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House of Commons

Tuesday 27 January 2004

The House met at half-past Eleven o'clock


[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]

Oral Answers to Questions


The Secretary of State was asked—

European Constitution

1. Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): What discussions he has had with the Slovak Government about prospects for a referendum in Slovakia on a European constitution; and if he will make a statement. [150687]

10. Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport) (Con): What discussions he has had with the Slovene Government about prospects for a referendum in Slovenia on a proposed European constitution; and if he will make a statement. [150696]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): I spoke to the Foreign Ministers of Slovakia and Slovenia yesterday. They confirmed to me that neither country is planning referendums on a European Union constitution.

Mr. Rosindell: I thank the Foreign Secretary for his reply, but does he agree that although an overwhelming majority of people in Slovakia voted to join the European Union, that does not automatically mean that they are willing to accept the imposition of a European constitution? If other countries in Europe, such as the Czech Republic, Spain, Denmark, Luxembourg and Portugal, are willing to have a referendum, does he not believe that all EU countries should give their people the right to make the decision?

Mr. Straw: I am sorry that I gave the hon. Gentleman a disappointing answer, but a fundamental rule of cross-examination is that before one asks a question, it is a good idea to anticipate the answer. I offer that as friendly advice.

The position of Slovakia and Slovenia is consistent with that of the United Kingdom. A Labour Government gave the country a referendum on whether we should stay in or leave the EU, but, like Slovakia and Slovenia and the majority of other EU member states, we do not judge that any likely content of the

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constitutional treaty will affect the fundamental relationship between our country and the European Union.

Mr. Viggers: The constitutional treaty completely changes the position. Does the Foreign Secretary agree that the serpent of the European constitution is not dead but merely sleeping? Does he genuinely believe that his explanation is sufficient reason to deny public opinion, which is clearly in favour of a referendum?

Mr. Straw: The hon. Gentleman asked me about Slovenia and obviously thought of it as a paradigm for the United Kingdom. Slovenia had a referendum on whether to join the EU, as we did in 1975.

Ann Winterton (Congleton) (Con): How did you vote?

Mr. Straw: I voted no.

Mr. Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady should not shout across the Floor.

Ann Winterton: I apologise, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Straw: Slovenia, like us, has judged that there are no grounds for a referendum, given what we believe will be in the draft constitutional treaty.

Keith Vaz (Leicester, East) (Lab): Does the Foreign Secretary agree that, rather than being obsessed with the European constitution, as Conservative Members are, the Government and people of Slovenia and Slovakia look forward to EU enlargement on 1 May and the continued agenda for reform? How many points for reform that were mentioned in the letter sent by the Prime Minister and Chancellor Schröder on 25 February 2002 has the European Commission ticked off?

Mr. Straw: I thank my hon. Friend for that question; I shall write to him. I have a lot of information and statistics in my head, but I do not have an immediate answer to that specific question.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): Disgraceful!

Mr. Straw: I accept the disapproval of the House. However, my hon. Friend is right to say that as well as discussing the important draft constitutional treaty, we need to ensure that the EU delivers on its core functions of greater prosperity, better growth, better investment and, where it can be agreed, a more effective common foreign policy.

EU Presidency

2. Mr. Mark Hendrick (Preston): What discussions his Department has had with the Irish Government about their plans for the EU presidency. [150688]

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Denis MacShane): My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discussed Ireland's presidency plans with the Irish Prime Minister and Foreign Minister during his trip to Dublin on 16

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December. He also spoke by telephone to the Irish Foreign Minister on 20 January. He and I met the Irish Foreign Minister and the Minister with responsibility for Europe yesterday in Brussels. Our officials are involved in frequent dialogue with their Irish counterparts.

Mr. Hendrick : What will the Irish presidency do to pursue the Lisbon agenda to turn Europe into the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-driven economy by 2010? Does my hon. Friend agree that there has been little progress on that since the Lisbon summit?

Mr. MacShane: Ireland is an exemplar nation for the rest of Europe in economic growth, job creation and social partnership. It is committed to making economic growth a key issue for its presidency. That was discussed here yesterday at the productivity summit, which my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer chaired. The Government attach the highest importance to it.

Mr. Richard Spring (West Suffolk) (Con): Does the Minister agree with the Irish Prime Minister—in contrast with what the Prime Minister has indicated—that any understandings on so-called red lines reached in December are now irrelevant?

Mr. MacShane: The Taoiseach gave a very interesting interview to Le Monde on 31 December, in which he underlined Ireland's determination to maintain unanimity in regard to, for instance, tax, which is an important British consideration. I think that, in general, Ireland will be found to be very much in line with the thinking of Britain and other European member states that unanimity in a number of key areas is an essential part of progress on the European constitutional treaty issue.

Donald Anderson (Swansea, East) (Lab): Does my hon. Friend agree that no country is better fitted to take forward the constitution than Ireland, not least because the Taoiseach himself is extremely skilled in negotiation owing to his ministerial experience? Is there not some urgency, in that the longer the debates on the constitution last, the more difficult it will be to maintain the major advances that our Government made in December?

