutschmark, paved the way for the Maastricht treaty, which has led to a successful single European currency that now embraces 12 member states and is functioning perfectly well?

Mr. Levitt: That is exactly one of the lessons that I drew on when I took my decision to vote yes—again, in the words of another contributor—whatever the Chancellor says, in the future referendum on the euro when we have the opportunity to do so.

The enthusiasm for the EU that is shown in Poland, as well as the other applicant countries, is to be found particularly among the young, the educated, the middle class and the urban dwellers of that country. Despite the possible short-term pain, they recognise the advantages to Poland in accessing a larger market and in gaining economic stability, making it more attractive to inward investment. Younger people especially also see opportunities for the free movement of labour and greater opportunities to study abroad. The recent decision to normalise arrangements for Polish au pairs to come to this country does not sound significant to us, but it was certainly a very popular decision in Poland.

We should remember that, when we come to the date for the European referendum in Poland, in theory, about 70,000 Polish people in this country could be entitled to vote in that election. The chances are that very few of them will take up that opportunity, partly because they are perhaps transient, and partly because there are only two centres in the United Kingdom—London and Edinburgh—where they will have the opportunity to vote.

As well as having that very close link with this country—it is worth pointing out that English is now the second language in most Polish schools—there is a strong pro-American feeling in Poland. I do not know the exact figure, but I would not be surprised if perhaps 1 million Poles lived in the United States, particularly in areas such as Chicago. Polish people understand that being in a European alliance and a transatlantic alliance are not alternatives but complement each other, and that describes part of their good feelings towards the west generally.

My hon. Friend the Member for Caerphilly (Mr. David)—who hopes to catch your eye later, Mr. Deputy Speaker—and I were in Poland recently, visiting schools

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there. A competition had been run in Poland to find out which schools knew most about the EU, and four of the winners won a visit from a Labour MP. It was pointed out that the losers won two visits from Labour MPs. Our visits were certainly very fascinating, and the two towns that I visited were both in rural areas some way from Warsaw. The further we got from Warsaw, the more obvious the rural poverty became. I visited a well established technical school for 15 to 20-year-olds in the town of Plock, and although it had been in existence for 85 years, I was their first foreign visitor of any sort. We were able, however, to have a debate with students at that college in English on the subject of joining the European Union. The enthusiasm there was tremendous. Why should we take that message to young people in Poland who are not old enough to vote? The reason is that they have family, friends and neighbours and a future, and it is young people who will campaign strongly for Poland's accession come referendum day.

One of the issues that most amused people to whom I talked in Poland was the prospect of their country, a new member of the European Union, joining the euro before Britain, which a few years ago we would have thought impossible. I must admit that I am worried that we may come to a situation in which 24 countries in the European Union have joined the euro before Britain, which will put us at a major disadvantage.

The problem that the Poles face with the referendum is the 50 per cent. threshold that has been set. Until now, there has been a real question as to whether turnout will reach 50 per cent. It is important—not constitutionally vital but politically essential—that turnout reaches that level, and opinion polls suggest that it might still be on the edge of that. I hope that there will be a big push over the next couple of weeks to ensure that the clear majority of 70 per cent. or more in Poland in support of European Union membership is translated into an effective turnout and result. It is worth pointing out that President Chirac's words about Poland in particular and the eastern European countries generally in recent weeks have, if anything, hardened the Poles' attitude and made them more determined to fight to get into the EU and ensure that their voice is heard.

Like others, I confess to a Damascene conversion—I voted the wrong way in 1975. I have repented, and the Europe that I voted against in 1975 is not the Europe that is alive today. Today, we have a Europe that is about open borders, open minds, celebrating differences, celebrating diversity, respecting national identities and traditions and working together where we need to do so: a Europe with common values, a common market, and, I hope, in the future, a common currency. Europe has been constantly reinventing itself for the past 2,000 years, and is in the process of doing so again. This Bill helps to make that vision of a common Europe—a people's Europe—a reality, and I welcome it.

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