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Dr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East) (Lab): Following yesterday's meeting, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is important that a united Europe and the United States work together on Iran's nuclear programme, to bring maximum pressure to bear through the International Atomic Energy Agency and the United Nations Security Council? Can he assure the House that Ministers are striving to resolve the issue through the UN?
Mr. Alexander: I am happy to give my right hon. Friend that assurance. Even the sternest critics of European diplomacy would struggle to question the importance of the work that, along with the French and the Germans, the British Government have been taking forward as part of the so-called E3 process. Since the outset of that process, we have enjoyed and benefited from the support of the United States. I am glad to say that only last night here in London a meeting of the P5 was convenedthe five permanent members of the Security Council, with the Germans also in attendance. That conveys an important message that needs to be heard by the Iranians: the growing consensus across the international community about finding a diplomatic solution to a challenging and complex matter.
Mr. Nick Clegg (Sheffield, Hallam) (LD):
On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I express our sincerest condolences and sympathy to the families and friends of the two British soldiers who, it was announced today, were tragically killed in Iraq.
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I am grateful to the Minister for giving us advance notice and sight of his statement. There is much in the statement and in the White Paper with which we do not disagree. Some of the achievements of the UK presidency are rightly underlined as important achievements, notably the very significant agreement to launch accession negotiations for Turkey's eventual membership of the European Uniona decision of enormous long-term significance for the future evolution of the EU.
The White Paper and the statement are characterised by the now time-honoured hyperbole that occurs at the end of presidencies. It is a familiar routine that whoever has occupied the presidency for six months then hypes up its achievements, almost suggesting that any presidency that preceded it or might succeed it could never reach such heights of achievement. Hyperbole aside, much in the White Paper recommends itself. I should like to ask the Minister some questions that might help us to understand whether the decisions taken in the six months of the UK presidency will stand the test of time and be durable decisions that make the difference that is claimed.
On the famous, or infamous, budget deal, part of that deal includes a commitment that there should be a review of the common agricultural policy some time midway through the next budgetary period. Will that review be conducted by the European Commission? If so, what pressure, if any, will be brought to bear on member states to adhere to any of its recommendations? There is a legitimate concern that a review by the Commission, even were it to advocate the kind of agricultural reform that many people in this House wish for, could summarily be ignored if it was not placed on a more forceful footing. Will the review include proposals for co-financing, which Members on both sides of the House have raised as a possible future solution to the financing of the common agricultural policy?
The Minister made much of the summit at Hampton Court at which six areas of work were identified as meriting further investigationresearch and development, universities, energy, demographics, security and immigration, and the common foreign and security policy. Can the Minister give us any detail about what occurred at that summit, or subsequently, materially to affect the way in which those policies are being conducted in the European Union? It appeared then, and still appears, to have been a catch-all list of policy areas, ranging from foreign policy through to research and development, which might not contain the substance that he implied in his statement.
The Minister said that the priority for this period of reflection about the fate of the constitutional treaty, and indeed the European Union more generally, must be on economic reform. That is a sentiment that many Liberal Democrat Members share. But does he think that there is no merit in any debate about the constitutional and institutional future of the European Union? Surely it is impossible to deny that in an enlarged European Union the arrangements that were in place for a much smaller club need some re-examination. Some highly positive reforms are suggested in the constitution, including greater Council openness, rearrangements of the way in which the European Union organises its common foreign and security policy, and the involvement of this House and other national Parliaments in examining EU
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legislation. Can the Minister assure us that while the emphasis is rightly on economic reform, such crucial constitutional and institutional issues will not be forgotten? They cannot be ignored in a club that has expanded so dramatically in recent months.
Let me first tackle the budget deal, especially the review clause, which the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Clegg) mentioned. He is right that the Commission will undertake a review clause, but it will ultimately be for the European Council to decide whether to implement the changes. They could be effected in the coming financial perspective, which runs until 2013.
I do not want to prejudge the review's outcome on co-financing. It is right to acknowledge that the matter has been raised on the Floor of the House several times. Other European Governments have also raised it and I suspect that it may well feature in the discussions. However, I cannot prejudge the review's outcome.
The hon. Gentleman asked about progress on the priorities that were identified at the Hampton Court meeting in October. The six workstreams were subsequently divided into those that high representative Javier Solana would take forward and those that the Commission would tackle. If I recollect correctly, an initial progress report was made to the December European Council.
Another point merits the House's consideration. The notion of the Hampton Court priorities is already entering the lexicon of European policy making. I have been encouraged by the Austrian presidency's willingness to commit time and resources to taking forward the work that we initiated in Hampton Court. If I were to identify one matter that takes special precedence, it would be the recognition in October of the importance of finding a way forward on energy security and supply and a genuinely more open energy market.
The hon. Gentleman asked about institutional change. Labour Members have never denied the need for important and sensible institutional changes. Indeed, in the course of our presidency, following the Prime Minister's reply to questions in one of his appearances before the European Parliament, we made progress on the transparency of the Council of Ministers. However, it is right to reiterate that we perceive the key priorities for the coming months to be, as José Manuel Barroso said, jobs and growth in the European Union and the economic reform that that requires.
Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham) (Con): To save the Austrian presidency and the German Administration time and trouble, will the Minister clearly rule out any new European tax levied through the European Union? Will he rule out introducing the constitution's provisions by the back door before yes votes in all countries that need referendums?
Let me deal with the right hon. Gentleman's latter point first. The Government have consistently made it clear that the mechanism in the
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United Kingdom whereby the European draft constitutional treaty could be implemented is approval by the House of Commons followed by a referendum of the people of Britain. There is no question of implementing it by the back door.
I closely followed Chancellor Schüssel's comments at the outset of the Austrian presidency but the British Government's position remains unchanged. In principle, we are not convinced of the case for a European tax. We believe that there should be fair competition in taxation and that the competence for taxation rests with nation states.
Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) (Lab): May I say to my right hon. Friend that there is a genuine danger of his being the longest-serving Minister for Europe in this Administration? I believe that he is about the seventh, on which I congratulate him. I hope that he remains in that position for a long time in the interests of the United Kingdom. The problem is that the Foreign Office often dictates our European policies because Ministers for Europe are not in post for long enough.
Belarus is the elephant in the room that is not mentioned in the White Paper. I urge my right hon. Friend to address the European Union's policy, which is not a sanction against the existing Government in Belarus.
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