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Mr. Jeremy Browne (Taunton) (LD): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the stance taken by the Conservative party in disassociating itself from the EPP will damage the British national interest, at a time when many large Governments in Europe are run by centre-right politicians? That is especially worrying, given that the recently elected Chancellor of the EU's most populous and, in terms of overall GDP, most prosperous country belongs to a centre-right grouping from which our Conservative party is trying to distance itself.
Mr. David: Yes, I am concerned about that. Of course, it gives Labour Members much joy and pleasure to make fun of the ridiculous position that our Conservative opponents' new leader has put them in, but I am very concerned about our national interest.
The point that I was implying was made explicit by the hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. Browne). It is that the EPP is the largest group in the European Parliament, where negotiations are going on about the EU budget. The EPP is fighting hard for a certain political outcome,
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and it also contains British MEPs whoI hopeare fighting for the British national interest. Taking those British MEPs out of the EPP and marginalising them is bad for the Conservatives, but it is also bad for our country's national interest.
Mr. Cash: Like me, the hon. Gentleman is a member of the European Scrutiny Committee. Does he accept that Labour MEPs have also disagreed with their Government on occasion? When one cuts to the chase, do not the real questions have to do with the nature of our national interest, and who represents it? I believe that the short answer is that the national interest is represented by our Government, who are elected in the Westminster elections. Final accountability ultimately rests with this Parliament, and the key point is that we are talking about national sovereignty.
Mr. David: With all due respect to the hon. Gentleman, this is not an academic debate; it is a debate about practical politics and practical influence. In the EU as it currently exists, power is divided between the European Commission, the European Parliament and national Governments. If we are to be truly effective in exerting our national influence, as well as changing the face of Europe, we must ensure that we exercise our influence in all those different institutions. That is the important point that we must bear in mind.
In conclusion, it is very fortunate that we are having this sensible and constructive debate on the eve of such an important summit. I do not think that it will be the end of the worldit certainly will not be the end of the EUif agreement is not reached on the budget. Discussions will have to continue into the Austrian presidency and, possibly, beyond. However, there is a very good chance of reaching an agreement in the next few days. I am absolutely confident that the British Government have ensured that, at the end of their presidency, Europe is pulling together far more than was the case six months ago. Britain's national interest has been clearly and precisely mapped out, and the British Government have done so in such a way that is not just crudely in Britain's national interest; they have couched their arguments so that they are seen as in the interests not only of Britain but of the whole EU. That is why, on balance, I am optimistic that an agreement will be reached on the new financial perspective that will be good for Britain and good for Europe as well.
I welcome my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague) back to the Front Bench. He brings considerable experience and credibility to debates on foreign affairs and a great deal of knowledge of the subjects that we are discussing. He mentioned in his speech a great deal of disappointment, which is general not only in this country but throughout Europe, at the lack of any real achievement from the UK's presidency of the EU over the past five and a half months, without saying that there would be no achievement at all.
I congratulate the Foreign Secretary and the Government on their one achievement of the presidency: the opening of negotiations with Turkey.
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There were times when I thought that they might be knocked off course by a number of European leadersmost notably, the President of France, Mr. Chiracbut the Foreign Secretary certainly saw his way through and negotiations were opened with Turkey. That is the right way to proceed. The Turks accept that that will be a slow process.
A few months ago, I attended a meeting with the Turkish Finance Minister, who openly said that he was looking at a minimum time scale of 10 years for the negotiation process before Turkey will become a full member of the EU, but it is right that we should be moving in that direction, as we are doing with Romania and Bulgaria. I also welcome the opening of negotiations with Croatia. A number of other states, both in the Balkans and elsewhere, are eyeing EU membership, but I want to talk, Mr. President[Interruption.] I apologise for that slip, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I want to talk about another presidency that runs in parallel with the presidency of the EU, which the UK Government hold at the moment: the presidency of the Western European Union. They are interrelated, because, as I said earlier, the European Commission and the European Parliament have no competence in European security and defence policy, but the WEU, which predates the EU and the European Economic Community, has such competence. The military operations of the WEU are vested in the EU and the two bodies act in parallela concept known as double-hatting.
