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Enlargement of the European Union is a policy that has made an enormous contribution to stability and prosperity across our continent. I am glad to say that it has always been an issue on which the House has been united. As the noble Lord Hurd of Westwell, a past Conservative Foreign Secretary, stated in 1995,
The Bill before the House is narrowly drawn. It will do two things. Clause 1 will enable the implementation, under United Kingdom law, of the accession treaty signed in Luxembourg on 25 April, extending the European Union to Bulgaria and Romania. Having concluded negotiations with both countries in December last year, European Union member states agreed that they should join the EU. They are scheduled to do so in January 2007, but if they are "manifestly unprepared for membership", EU member states can decide to delay entry by a year. The Commission is responsible for monitoring both countries' preparations and has just produced thorough reports on them. It will produce further reports in April or May next year. I will say more about this process in due course.
Angus Robertson (Moray) (SNP): Is the Minister aware that members of the House's European Scrutiny Committee are currently meeting Members of the European Parliament? That happens once or twice a year. The Leader of the House has said that parliamentarians should increasingly work together in this way in future. Why have the Government timetabled today's important business to clash with that meeting? Why is there not better co-ordination between the Whips Office and the important discussions between the European Scrutiny Committee and MEPs?
There was no intention that Members of the House would not be able to scrutinise the Bill to the degree that one would wish. I am aware that important meetings are taking place with parliamentarians from other places, as well as parliamentarians from this place. Indeed, yesterday I had the opportunity to address the chairs of foreign affairs committees from across the EU. I can assure the House that, not least because of the level of consensus on enlargement that the House has enjoyed in the past, it is from the wilder shores of conspiracy to suggest that the tabling was intentional.
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Clause 2 will allow the Government to set the terms on which Bulgarian and Romanian workers will be granted access to the UK labour market after accession, for a maximum seven-year transitional period, before Community rules on the free movement for workers come into force. A decision on the level of access will be taken next year after closer consideration of the state of the labour market, other member states' decisions, and the impact of the last enlargement in 2004. It will be implemented only after parliamentary approval.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): As the treaty is being brought in by means of amendment to the European Communities Act 1972, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that it is the Government's view that the EU has power in this country only by virtue of that Act?
Mr. Alexander: Clearly, we are ratifying a treaty consistent with our international obligations. The basis on which we are members of the EU is the decision reached in 1972, which was subsequently ratified in a referendum in 1975. That is common ground between all parties in the House.
Let me begin with clause 1, and the enlargement of the European Union. Enlargement has been a feature of the EU for over 30 years. The first was in 1973, when the accession of the United Kingdom, Ireland and Denmark took place. Greece, Portugal and Spain joined in the 1980s; Austria, Finland and Sweden in the 1990s.
The 2004 enlargement has, in many ways, been the largest, most complex and most symbolic. The accession of Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Hungary, Malta, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia set the seal on the cold war division of Europe. It is a real and substantial achievement of the European Union.
Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, South-West) (Lab/Co-op): Does the Minister, like me, recall that many of us who welcomed these accessions were told that they would be impossible without the acceptance of the European constitution? Yet the European constitution has fallen and these countries are still being allowed to join. Is not that a peculiar situation?
Mr. Alexander: It is not a comfortable matter for me to disagree so absolutely with my hon. Friend, but I think that his recollection of events is somewhat misplaced, in the sense that the possibility of the enlargements of which I spoke has always been clear, not least on the basis of the Nice treaty.
The accession of Bulgaria and Romania will add an additional 30 million consumers to the European Union single market. That creates new opportunities which our companies are already keen to secure. For example, Vodafone has just bought out the largest mobile phone operator in Romania. Bulgaria and Romania have made great strides in recent years. The prospect of EU enlargement is encouraging them to make the political, judicial and economic reforms necessary
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before becoming full members. Bulgarian growth has consistently been double the EU average over the last five years, and successive Governments have successfully halved unemployment over that period. Romania has brought inflation down from more than 100 per cent. in the late 1990s to around 8 per cent. today, and has successfully attracted more foreign direct investment than any other state in south-east Europe.
The reports highlighted a range of areas in which Bulgaria and Romania need to make urgent progress if they want to be ready for accession in 2007. There are some important general issues that both countries need to address. Corruption remains a serious problem in both countries, undermining public and business confidence, and they need to take urgent and vigorous action to tackle it. Part of the problem lies in their justice systems, which need further reform. Bulgaria must also tackle head-on the problem of organised crime. The daylight assassination last week of a high-ranking financier in Sofia demonstrated starkly the scale of the challenge.
In the coming months, the Commission will continue its rigorous monitoring of the progress that both countries are making, targeting in particular the areas of serious concern identified in the reports published last week. It will then produce further reports next April or May.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): I hope that the Minister can explain something that I do not understand. In relation to the 10 who recently joined, there was no guarantee of membership almost right up to the very end point, at the 11th hour before accession. Under this procedureuniquely, it seems, in the history of enlargementBulgaria and Romania are guaranteed accession by 2008 under the treaty, so we would be reliant on the infraction procedure to get compliance and enforcement after the event. Why were the ground rules altered for these two as compared with previous accessions?
Mr. Alexander: I disagree with my hon. Friend's characterisation of the relative rigour with which the Union recognised the challenges of the 10 in 2004 and Bulgaria and Romania in the present day. There is the super-safeguard clause in relation to the possibility of deferring membership for Bulgaria, for Romania or for both, as well as several safeguard clauses that I will discuss later.
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