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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD) rose
Keith Vaz: I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman is eligible to represent the United Kingdom or Estonia, on account of his heritage.
The hon. Gentleman must recognise that he has provoked me to defend Estonia, which had no gripe against the United Kingdom in the Eurovision song contest. Does he accept that the education that he describes offers an important opportunity to celebrate
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the diversity that already exists in the UK? He knows that one of his most loyal constituents, my mother, is Estonian but has always sought to be a good citizen in Britain. That is a great way to teach people about the similarities, rather than creating fear.
Keith Vaz: I am delighted to agree with the hon. Gentleman and yet again pay tribute to his mother, who lives in Evington, in my constituency. I hope she voted the right way in the recent general election.
As the new Minister for Europe will know when he goes to the summit meetings, Europe is changing. There are no longer just two countries dominating the way in which Europe operates, either in music or in politics. Every other country feels equally involved.
On 25 February 2002 the Prime Minister and Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, wrote a joint letter to José María Aznar, the Prime Minister of Spain, which then held the EU presidency. They outlined a thorough reform agenda for the future of the EU, with essential changes that would make Europe more efficient. The letter included reform proposals for the European Council to improve EU decision makingfor example, keeping the agenda focused, avoiding overloaded schedules, setting fixed deadlines and preparing for each European Council more carefully. Furthermore, it suggested improving transparency, strengthening the Council secretariat, shortening meeting times and avoiding every debate going literally round the table. Can the Minister tell me how many of the boxes in that detailed proposal have been ticked, and what the Government intend to do specifically to drive the EU reform agenda forward?
Over the past five years more than 6 million jobs have been created in the EU. The telecommunications market has been opened up for competition, and the gas and electricity markets have been liberalised, which has brought a bigger and much broader choice to consumers. A deregulated air market has brought cheaper air tickets and British consumers can now enjoy flights across Europe for less than it will cost them to get a train, bus or taxi to the airport. There are endless examples of positive reasons for Britain to stay in Europe and to take an even stronger lead.
To build on this success we must continue to support the Lisbon agenda. The EU's economic reform agenda to create in Europe
is rightly our goal. As the House knows, my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston (Mr. Cook) and I were both at Lisbon. The agenda is therefore close to our hearts.
The Chancellor of the Exchequer has, with his skilled craftsmanship of the economy, put Britain at the top of the league table in Europe as one of the best performing economies in the Union. But the Kok report showed how slowly the EU was performing, according to the Lisbon goals. I seek tonight a strong commitment from the Minister for Europe that the recommendations of the Kok report will be implemented in full during our presidency and that economic reform will be at the top of our agenda. That is certainly what the Chancellor implied in his vintage performance earlier this afternoon.
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Last weekend the Foreign Ministers of all the member states met in Brussels to debate the EU budget. It has been suggested that the EU budget should increase by a massive 35 per cent. and that Britain should terminate its rebate. The Foreign Secretary has said:
"The rebate is justified because it is sensible and fairbut the central issue is not the rebate but the overall level of spending."
The Chancellor has been equally clear. Will the Minister also make it clear tonight that we shall not give in on the rebate? Britain does not get much out of either the cohesion funds or the common agricultural policy, and we must protect our national interest by keeping the rebate.
It would be odd to have a debate of this sort without mentioning the constitutional treaty of the EU. The treaty was signed on 29 October 2004 and the referendum Bill was presented to Parliament only yesterday by the Foreign Secretary. The treaty reinforces Britain's place at the centre of Europe and is the first ever single document to set out exactly what the EU can and cannot do.
The constitution will make substantial changes to the structure of Europe. It is a comprehensive piece of legislation and it will make Europe less complicated, more transparent, more democratic, more efficient and more legitimate in order to deal with an EU of 25. It was in fact only an extension of the Maastricht treaty signed by the Conservatives in 1992.
We are waiting in anticipation to see whether the French and the Dutch will vote yes on Sunday 29 May and Wednesday 1 June respectively. There is an urgent need for a positive campaign on the subject involving the whole spectrum of British society. To date, Spain, Greece, Italy, Lithuania, Hungary, Slovakia and Slovenia have ratified the treaty. After France and the Netherlands, Luxembourg will vote on 10 July, and Denmark on the 27 September. Ireland, Poland, Portugal, UK and the Czech Republic will all hold referendums, and Germany, Austria, Cyprus, Belgium, Estonia, Malta and Sweden will not hold referendums, but there will be a vote in Parliament. In the event that the French or the Dutch should reject the constitutional treaty, it is important that we know what the Government's position is. If either of those countries, both founding members of the EU, says no, we should abandon the referendum. As the Prime Minister said in the House this lunchtime, if there is a no vote, the matter will go back to the Council of Ministers, which will consider the position. A quick announcement from the Government will mean that there will be no period of uncertainty or hesitation. Clarity on this issue is vital.
Since 1997, the Government have worked tirelessly to put Britain back at the heart of Europe. Before that we were marginalised. During this time extraordinary successes have been reached. One of the most significant has been the enlargement of the EU just over one year ago when 10 new member states joined the Union. This success will continue with Romania and Bulgaria joining in 2007, and accession negotiations beginning with Turkey during the UK presidency in the second half of 2005. Negotiations with Croatia are on hold, and I shall be glad to hear from the Minister how they are progressing. When countries show willingness to reform and bring their economic and human rights standards in line with the rest of the EU, there should be no barriers to their joining.
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Enlargement has been a great success. Britain has been a champion of enlargement, led by the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and my right hon. Friend the Member for Livingston. I can remember, as the House will remember, just before enlargement those on the Conservative Benches telling us that there would be a crisis with the arrival of so many eastern Europeans, but that did not happen. There was no collapse of the benefit system, and 69,000 Polish people have come to the UK and they all contribute to our economy and to that of Europe.
As the House knows, the second half of 2005 will be the most important time for Britain as we hold the presidencies of the EU and the G8. I congratulate the Foreign Office on its very gracious and effective presidency logo made up of flying swans in a V-shape, and I trust that the Foreign Office is content with the presidency programme and, unlike the swan, is not just serene on the top while paddling desperately below. I am sure that it will not be, as I know that much of the work was prepared by my hon. Friend the Member for Rotherham (Mr. MacShane) when he was Minister for Europe, and I know that he will have ensured that everything was in place for the new Minister.
There is one point that I want to stress, and on which I will end, and that concerns diversity. I urge the Govt to boost the diversity agenda in Europe given that Britain is in the fortunate position of being able to lead by example on this issue. Ethnic diversity and cultural integration have come much further in the UK than in many other member states, and Britain should lead this important debate.
During my visit to the Netherlands last year, which was organised superbly by our Ambassador Sir Colin Budd and his staff at the British Embassy, I met a number of people who were concerned about how the agenda has developed in the Netherlands. We need to ensure that we adopt a position of leadership on this issue. I want the Government to give a commitment to ensuring that during our presidency, we will have events and activities to promote diversity.
Those are just some of the themes that make up the complex, irresistibly controversial blend that is Europe. The next six months give Britain the opportunity to set the agenda for Europe not only for the rest of the year, but for years ahead. With this Prime Minster, Foreign Secretary and Minister for Europe, and in this our presidency year, we really do have the chance to provide leadership not just for Europe, but through Europe, for the rest of the world. I wish the Minister for Europe well in the forthcoming six months.
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