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The Minister for Europe (Mr. Douglas Alexander): After Prime Minister's questions, the burden of expectation with which I rise weighs heavily on my shoulders, but we have had a vigorous debate on the key questions concerning the future of Europe. The debate has ranged widely and also focused on the main items to be discussed at tomorrow's European Council: the European Union's future financing and the constitutional treaty. Hon. Members have raised questions on many other issues too, and I will endeavour to address such questions in my remarks.
The range and intensity of this afternoon's debate show once again how central the European Union's future is to our role, but let me begin by paying tribute to the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Dr. McDonnell), who made a generous maiden speech, thanking his predecessor and wishing him well in his retirement. He brought the perspective of a Northern Ireland politician to our
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deliberations and recognised on behalf of his SDLP colleagues the significant contribution that the EU has made to the peace process. He spoke movingly of his desire to make a difference to his local community in Belfast and of his determination to work for his constituents during his time in Westminster on issues such as education, mental health and planning. He said that he was determined to advance all that is good in his community. In those endeavours, I wish him well.
Later in the debate a second maiden speech was madethis time by the hon. Member for Croydon, Central (Mr. Pelling). He informed the House that Croydon is not just retail heaven and went on to describe its many attractions. Anybody who represents the birthplace of Darth Vader, as we discovered, has to taken seriously. I am sure that the whole House and particularly Labour Members appreciated the generous tributes paid to his predecessor, Geraint Davies.
The third maiden speech of this afternoon came from the new hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Hurd). He was warm and generous in his tribute to his predecessor and gracefully acknowledged the proud family heritage of public service and service in this House of which he is now part. I learned much from his description of his constituency and its civic pride, and I am sure that on the basis of his auspicious start this afternoon we have not seen the last of the Hurd family occupying senior positions in the Conservative party.
Presumably, he hopes that the same can be said for the Conservative party at the present time. I cannot say, on the basis of his speech, that I am convinced that opportunity knocks for the Opposition. His speech ranged widely, acknowledging rightly the scale of the economic challenges for Europe in the face of globalisation, although the condemnation that he offered of structural unemployment on the continent, coming from a party that gave us two recessions in as many decades and a Chancellor who said that unemployment was a price worth paying, rang rather hollow on the Labour Benches.
My hon. Friend the Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood) was warm in his praise of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I have sympathy with his substantive point about the establishment of the European Scrutiny Committeea point echoed by the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson). I shall certainly ensure that the Leader of the House is made aware of the concerns raised in the debate.
There then followed a speech by the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who spoke with characteristic knowledge, eloquence and wisdom. In a rather, if I may say, Fabian-like fashion, he made the case for incremental change before addressing the wider issues, both economic and political, of the rise of India, China and Asia generally, which are of course the backdrop to much of our discussion today.
The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) spoke with the wit for which his time as Leader of the Opposition is so warmly remembered on
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both sides of the House. I assure him that, as he quoted Shakespeare and remembered Agincourt, no Member was inclined to nip off for a nap, as he put it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes) emphasised the importance of enlargement and the key contribution that that process has made and can make to securing peace and prosperity across Europe. In that, I am in complete agreement, and I welcome the continuing broad consensus across the House on the importance of taking forward the process of enlargement. It is true that in certain countries it has been suggested that one direct issue raised by the no votes was whether the enlargement process to Bulgaria, Romania, Croatia and Turkey, and then to the western Balkans, will continue. However, the EU's commitments on enlargement are clear and the process is being undertaken under existing treaties and EU rules, and not those of the constitutional treaty. The UK will therefore be pursuing those commitments when we take up our presidency in just a couple of weeks time.
I also willingly recognise the strength of the point made by the hon. Member for Gordon (Malcolm Bruce) that debates in this House must recognise the importance of wider European matters and not simply the institutional architecture of the European Union.
My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), in a telling speech, queried why Conservative Members spent so much time dealing with the detail of the treaty provisions rather than the wider issue of the future direction of Europe ahead of the British presidency. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has said, a consensus is emerging among EU leaders that the decision whether to proceed with the ratification of the treaty should be left to individual member states. The Government's position is that it would not be sensible at this stage to proceed with the Second Reading of the Bill that provides for ratification of the treaty by referendum, given the uncertainty following the referendums in France and the Netherlands.
Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): Does the Minister agree that it might make sense for all countries to hold referendums on same day in future to avoid the mess that we are currently in? Bearing in mind the results in France and Holland and the discussions about currency in Germany and Italy, does he agree that if there were ever a time to re-evaluate the situation, re-engage with the electorate and revisit the plans for Europe, this is it?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman's final point about the need for a wider debate on the future of Europe, but I disagree with his initial point about the treaty ratification process across Europe. I would have thought that he supports the principle of subsidiarity and recognises that it is for individual member states within the EU to determine their own ratification processes. The Spanish people have already ratified the treaty by referendum, and nine other countries have also ratified it, but two founding member states have rejected the draft constitutional treaty by referendum. I take the view that in the first instance it is for each member state to determine the means by which the ratification process can be taken forward.
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Mr. Paterson : Last week, the Minister refused to answer this question: if there is a majority vote over the next two days in the Council to continue the ratification process, will the Government obey or ignore the decision?
Mr. Alexander: I have already sought to make it clear to the House that a consensus is beginning to emerge across Europe, and I believe that it will be reflected in the work that is taken forward in the Council tomorrow. However, it is for individual member states to make that determination, rather than a decision being taken on the basis of a majority, as suggested by the hon. Gentleman. Ultimately, we have only a little longer to wait for the European Council's final conclusion.
The Council's first requirement is to hear from the French and the Dutch Governments about the referendum results in their respective countries and about how they see the future of their ratification processes following the decisions made by their respective populations. The Prime Minister will, of course, have the opportunity to report back to the House in a statement following the Council meeting.
The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) questioned the Government's approach to the discussions in the Council, particularly on the issue of the future financial perspective. However, it is surely right to acknowledge that the current discussions about the future financial perspective are taking place in the context of a much wider debate about the future of Europe, which has been reflected in our deliberations and discussions this afternoon. That debate is about how the EU responds to the challenges of globalisation and technological change, how the EU addresses the needs of its citizens and how the EU adds value through its agenda to take forward growth and prosperity.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon about the importance of the next World Trade Organisation ministerial meeting in Hong Kong, and I assure him that we are determined to continue our work on a pro-poor, pro-growth agenda in the world trade talks. Although tomorrow's discussions in the European Council will be important, further discussions will take place in Gleneagles between 6 and 8 July, after which much critical work remains to be done at a European level to ensure that we have a strong position when we continue those discussions in Hong Kong in December.
The Commission has proposed an EU budget of €1 trillion or 1.26 per cent. of gross national income, a real-terms spending increase of 35 per cent. or €260 billion. The British Government take the view that that increase is unacceptable. Furthermore, the Commission has not come up with any proposals to reform expenditure. We believe that a budget of 1 per cent. of gross national income, which is €815 billion over the period 200713, is ample for the EU's needs.
In his opening remarks, my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary set out the Government's position on EU expenditure and, more specifically, on Britain's rebate. The UK was given an abatement back in 1984 because of its low share of receipts and above-average contribution, and there is no doubt that that situation continues today, even with the abatement. In the eight years between 1995 and 2003, the UK's
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contribution to the EU was two and half times that of France and Italy, even with the British rebate. Without the rebate, we would have paid 15 times more than France and 12 times more than Italy. In that same period, the UK received the lowest average per capita share of receipts of all member states, hence, as we have made clear, the UK abatement remains fully justified.
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