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Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) (Con): Does the Foreign Secretary accept that one of our anxieties about the common security and foreign policy concerns the Government's refusal to answer questions about things that are being done in our name by the EU high representative, particularly the meetings that he has apparently had either with representatives of Hamas or with other individuals representing Hamas? To be told that information on those contacts is not held by the British Government when we hear regularly that such contact is taking place is simply not acceptable. The Government cannot pursue a foreign policy by proxy but refuse to answer questions on it.

Mr. Straw: That is a nonsensical point.

The Minister for Europe (Mr. Denis MacShane): It is a red herring.

Mr. Straw: Indeed. It is complete nonsense to suggest that the touchstone for Europe and whether we support or reject a European foreign and security policy is having access at all times to the diary of the high representative. What makes the hon. Gentleman's point even more synthetic is the nature of the official policy of Her Majesty's loyal Opposition this time last year. Notwithstanding an EU-wide ban on anybody talking to Hamas, we were asked by the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan), their official spokesman on foreign policy at the time, to do so. Not once has that been repudiated by their Front Bench spokesmen.

There are many examples of the way in which we work better together on the agenda of the European Council. For example, the Council will discuss progress on the EU action plan on terrorism agreed last March, and it is expected to agree a new EU drugs strategy for the next seven years. Drugs and terrorism are self-evidently threats that cross national borders. We cannot just wait until they arrive at Dover—we have to tackle them by working together with our neighbours. Then there is the issue of economic reform. We have a clear interest in promoting stronger growth and greater flexibility in Europe, our most important market. British companies have benefited greatly from European liberalisation, and will gain further from reform in future. We are winning the arguments. The new President of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, and his team have already set out a strong commitment to promoting economic reform, including making better regulation a top priority. The Commission has just announced that it is withdrawing
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100 pieces of pending legislation, and the EU has agreed the UK's proposal for "competitiveness-testing" of new regulations.

The "six presidencies" initiative on better regulation announced by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer at the ECOFIN meeting on 7 December gives us a clear strategy for making further progress. We will continue to work closely with British industry and the new Commission team on this agenda in the coming months.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Straw: I will give way first to my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), then the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson).

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): And then me.

Ms Gisela Stuart (Birmingham, Edgbaston) (Lab): As the Foreign Secretary is talking about removing regulations, would he consider the notion that any proposal from the Commission should have a time limit on it? Unless agreement is reached within a set time it should be withdrawn, because other legislatures operate within limits set by, for example, the Queen's Speech or a general election. That would help to prevent proposals from dragging on endlessly.

Mr. Straw: I shall certainly look at my hon. Friend's suggestion, as it is a constructive idea. [Interruption.] I would do the same for any hon. Member. However, while her proposal has many advantages it also has some disadvantages. We may wish a certain regulation, such as one on further liberalisation, to complete its passage, but it could effectively be vetoed and qualified majority voting overridden by simple delay. We must therefore work out a balance.

Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): In addition to the agenda items that the Foreign Secretary has discussed, does he agree that further enlargement of the EU is important? Is he aware that within the past hour the European Parliament voted by 407 votes to 262 in favour of Turkish accession which, I am sure, he welcomes? Does he agree that it is important for the Turkish Government to continue to address democratic standards, human rights safeguards and the treatment of minorities, especially the Kurds?

Mr. Straw: I was not aware of that vote and I am grateful, as I am sure the House is, to the hon. Gentleman for giving us that information. I shall come to Turkey later, but I welcome that vote. I have not seen the text of the motion, but I hope that it is an unconditional vote in favour. We hope that Turkey's membership negotiations will be agreed on Friday.

Now, in the words of the late Ernest Bevin, I will give way to "'im".

Mr. Bercow: Under the terms of the acquis communautaire, we do not have independence in trade policy, which underlines the importance of working together effectively within the European Union. Given that rape as a weapon of war, compulsory relocation,
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forced labour, the use of child soldiers and human mine-sweepers and the bestial destruction of villages are part of the cocktail of barbarity visited on the people of Burma every day, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is now incumbent on the EU to step up its act on sanctions against Burma? It should not concentrate action against the pineapple juice sector in that country, but instead develop targeted sanctions on oil, gas, telecommunications, timber and gems to hasten the day when the people of Burma have the freedom that we have long enjoyed and that they have been too long denied.

Mr. Straw: I applaud the hon. Gentleman, both for his interest in Burma and for his very strong feelings, which are shared across the House. The sanctions on Burma that we secured a few months ago were not as strong as we would wish, but they are much stronger than anything that the UK could have achieved by working alone without a common position. Different EU countries have different perspectives, and a price must be paid for the position that the Conservatives, like us, have taken, as our work in the EU is based on unanimity. We can only proceed at the pace of the slowest. Every member nation attending meetings of Foreign Ministers has a veto, so it was hard work to reach our position. One member state in particular—not the UK—had strong vested commercial interests in Burma, but we will continue to work on the problem.

Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): The Foreign Secretary has discussed economic development. Is he aware of the enormous benefit experienced by the Estonian Government following the recent visit of its Prime Minister to the United Kingdom? Such exchanges are important in helping new countries such as Estonia to have a sensible voice and a strategic outlook on the very matters that he has discussed.

Mr. Straw: Indeed. I was delighted to entertain His Excellency the Prime Minister of Estonia when he came here. One of the subjects of conversation at lunch was the fact that we have a Member of Parliament of Estonian extraction who speaks good Queen's English and represents a Welsh constituency. It is refreshing to have the 10 new EU members in the room, because the further east they are the further west they tend to look. EU enlargement has long been an objective of successive British Governments, and rightly so.

Europe, and with it Britain, suffered in the last century from the two most destructive wars in human history and, until the mid-1970s, half of Europe's countries were dictatorships of one kind or another. But the fact that peace and democracy have now spread across the continent is, to a significant degree, thanks to the role that the European Union has played.

Since its foundation, the EU has helped to turn formerly bitter enemies into the closest of partners. It has brought divided communities closer together, as it did with Britain and Ireland when we joined in the 1970s. As Spain, Portugal and Greece threw off one-party rule and began to entrench democratic institutions during the 1970s, the prospect of EU membership acted as a powerful motor for change. In the 1990s, as the countries of eastern Europe, including the Baltic states, emerged from the shadow of communism, the EU again
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drove a similar process. The goal of EU membership gave those countries a powerful incentive for both political and economic reform, as they opened their economies to trade and implemented EU laws and standards in areas such as environmental protection.

The European Council this week will be asked to endorse the conclusion of EU membership negotiations with two more countries—Romania and Bulgaria—with a joint accession treaty to be signed early next year, putting them on track to join the EU in January 2007. EU leaders will also discuss whether to set a date for opening membership negotiations with Croatia—a goal that the UK supports, although we also want Croatia to improve its co-operation with the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

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