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Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): Order. Obviously, a number of hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye. As time is running out, it would be extremely helpful if people did not necessarily take the full 15 minutes that they are allowed so that we can get in as many Members as we possibly can.

5.18 pm

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon) (LD): I shall speak only briefly about the EU and then about the wider Europe. This is, after all, a debate on European affairs and so far I think that only the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) has made much acknowledgement of the 22 countries that are not members of the EU.

In the wake of the constitution, it is certainly appropriate that we should have a rethink, even a reinvention, of the EU, but some Members appear to think that that is an opportunity to unravel the EU, to bring everything back home, with merely a loose treaty arrangement. If we were to do that, we should throw away the huge amount that has been achieved over the years, which we take for granted and would realise that we had lost only after it had gone. After all, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) pointed out, the fact that countries have queued up to join the European Union is proof of huge success. In spite of the difficulties over the working arrangements that that change has brought about, no one is suggesting that they should leave or that another arrangement should be adopted. I remember standing outside the Polish embassy and talking about the support for Solidarity and the case for Polish democracy. Some people have short memories, as they now complain about the fact that, almost by accident, the Poles belong to a free and democratic country, with the freedom to come and work here and with their own place in a democratic common market that we helped to create. We should not deplore that but welcome it. We should not throw that achievement out just because we find it difficult to work out the decision making.

The hon. Member for Luton, North (Kelvin Hopkins) spoke about all the things that we could do nationally. If, for example, we decided to tackle aid or structural funds on a national basis, that would only work with international agreement. In other words, every member would need to agree the framework for such work. That could be an acceptable way of delivering moneys instead of delivering them through the European Commission. We still need a mechanism, however, for making agreements and, if I may say so, we would probably find that qualified majority voting was the best way to achieve efficient decision making.

There is no doubt at all in my mind that Jacques Chirac has raised the issue of the budget to distract attention from his own miserable and comprehensive failure to lead the people of France anywhere useful. We
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should not make assumptions about the reasons why people voted the way they did. We must simply accept that they did so for various reasons. Surprisingly, one Frenchman in Paris told me this week that he had voted no because he thought that France was too dominant in Europe. He wanted a renegotiation of the constitution to give more power to the smaller countries. We should therefore not presume that we know why the French voted as they did, but we must live with the consequences of their vote. In the long term, the CAP must be reformed. A perfectly reasonable British position would be that we negotiated a rebate, so if it is to be renegotiated the whole budget, of which the CAP constitutes the lion's share, must be renegotiated. There is common agreement that that is a proper and legitimate argument, although there is disagreement about strategy and outcomes.

There are anxieties about structural funds. My local council has sent me a communication expressing its worries about the British position, and whether those funds would be brought back home. In some cases, local authorities have a more constructive and objective arrangement with the European Commission than with the British Government. That is not an argument for the arrangement—it is simply a practical reality. Aberdeenshire council operates a number of projects supported by European Union funds which it believes are at risk. Many of those projects tackle the consequences of agricultural and rural decline. A large rural council such as Aberdeenshire requires assistance with such problems, and it has benefited from European structural funds over the past four years to the tune of £8.691 million. The loss of that money would be extremely damaging to the regeneration of our fishing and rural communities. I am not suggesting that the British Government cannot achieve success, but any change is bound to create concern. My council has been able to secure funding for various projects across Aberdeenshire, and would like an assurance that if there is any change, it will have continued access to such funding.

On the issue of a wider Europe, I speak as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, of which the United Kingdom is a founder member. Indeed, we were the first country to ratify the European convention on human rights. In the current climate of uncertainty, the European Court of Human Rights and the convention offer a particularly important focus for upholding human rights issues across post-Communist Europe. It is not the only such forum, and I acknowledge that the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, NATO and the European Union in its external relations all have a role to play. There is no doubt that there is an active engagement which the Government should and do support.

It is therefore particularly regrettable that given our good record on human rights, we have experienced some pretty sharp criticism by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights on a number of pieces of legislation introduced by the Government, to which my own party has vigorously objected. In his report, Alvaro Gil-Robles substantially echoed the criticisms that I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues have been
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making—for example, of control orders and the Government's proposals on those. The Commissioner states:

Given that we have had a guarantee from the Government that the legislation will be revisited, I hope that the comments of the European Commissioner will be taken fully on board, and that the House will continue to have a proper role in oversight of that.

The Commissioner is even more outspoken on the role of evidence that may have been secured through torture, even in other countries. He puts it in pretty direct language:

The British Government response to that is inherently mealy-mouthed, unsatisfactory and unacceptable. As an architect of the European convention on human rights and as a country that tries to encourage others to apply high standards of human rights, we should take the report seriously. Criticism to which we do not respond constructively undervalues our ability to lead and influence other countries.

In my capacity as a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, I am the rapporteur on political prisoners in Azerbaijan. In one way or another, Azerbaijan has probably experienced 200 years of external oppression and has become an independent state only since the collapse of the Soviet Union, and only after a fairly violent war against the Russians and a subsequent civil war in Azerbaijan, which went remarkably unreported in the British media. The idea that we have had peace in Europe since the second world war is not borne out by many of those small wars that have had devastating consequences for people. There has, in addition, been the war between Azerbaijan and Armenia, leading to the occupation of Nagorno-Karabakh and a million displaced refugees, with whom Azerbaijan has had to deal. Yet we are trying to lead countries like Azerbaijan—Georgia has found its own way—Armenia and others to some kind of democratic future.

I have two further points to bring to the attention of the House. The first concerns the plight of British citizen Almas Guliyeva, who was arrested in Baku on 3 June. She is a constituent of the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis), who I know has made strenuous representations on her behalf and I am supporting him in that. Mrs. Guliyeva is the niece of a former speaker of the Azerbaijan Parliament currently living in exile in the United States who wishes to be a presidential candidate or a parliamentary candidate. There is no doubt that her arrest is directly connected to that relationship.

Mrs. Guliyeva is in hospital, having suffered a heart attack as a result of the inquisition that she underwent on her arrest. Today her doctors have authorised the authorities to question her—something her family are extremely concerned about. The background to the situation is that the authorities claim that they found a gun in her luggage as she was leaving the country. Is it
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realistic to believe that any international traveller today taking luggage through any international airport and putting it through an X-ray machine would put a gun in their luggage? That does not seem to be a rational or credible piece of behaviour. Indeed, circumstances suggest that the authorities asked for the luggage to be run through a second time, when, mysteriously, the gun was found. We must be aware that this kind of thing is happening and that a British citizen has been subjected to it.

I also have an e-mail dated 13 June which says:

last Sunday—

It goes on to say that journalists mentioned the exact address at which she and her family were living and called for viewers of the programme to take appropriate action. That is the kind of society that exists in Europe today and in a country that is a member of the European convention on human rights, which we are responsible for trying to enforce. I say with a sense of support that the people of Azerbaijan and countries like it should achieve genuine democracy and we should accept our responsibility for that.

Important as our internal debates on the future of the European Union are and important as it is that we get the right mechanisms for EU decision making, we should not forget the wider Europe of which we are a part and our responsibility to try to bring pluralism, democracy and human rights to such countries. I plead with the House that when we have a debate on foreign affairs, it is just that, and that when we have a debate on EU affairs, it is regarded as separate. I hope that the Minister for Europe will acknowledge that these are important issues that we need to address.

5.31 pm

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