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Mr. Nigel Dodds (Belfast, North) (DUP): The Minister said that Bulgaria and Romania were undergoing a transition. Does he expect the transition to be complete by the time of accession, or will further steps have to be taken after that?

Mr. Alexander: There are criteria that must be adhered to. We look forward with interest to the Commission's next report, which will be issued in the   spring. It will contain the Commission's latest guidance on the progress that has been made. However, recognising the legal requirements—the adoption of the acquis, for example, is necessary for all countries to become full members of the EU—does not diminish the further progress that can be made once countries are members. One needs to consider, for example, the continued economic progress that has been made by the so-called A10 countries joining the EU in 2004. There was no arbitrary stop to the progress that those countries were making towards the European mainstream when accession took place, but we should recognise that there should be rigour and transparency in the process. That is why I applaud the efforts of Olli Rehn, the European Commissioner responsible for enlargement, when he published the last report. I cannot prejudge the outcome of the next report.

Mrs. Louise Ellman (Liverpool, Riverside) (Lab/Co-op): My right hon. Friend referred to "transformation" in Romania and Bulgaria, but would he accept that, in the case of Bulgaria, the judicial system is one respect in which insufficient transformation has taken place?

Mr. Alexander: Yes, is the answer to my hon. Friend's question. It is, of course, a matter of profound concern to her and her constituents, in view of the particular consular case about which we have met and in relation to which I offered in an Adjournment debate in the House to have a further meeting with my hon. Friend and her constituent's family. There is scope for further progress in that respect, but I have to tell my hon. Friend candidly that I believe that all who want to see that sort of progress carried forward in Bulgaria should support the country's accession to the European Union. That has already been one of the drivers that has led to some of the progress secured to date. I fully accept, in the light of my hon. Friend's question, that further progress needs to be made. If I recall correctly, that point was reflected in the earlier Commissioner's report to which I referred.

Progress is also required in the matter of corruption. That means tackling head-on the problem of organised crime, and it also means continuing at a greater pace the programme of judicial, agricultural and environmental reform that both Bulgaria and Romania have already embarked on.

Sir Menzies Campbell (North-East Fife) (LD): The Minister has, if I may say so, given a series of very
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elegant answers to penetrating questions, but I would like to ask him a blunt question in the hope that he might provide a blunt answer. If either Romania or Bulgaria fail to meet their obligations in the accession negotiations, does it not remain the case that accession can—and, indeed, should—be refused?

Mr. Alexander: I yield to no one in my admiration of the elegance of the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell), who could certainly teach many of us lessons in elegance, but not in bluntness. The level of rigour being applied to Bulgaria and Romania easily bears comparison with the A10 countries that entered the EU in 2004. That is why there is tighter provision in respect of the transparency of the standards to which they need to adhere and in the transparency of the process itself than was the case in 2004. Provision has been made for a so-called super safeguard clause—sometimes alternatively described as the emergency brake procedure—whereby accession would be delayed by a year from 1 January 2007 until 2008. There are also safeguard clauses in respect of areas in which further progress was identified as necessary in Romania.

We also need to emphasise that powerful safeguard mechanisms are available to the European Commission in respect of any accession country for three years following its entry into the EU. Those measures are not time limited, but there are clear processes whereby steps can be taken if difficulties emerge once a country joins the EU, and serious infraction procedures can be brought, which would have a very direct bearing on the interests of the countries concerned. Thus there are safeguard clauses and super safeguard clauses and it remains the case, as we have repeatedly said, that we stand four square behind the European Commission in having both transparency and rigour in assessing the necessary standards.

Several hon. Members rose—

Mr. Alexander: I have already been generous in giving way and I am keen to make a little further progress.

Members on both sides of the House can be assured that we continue to make the point to the Bulgarian and Romanian Governments that more progress is necessary—and, indeed, that both countries need to be aware of the scale of the challenge that they continue to face—but we remain optimistic that they can meet the demanding requirements for membership by next year. The fact that both countries have already demonstrated a capacity to realise impressive change in a relatively short period of time supports that contention.

The successful transformation of both countries from planned to market economies is perhaps the most visible and tangible evidence of progress. Since the start of the process of European integration in 1999, the gross domestic product of both countries has grown by around 25 per cent. Restructuring and the privatisation of inefficient, and in many cases bankrupt, communist state industries has taken place. Their banking industries have also been privatised and the two states have rapidly integrated themselves with western
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European and world markets. Indeed, the EU has been the accession countries' main trading partner for several years now.

Profound changes in the business environment have also taken place, with the creation of food standards agencies, competition regulators, labour inspectorates and even insurance market supervisors. That will, I believe, help UK firms doing business in and with those two countries.

The prospect of EU membership has given a major impetus to ongoing improvements in both states' environmental policies and their health and safety standards—[Interruption.]

12.45 pm

Mr. Peter Bone (Wellingborough) (Con): I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. We have heard a statement about how keen these countries are to come into the EU, but is it not rather surprising, after the fiasco of the European constitution, that neither country conducted a referendum on whether their people wanted to join?

Mr. Alexander: It is not for me to prescribe either to the other 24 members of the EU or to candidate countries the mechanism by which they should seek to enter into their international obligations. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman and, indeed, many hon. Members, would look askance at another country trying to dictate to the UK what constitutional mechanism was appropriate in those circumstances.

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): The Minister speaks authoritatively about Romania. One of his predecessors, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), admitted in a previous debate that he had spent all of six hours during his ministerial career visiting Bucharest. How often has the Minister visited Romania, and does he intend to visit the country in future so that he can be better prepared to discuss it than his predecessors?

Mr. Alexander: I am happy to answer the question directly and acknowledge that, in view of the burdens of our presidency obligations since my appointment back in May, I have not yet visited Romania. I did take the opportunity early in my ministerial post to meet our British ambassador and discuss with him the progress that continues to be made—I am pleased to say with the assistance of British civil servants as well as a range of other bodies—in Romania. Not least because it is standard procedure when meeting British ambassadors to request a visit to the said country, I gave an undertaking to the British ambassador in Bucharest that I hoped to be able to visit Romania fairly shortly after the end of the British presidency. One can readily imagine, in view of the number of countries within the EU at the moment—and on account of future financing, which I have no intention of discussing this afternoon—that pressures on ministerial time are considerable and that a range of visits already lie ahead for me in the remaining weeks of the British presidency.

Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North) (Lab): Will the Minister give way?

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