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On 1 May next year, eight of Europe's new democracies, along with Cyprus and Malta, will join the EU. Later, Romania and Bulgaria will follow, and the European Council should confirm the target of next year for the two countries to close negotiations, allowing them to join the EU in 2007. The Council will also discuss Turkey's progress towards meeting the criteria for opening EU membership negotiations. As the House knows, the Government strongly support Turkey's prompt accession to the EU once it meets those criteria.
The word "historic" is often overused, but I make no apologies for using it in the context of EU enlargement. Only 14 years ago, the iron curtain divided Europe, with central and eastern European countries trapped under communist dictatorship and sinking into economic and environmental neglect. Joining the EU will mark the culmination of those countries' transition to free and democratic societies and prosperous market economies. It is a tribute to their efforts and energy that they have made that transition so quickly.
Enlargement is overwhelmingly in Britain's interest, which is why successive British Governments have been its strongest supporters. Through enlargement, Britain will gain access to an expanded single market of 450 million people. New partners will help us better face the shared challenges of an uncertain and interdependent world. However, the problem is that the European Union of today has institutions essentially designed for six members, and it needs reform if it is to work effectively with 25. No reform is preferable to a bad reform, and, as I made clear in our White Paper on the constitutional treaty, the EU will carry on under its current arrangements if a new treaty cannot be agreed or ratified by every member state. However, if we can get the IGC right, the prize is a more efficient and effective
Joyce Quin (Gateshead, East and Washington, West) (Lab): I greatly welcome what my right hon. Friend is saying. Will he join me in expressing pleasure in the fact that the accession countries have been involved in discussions on the constitution, so they already have a sense of ownership in respect of areas where there is strong agreement? Does he also agree that all the talk about a superstate is complete nonsense, because the last thing that the new accession countries want is to be subordinate to a superpower, based in Brussels or anywhere else?
Mr. Straw: I strongly agree with my right hon. Friend on her last point, and I shall return to that theme later in my speech. On the first point, it is extremely goodand thanks, not least, to our Prime Minister at Laekenthat the new states have been able fully to participate in the IGC. Their view, particularly their strategic view of foreign policybased on a Europe of independent sovereign nation states is similar to that of the UK, so I have been able to develop natural alliances with almost all of them.
The Government were clear about what we wanted from the IGC negotiations, but we had a choice in how to get it. We could have accepted everything that the most committed integrationists wantthe view of the Liberal Democrat representative on the IGCor we could have tried to rubbish the whole thing, which, generally speaking, was the approach of the Conservatives. However, we rejected both approaches, making it clear exactly what we wanted and working
There is a myth put about by those who would take Britain out of Europe that paints the EU as a threat to British sovereignty. It is a profoundly defeatist view of what Britain can achieve, and it assumes that co-operation with our neighbours comes at the price of diluting our national character.
This is a moment to remind ourselves of what has been said in the past about various changes to the treaty base of our relationship with the EU. I understand fully why the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram), the deputy leader of the Opposition and shadow Foreign Secretary, cannot be present. I am sorry that he cannot be here because it is worth recalling that, back in 1992, speaking from the Back Benches on the Government side, he shot down those who claimed that Maastricht would lead to a superstate. Indeed, he argued eloquently and persuaded most of the then Opposition, including myself, that we should vote against a referendum on Maastricht. On any analysis whatever, Maastricht represented a much more profound change in the nature of the relationshipsetting out the single currency and common foreign and defence policythan anything in the current treaty.
There were some peopleI shall not mention their names, but they can identify themselvesat that time who ranted about the fact that the Maastricht treaty would lead to the creation of a superstate. If we wind forward to the modest set of changes in the Amsterdam treaty, the position of Conservative Front Benchers had changed. Only 27 days after their crushing defeat in the 1997 general election, the right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood)who had survived, I am happy to saygave a balanced judgment on the Amsterdam treaty in The Times, when he wrote: