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Mr. Redwood: My point was clear: that more and more Government powers were being taken out of democratic hands and given to unelected hands. That has happened and continues to happen, and it does mean the abolition of a democratic Britain. That is why we want the Foreign Secretary to stand up for the rights of the House of Commons, instead of transferring yet more power. The Department of Trade and Industry is discussing 37 major items of policy at present, every one of which emanates from directives and policies from Brussels. It is one of many Departments that are simply doing the will of Brussels, not responding to the democratic wishes of this House.

Mr. Straw: The fundamental flaw in the right hon. Gentleman's remarks is the assumption that everything that is decided by the European Union is against our interests. If that is his view, he should confirm that he wants Britain to withdraw from the EU and that he resiles from the policy of the Thatcher Government—not of this Government—which was to accept, through the Single European Act, qualified majority voting. The Thatcher Government also accepted the fundamental principle of the single market that decisions on the operation of that market had to be agreed by QMV, otherwise what was in the interests of British people, jobs and businesses could be subverted and undermined by other countries that would not observe the law in the same way as we would.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot) (Con): Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: In a moment. The truth is that for most of the time we get our way in the European Union.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst) (Con): What a ridiculous thing to say.

Mr. Straw: What that remark illustrates is the profound lack of confidence that the right hon. Gentleman had in the ability of any Government of whom he was a member to ensure that Britain's national interests were properly represented. This Government have much more confidence in Britain and in ourselves than that. We have shown that, by engaging constructively, rather than sulking on the sidelines, we can mould the debate in Europe. We recognise that we can increase our influence, and the security and prosperity of the British people, by working together with our partners.

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Let us take problems such as illegal immigration, drug smuggling or organised crime. We cannot just wait until they reach Dover: we need to act with our partners to tackle them before they get here. So we support measures that would cut out "asylum shopping", and we have already agreed that asylum seekers' claims have to be dealt with in the first EU country in which they claimed asylum. We have agreed common minimum penalties for the most serious cross-border crimes, including terrorism and human trafficking, to ensure that they cannot go unpunished. Our police forces can now run joint investigations into drug traffickers, for example, with colleagues across the channel.

Europe is not just about tackling shared problems: it is of huge importance to Britain's prosperity, too.

Angus Robertson: Will the Foreign Secretary give way?

Mr. Straw: No, I promised to give way to the hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth).

Mr. Gerald Howarth : The Foreign Secretary repeats the popular myth that Baroness Thatcher anticipated all the consequences before she agreed to qualified majority voting. It was precisely because she did not anticipate all the consequences that she became disillusioned. The whole purpose of the Single European Act was to achieve a common market in goods and services, which is what most people in this country thought that the common market was about. It was because the European Court, through the acquis communautaire, acquired an extension of power beyond those areas that Baroness Thatcher had foreseen—and received assurances on—that she became disillusioned with the European Union and the direction that it was taking.

Mr. Straw: I was present in the House when the Single European Act was debated. I remember that Baroness Thatcher, in alliance with Geoffrey Howe and Nigel Lawson, her Foreign Secretary and Chancellor, knew full well what was involved in that Act. Although I had, and continued to have, several disagreements with Baroness Thatcher, I would never have suggested that she was not in full possession of her faculties in respect of every decision she made. She knew about the consequences of the Single European Act, just as she knew full well, when she made her fine speech at Fontainebleau in April 1984, about the importance of Europe developing a common foreign policy and defence. The hon. Gentleman can rewrite history as much as he likes, but that is the truth. It was Baroness Thatcher who laid the foundations for a common European foreign and defence policy, which the Conservatives brought into British law through the Maastricht treaty.

Looking ahead, Europe has an ambitious agenda of economic reform to deliver jobs and growth, in which Britain is playing a leading role. One example of that process is the European action for growth initiative, which the European Council will discuss this week. Its aim is to boost competitiveness and growth by encouraging investment in transport infrastructure, telecommunications, research and development and innovation.

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Working with our European partners enhances Britain's security as well as our prosperity. Again, the agenda of the European Council is a good example. The Council will adopt High Representative Javier Solana's European security strategy, which should help us to tackle global security threats more coherently. The Council will also discuss strengthening the EU's relationship with the Arab world. Earlier this week, at the Foreign Ministers' meeting on Monday, we considered the middle east peace process, Iran and Iraq.