Mr. MacShane: I wish the Taoiseach well in his consultations with the 24 other European Union states to establish whether we can make progress. I agree with my right hon. Friend that the Taoiseach's European and national experience as an extremely skilled negotiator makes him perhaps the best of our Heads of Government to assume the presidency at this crucial time of discussions on the future of Europe.

John Barrett (Edinburgh, West) (LD): One of the major failings of the European Union is the ineffectiveness of its overseas development aid. Does the Minister agree that all possible encouragement should be given to the Irish Government to deal with this important issue during their presidency?

Mr. MacShane: The hon. Gentleman is quite right. That was one of the themes discussed yesterday at the

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European General Affairs and External Relations Council, when the Government were represented by the Under-Secretary of State for International Development, my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, West (Mr. Thomas). I think we have worked not just with the Irish Government but with a range of Irish non-Governmental and other organisations, including those connected with churches, to make development and a more sensible European approach to it a core issue for the presidency.

Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab) rose—

Mr. Speaker: Mr. Mackinlay.

Andrew Mackinlay : I just wanted the windows opened, Mr. Speaker.


3. Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): If he will make a statement on relations with Iran. [150689]

11. David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire) (Lab): What assessment he has made of the progress of political reform in Iran; and if he will make a statement. [150697]

The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Jack Straw): Our policy towards Iran is one of constructive engagement. Through it, we seek to support reform in Iran while maintaining a robust dialogue on matters of concern, including human rights and religious freedom.

Following my visit to Teheran in late October with my French and German counterparts, and the agreement that we secured on nuclear matters, Iran signed the additional protocol to the non-proliferation treaty on 19 December. A report from the International Atomic Energy Agency's director general will be considered by its board of governors in mid-March.

Sir Teddy Taylor : I thank the Foreign Secretary for that excellent reply. Does he agree that as Iran has a strong basic democracy and had the courage to oppose Saddam Hussein at a time when Britain and America were allied to him, that great country has a unique role to play in resolving the problems of the middle east, and should have the full support and understanding of Her Majesty's Government?

Mr. Straw: I have great affection for Iran. It is of huge strategic importance. I have visited Teheran five times, and I met President Khatami and Foreign Minister Kharrazi on Wednesday in Davos. I maintain a constant dialogue with them. There are, however, important issues on which we look to Iran to make progress. One, self-evidently, is the issue of its nuclear programmes: I look forward to full compliance with IAEA requirements. Another is the establishment of a full democracy. Yesterday, the European Union Foreign Ministers Council issued a call for free and fair elections, without restrictions on candidates, in next month's elections for the Majlis, the Iranian Parliament.

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David Taylor: This week sees the second anniversary of President Bush's "axis of evil" address, in which he justified Iran's inclusion on the basis of the unelected few who were repressing the Iranian people's hopes for freedom. Against the bleak backdrop of that speech, does the Foreign Secretary agree that we should redouble diplomatic efforts to secure free and fair elections next month, to win the battle for democracy and thus to avoid the catastrophe that might otherwise await Iran in the light of the policies of the hair-trigger and bellicose American Administration?

Mr. Straw: It has hardly been a secret that our approach to relationships with Iran has been different from that of the United States. My predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook), re-established full diplomatic relations; and I am pleased to say that as a result of various international pressures, including the co-ordination of work done by my French and German counterparts and myself early in the summer, we have been able to secure agreement from Iran in respect of areas in which it was plainly not complying with its own obligations under the non-proliferation treaty.

As I said to the hon. Member for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir Teddy Taylor), we look to Iran to co-operate fully with the IAEA and the resolution passed by its board of governors on 26 November.

Hugh Robertson (Faversham and Mid-Kent) (Con): How close is the relationship between hardliners in Iran and the militant Shi'a in the south of Iraq? Does the Foreign Secretary agree that any tie-up between the two would pose a grave threat to western interests in the area?

Mr. Straw: Iran is a complex country, and there are many strands of opinion. It is, to an interesting extent, democratic, but a high degree of power continues to be exercised by an unelected religious authority, and there is a constant tension between the two elements. That said, our analysis so far suggests that the Iranian Government as a whole have played a constructive role in respect of Iraq, as they have in respect of Afghanistan; but obviously, we continue to monitor the situation.

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green) (Lab): How concerned is my right hon. Friend about the recent reported comment of the Palestinian Prime Minister that elements in the Iranian regime seek to undermine his leadership, and are directly responsible for the sponsoring of terrorism in Israel? What impact will that have on our relations with Iran?

Mr. Straw: I have not read those remarks, but a constant item for discussion with the Iranians is our concern about their support for rejectionist terrorist groups working in Israel and the occupied territories, and causing mayhem and death on a significant scale. Another is our profound concern that the Iranians' so-called policy on Israel's right to exist—or, in this case, not to exist—runs counter to United Nations resolutions, and to any prospect of a serious peace process getting on the move there. That is an important issue. We believe that Iran needs to resolve it, and cease to support the terrorists.

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