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Keith Vaz: I was in Poland last weekend, where there was tremendous praise for our Government's position in allowing the free movement of people and criticism of what the Germans have done, so those on the other side of the argument have nothing to fear from the decision that is being taken.

Dr. Whitehead: My hon. Friend makes an important point, because the truth of the matter is that, yes, people from central and eastern Europe have worked in the EU, sometimes with work permits and sometimes illegally. The force of the argument for accession is that a highly educated and skilled work force will be harnessed in the EU, legally, within EU rules and on the basis of those countries assisting in the process of ensuring that people comply with those rules and, as I have already illustrated, that the EU's common borders are properly organised, so that those rules are maintained. It seems to me that that is a benefit to the EU, and we should similarly give full acknowledgement and praise to Poland and other EU accession countries for working so hard as part of the accession process.

Taking all that into account, what a message this country would send, as a good friend of Poland and other EU accession countries— as my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) pointed out, we are regarded highly by those countries as such—if by code or directly we sought to subvert the changes in the EU that are necessary to make that accession work. Whatever arguments may be expressed in this Chamber, I fear that at the root of a number of those arguments about the Convention on the Future of Europe is a thought that if Europe does not work well, and if accession therefore does not work, and if Europe is seen to be creaking, that is one further step along the road to the imagined nirvana of disentangling Britain from Europe and taking Britain out. Not all those who express concerns about the Convention believe that, but I am afraid that some do. Far too many, I am afraid, are suggesting that that is a covert way forward to nullify, effectively, what we should be celebrating today. If that message is sent to our friends in central and eastern Europe, it will be to the detriment of this country, to the detriment of the future of the EU, and to the detriment of the accession that I hope that all in this Chamber will strongly support.

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6.16 pm

Mr. Andrew Tyrie (Chichester): First, I want to say a few words about the state of the EU at the moment. Secondly, I want to ask why the accession countries are so keen to join. Thirdly, I want to ask why so many existing EU members desperately tried to prevent them from joining. Fourthly, I want to conclude by discussing why we in the House should be supportive.

The EU is in a dreadful mess. I do not know anyone who has had professional contact with the EU who comes away from it more enamoured of the institution than when they started. That is not surprising: every aspect of the EU is in desperate need of reform. The EU budget is hugely wasteful—much of it should be wound up and is based on spending plans that were designed for another era. Much EU regulation is ineffective or worse, although some of it is valuable, and it is important not to discard all of it. The acquis communautaire now needs fundamental review, which the Convention has failed to achieve. The level of trade protection, too, is unacceptably high, although, of course, the Americans have a mote in their own eye on that. The decision-making structures are leaving electorates further and further away from an important centre of power.

The EU is in drastic need of reform. A large proportion of hon. Members agree broadly on the agenda to deal with it. We want a looser EU with the supranational element stripped out. We want the application of subsidiarity, or whatever one wants to call it. We want much greater scrutiny of EU activity by national Parliaments. Few in this country believe that we could rely on the countries of continental Europe for our security and defence—those must remain fundamentally a function of the Atlantic alliance.

As for my second question, if the EU is in such a mess, why on earth are all these countries queuing up to join? The answer is that for them, membership of the EU is a means of expressing their sovereign independence. It is the clearest demonstration of their new-found freedom as countries. It is the exact opposite of the motivations that led 50 years ago to the creation of the EU by the founding fathers, who wanted to put together France and Germany and, above all, put Germany into a supranational environment in which it could no longer destabilise the whole continent of Europe. That is why enlargement creates a fundamental contradiction if the goals and objectives of eastern Europe are compared with those of several of the founding members of the EU. That problem remains unresolved and must be played out in the years ahead.

I got to know the countries of eastern Europe well during the five years in which I worked there. They are driven by fierce national pride. The Czechs, Hungarians and Poles have a strong sense of identity and will have no truck with the superstate rhetoric that occasionally seeps out from the Benelux countries and especially Rome. Of course, there are other motives behind the countries' decision to join but it would be wrong to suppose that their motivation is entirely, or even largely, economic. They are not merely engaged in some intergovernmental business deal. If anything, their economic motives for joining are negative rather than positive. They are fearful of being excluded from a rich western club on their doorstep rather than wildly optimistic about the economic opportunities afforded by membership.

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My third question is, why did the French, especially, and several of the other original six members fight so vigorously to prevent enlargement? The short answer is that it would heavily dilute France's main national interest in creating the European Economic Community—as it then was—in the beginning. The French have always thought of the EU as an opportunity to exercise disproportionate influence by acting as a guiding force on the Franco-German alliance. The Gaullist tradition is still strong in French foreign policy making. De Gaulle said of the then EEC:

He would certainly have opposed enlargement today.

However, French foreign policy is in great difficulty. As enlargement dilutes the decision-making structure, France will find that the reins will be snatched from its grasp. The supranational alternative that several Benelux countries and especially the Italians are offering in the intergovernmental conference is equally unpalatable to France. As the Foreign Secretary said, the French will never be prepared to share their privileged representation at the United Nations Security Council and other institutions with EU institutions as a whole. I have little doubt that the French will be drawn back to a more intergovernmental approach and, indeed, that is already happening. Ironically, that approach will suit our interests more than the retention of the Franco-German alliance, which has been the basis of France's foreign policy in the EU for so long.

My last question is, why should we want the accession countries to join? Our first and overriding objective is the moral imperative to which the Foreign Secretary alluded at the start of his speech. We owe them membership. These countries were out in the cold for half a century after the second world war and paid a huge price. While we revived, they stayed in a desperate position as prisoners of state socialism. The moral imperative has not gone away and is felt more deeply in those countries than here.

These countries think that there will be mutual economic gains, as do we, which is a further incentive for us to encourage their accession. Enlargement will make it more difficult for the EU to develop into a superstate because most of the applicant countries are so strongly against that. A further important reason why the countries should join is because it will enhance the democratic stability of central Europe in the same way as has happened in the Iberian peninsula.

It is a great scandal that it has taken 15 years to accomplish enlargement. We are lucky that eastern European countries have made such a successful transition to democracy and have become largely market economies.

It might have been very different. We did far too little to help. The delay of 15 years has almost certainly carried a price. What effect might starting negotiations in the early 1990s with Slovenia have had on the development of the Balkan crisis? What effect would that have had on the Balkan countries if they had thought that if they could just get their act together they might get early entry into the EU? What effect has the delay of 15 years had on developments in Ukraine?

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Ukraine has scarcely started to make progress, or is only at a very early stage down the road, towards transition. Perhaps that is partly because Poland is not already a member of the EU. If Poland had been a member of the EU seven or eight years ago, Ukrainians would have been looking across the border. They would have been saying, "There is an opportunity for us, too." It would have become a major issue in Ukrainian politics. It is not at the moment.

There has been a great opportunity cost of not accelerating enlargement. Those who drag their feet on enlargement carry responsibility for some of the present problems in central and eastern Europe, and much more than they are prepared to admit. A narrow conception of the national interests among some of the original six certainly did a great deal of damage.

It will astonish historians that the EU, led mostly by the original six, carried on plodding away with the same Maastricht agenda and the drive towards monetary union after the liberation of eastern Europe's eastern half that it was devising before the collapse of the Berlin wall. That was myopia on a grand scale. It was a colossal abdication of leadership from which we are lucky to have escaped without paying a much greater price.

I strongly support the Bill. I am conscious that it should have come before the House much earlier. It probably should have come before the House before I became a Member in 1997. I shall vote for it tonight with great enthusiasm if I get the opportunity to do so.

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