Acting together on foreign policy, when it is in our interests to do so, does not diminish Britain's sovereignty; it increases our influence. When I visited Iran in October with my counterparts from France and Germany, Dominique de Villepin and Joschka Fischer, I did so as the Foreign Minister of a sovereign nation state—as did they—working within a common EU position, and what the three of us achieved together, with the backing of the EU as a whole, was far more than ever we could have achieved alone.

It is also clearly in Britain's interests to work for stronger defence capabilities in Europe that complement NATO. The Atlantic alliance has been and continues to be the foundation of our security and we shall do nothing to undermine it, but it makes sense that Europe has the capacity to sort out problems on its own doorstep, such as peacekeeping in the Balkans, without always having to rely on the United States.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Straw: As I am just coming to the close of my remarks, I shall not.

Cutting across NATO would weaken our defences and we shall not let it happen, but better European capabilities, for which the US has long argued, will help to strengthen our defence. The new articles tabled by Britain, France and Germany make clear for the first time in the EU treaty that NATO is the basis for the collective defence of its allies. Those draft articles also ensure that so-called structured defence co-operation is handled inclusively within the EU, not exclusively.

By engaging constructively and arguing firmly for what we want, we are helping to shape the debate in the IGC, and in the EU as a whole, in Britain's direction. That is what we were able to achieve in the Convention, and it continues to be our approach in the IGC negotiations. We shall carry on talking and working until we get the right result in those negotiations—for Britain and for a more effective Europe, ready to meet the challenge of enlargement.

3.30 pm

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con): I begin by paying tribute to the sometimes dangerous, often unrecognised, but highly professional work undertaken by our diplomats and consular staff throughout the world. Events such as the recent bombing in Istanbul remind us how dedicated our overseas public servants are, and I pay particular tribute to Roger Short, an exemplary diplomat, with whom I was in Istanbul very recently.

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The Foreign Secretary is correct to say that we have had many opportunities to discuss EU matters and I thank him for making himself so freely available. However, it has been six months since we last debated what could broadly be described as "European affairs", and these bi-annual debates provide a useful opportunity to update ourselves—even more so in this debate in view of the importance of recent developments not only in the European Union but in the whole of Europe. Our relationship with all European nations—not only with our EU partners—is a key component of our country's foreign policy interests. We are inextricably bound together by ties of history and geography.

The Balkans are often considered a big potential flashpoint, the area of Europe where violence and conflict are most likely to break out, as has so often been the case in the past. Much has changed since the bloody conflicts in the Balkans in the 1990s, but their legacy remains with us, and even more with populations in parts of the Balkans and the peoples of the whole of that region.

It is right to remember and to pay tribute to the dedication and bravery of the British and other NATO troops who helped to end the inter-ethnic conflicts that killed so many people and displaced so many more. The peoples of former Yugoslavia demonstrated that they were anxious to have that assistance, and progress is being made in that area, although many people are still displaced, too fearful to return to their homes, and much remains to be done in respect of criminal prosecutions.

There is much that is positive and encouraging, however. The former Yugoslav states have made great strides. Such progress is certainly worthy of recognition and encourages me in the hope that one day they will join the EU, and that the prospect of membership will spur them on to further reforms.

A key player in the wings is Russia. The relationship that the UK and our European partners enjoy with Russia is of considerable and growing importance. It has recently assumed a greater role, not merely on the European stage but on the world stage. That development is positive and I hope that Russia will continue to play a part in promoting stability on its borders. In particular, I hope that Russia will exercise her influence as facilitator of a smooth transition to a new, popular, democratic regime in Georgia. I hope very much that President Putin will remain engaged with the EU, NATO and the accession countries in a constructive and positive framework and ensure that democratic values are fully upheld in his country.

The enlargement of the EU is a process that the Conservative party—and, indeed, every hon. Member, to my knowledge—supports and I personally have strongly supported it since its inception. The end of the cold war was the catalyst that brought about the accession process that made all that possible. Countries cut off from the rest of Europe for almost half a century emerged after the Berlin wall fell, and new opportunities and potential have opened to them.

The accession of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovenia, and Slovakia next May will be a moment to rejoice for us all and symbolic of Europe having finally removed the remnants of the cold-war legacy. Of course, we have

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special links with Malta and Cyprus, too. The accession countries have achieved much reform already in their quest for EU membership. The eastern European countries have transformed themselves into successful, functioning multi-party democracies, with an adherence to the rule of law and respect for human rights and personal freedoms.

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