The WEU Assembly is composed of members from several national Parliaments, including ours; 18 Members of the House and the other place are full members of the Assembly and 18 are alternate members. The Assembly meets twice a year to oversee security and defence policy in the European arena. It is custom and practice that the Government holding the EU presidency come to the Assembly, in the shape of either their Foreign or Defence Minister, to answer questions and make a presentation on the achievements of the presidency in European security and defence policy.
It was thus with great embarrassment that, at the June session of the Assembly, British members found that although the Foreign Secretary's name appeared on the agenda, he failed to turn up as he had discovered that he had business elsewhere. Not only did he fail to turn up, he failed to send any of his junior Ministers at the Foreign Office or a Minister from the Ministry of Defence. Instead, he sent the British ambassador in Paris to read out his speech and answer questions on it. The ambassador was extremely competent, but he is not a Minister.
At the Assembly's most recent meeting, which took place last week, we were full of hope that, given the achievements that had been made, the Foreign Secretary would make a speech to the WEU. His name appeared on the agenda for Wednesday, but on Monday morning the agenda was changed to indicate that yet again his speech would be read by the British ambassador, as the Foreign Secretary had urgent business elsewhere. We all understood what that business was: he was trying to negotiate the budget. Again, however, a Foreign Office with six or seven Ministers, and a Ministry of Defence
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that probably has the same number, failed to send a substitute and the speech was read by the British ambassador.
That was doubly embarrassing, because Austria, which takes over the EU presidency on 1 January, sent its Defence Minister, who made a speech and answered questions. The Austrians have already agreed to host a series of meetings during their presidency to deal with European security and defence matters. The Finns, who take the presidency for the second half of the year, have agreed to do the same. Austria is not a full member of the WEU because it is not a NATO member, so the British Government have time to make some recompense because they will continue to hold the presidency of the WEU in name for a further six months. I look forward to welcoming the Foreign Secretary to the next Assembly meetingin Paris, in Junewhen no doubt he will reply to the questions that he failed to answer.
Britain is a founder member of the WEU, so it was with some embarrassment that I discovered yesterdayI gave the Foreign Secretary prior notice that I would raise this pointthat the UK had failed to pay its budget contribution to the Assembly, to meet the salaries and pensions of its staff. The amount is not enormous: €278,000 or about £190,000. I understand that this is not the first time that it has happened, but on the previous occasion on which the United Kingdom failed to pay, the Assembly secretariat was promised that it would not happen again and told that there had been an oversight. An oversight has happened again, so by the time that the Minister makes his winding-up speech, I hope that someone in the Foreign Office will have found their biro and cheque book and made the payments so that the staff of the body can be paid at the end of the year.
We can trace back the whole concept of the European security and defence policy in its present guise to the Maastricht treaty, which quite clearly set it up as a second pillar operation, meaning that it was intergovernmental. As it is an intergovernmental arrangement, it does not involve the European Commission or the European Parliament. There might be some hon. Members who welcome the fact that those bodies are not involved, but there is scope for parliamentary scrutiny.
I am sorry that the Foreign Secretary has left the Chamber again because I going to quote from the speech that was read for him last WednesdayI hope that he wrote it so that he knows what I am about to cite. It is all about parliamentary scrutiny. As the hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, said, 14 military operations are taking place under the ESDP, but I am worried about the lack of accountability and scrutiny.
"Scrutiny of European defence and security issues by national parliaments is essential. The WEU Parliamentary Assembly remains a unique forum to facilitate interparliamentary dialogue and discussion. The Assembly is inclusive and reaches beyond the boundaries of the EU. It continues to offer an important link between EU citizens and governments in security and defencevital issues our citizens care deeply about".
If the Assembly is to provide that link between Governments and the people, we must bear it in mind that the Foreign Secretary is presently the representative of those Governments as the holder of the presidency of the WEU.
The Western European UnionI will not go on about this ad infinitumdates back to the 1948 Brussels treaty, which was why I said that it predates the European Community and the European Union. The Assembly was established in 1954 under the modified Brussels treaty and it had its first meeting a year later.
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