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Angus Robertson : Has the hon. Gentleman happened on the parts in both reports that highlight the challenges both countries face on the treatment of minorities, not least the Roma population? Does he hope, as I believe he does, that those countries will do everything in their power to solve a deep-seated, if not centuries-long, problem? Not much time is left to change quite a lot in both countries.
Mr. Clegg: Indeed. That is merely one on a long list of outstanding issues that need to be dealt with in Romania and Bulgaria. It reinforces the point that if one wants to encourage those countries to make those political reforms, and to apply pressure, one needs to exercise leverage at the best time, which is now. The effect of that leverage will be blunted if accession is guaranteedit may be a guarantee that is deferred by 12 months, but it is a guarantee nevertheless.
Mr. David : The hon. Gentleman is making some good points, but does he accept that there is a slight danger of being too strictstricter on this occasion than we were during the last accession process? I am thinking particularly of how Slovakia was dealt with. Is there not a danger of unequal treatment?
Mr. Clegg: I imagine that it would be difficult to apply a perfect measure of consistency. In the last process, 10 countries were allowed to accede in one bloc, and there is inevitably greater scrutiny when only two countries are under the microscope. That in no way diminishes the objective importance of dealing with all the administrative, social, legal and ethnic issues in the way laid out so clearly by the Commission.
In the next few yearsit may be later rather than soonerthe House may find itself debating Turkey's membership of the European Union. That will be an altogether more complicated and controversial exercise than this debate. It will not be possible to have a rational political debate about such a controversial step as accepting Turkey into the EU if the rigour and credibility of the enlargement process has not already been proven. The manner in which we examine Bulgaria and Romania's case and decide over the next few months whether those countries should join and on
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what terms sets an important precedent for the debate that we shall no doubt have in some years to come on Turkey.
Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley) (Lab): I am pleased to take part in the debate. I have had a long-standing interest in Bulgaria and its people over many years. I first travelled to the country in 1985 as a member of an Inter-Parliamentary Union delegation. It was the first democratic centralist country that I had visited. I was not enamoured of its politics, but I was enamoured of its peoplethat was my experience and that of my colleaguesand I have kept in close contact with Bulgaria ever since. On my return I was asked to be an officer of the all-party Bulgaria group. I accepted that invitation and for the past decade I have been the chairman of the group.
I hope that the House will forgive me for talking about Bulgaria in terms of my views on what has happened there. I have visited Romania, but I have more knowledge of Bulgaria. While the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) is in his place, I should say that I had not intended mentioning workers from those countries coming to the UK. The hon. Gentleman will remember, however, that last year there was a big row about work permits being issued to people from Romania and Bulgaria. I remember that the Opposition sailed the Sheffield whistleblower into a television studio to say how awful the system was. My right hon. and hon. Friends on the Government Front Bench then initiated an investigation into the issuing of work permits to people from Romania and Bulgaria. As a result, a hold was put on applications.
Within about two weeks of that decision being taken I received a phone call from an agencyI suppose that that person would be called a gangmasterin Essex. I also received a call from Sofia. I convened a meeting because there was a crisis in Essex at the time. The gangmaster from Essex attended the meeting, as did a gangmaster who had flown over from Bulgaria. There were three Conservative Members present, who had come along because of the mess in Essex agriculture. It was fruit picking time and all the permits under the temporary agricultural workers scheme had been stopped.
There had long been links with Sofia university, and for many years, under different Governments, students studying English at that university came to Essex to work as fruit pickers. They would earn some money and learn English in, as it were, the mother country. There were terrible problems at the time. I brokered a deal that involved the right hon. Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Kilmarnock and Loudoun (Mr. Browne), who is now a Minister. I phoned them to explain that if we relaxed the stop on the temporary agricultural workers scheme so that the students could come to this country and the fruit could be picked, everything would be all rightand it would also ensure that there would not be another row in a television studio. As far as I am aware, the solution worked very well.
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There are strong links between Romania and Bulgaria and the United Kingdom. There is no great threat from people from either country coming to work in the UK. Many people from those countries do so now, and many have done so for decades.
Stewart Hosie : On the broader point of making Europe more and more competitive, particularly in relation to the United States, labour mobility should be encouraged and supported. Our concern should be driven mainly on levelling up trade and professional qualifications, rather than trying to debar skilled, talented and enthusiastic workers from not only the UK but the rest of Europe, not least to fill the skill gaps that many countries have.
As I said, my connections with Bulgaria go back 20 years, as I first visited the country in May 1985. My second visit was in 1990 as an elections observer, and that was followed by another two visits with the Inter-Parliamentary Union in the 1990s, when we saw genuine changes in the nature of politics and political parties. The Union of Democratic Forces came on to the scene in the early 1990s. The only part of its ideology that I could grasp was the fact that it was anti-communistI did not know where it stood either economically or on anything else. However, it was testing the changes that were taking place. In 1985, Tzum, the big supermarket in Sofia, had plenty of things on its shelves, but in the 1990s there were only broken biscuits. Because of the country's closeness to Russia, its economy was shattered by the changes in eastern Europe and it took a long time for it to recover.
There have been many changes of Government in Bulgaria, all of them affected by changes in an economy which, with the exception of the past five years, was in a negative condition. Elections were held in June this year, when there was a fightback by the Bulgarian Socialist partythe new name for the Communist party. In 2000, I was invited by General Secretary Sergei Stanishev, who has since been appointed Prime Minister, to his party's congress. I went to Bulgaria on a family holiday and stopped at Sofia for the 45th congress of the BSPquite an achievement, because the party had existed for only eight years. International observers, however, witnessed genuine debate in the BSP among old communists and new members such as Sergei, about the need to change both their ideology and their view of the outside world.
There have been changes both in Bulgarian political parties and in the nature of the country's Parliament. After my visit in early June 2002 to the BSP congress, I was invited to visit the country as a guest of the British embassy and the Westminster Foundation for Democracy. On 1 July, I made a speech on ethical standards in public life and the experience of the British Parliament. I arrived early, however, to participate in a weekend seminar with Bulgarian Members of Parliament on standards and privileges. The day before I was due to give my speech at the embassy, I was asked to give an interview to a daily newspaper in Sofia. I was asked about standards in public life, but suddenly the reporter asked what I would do if traffic police impounded my car. A Bulgarian MP had had a
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falling-out with the traffic police after his car was impounded. He went to the pound and demanded its return, banging his fist on the counter. He was caught on CCTV, and was hounded by the media about the incident. I told the reporter that such behaviour would not be allowed in Britain, as Members of Parliament could not get away with using their influence in such a way. Two days later, a motion was passed in the Bulgarian Parliament to introduce a standards and privileges committee based on the British model. That Parliament has therefore learned a great deal from us over the years.
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