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The hon. Member for Moray asked me about problems in the field of justice and home affairs, such as cross-border crime, drug trafficking and people trafficking. It is precisely because some justice and home affairs issues are of their nature pan-European that we are prepared to keep an open mind on any potential proposals for changing the way we take some of the decisions in this area. The ideas that have been put forward in the European Commission’s “Citizens’ Agenda” paper on the so-called passerelle are complex. They deserve serious consideration and thought, and that is what we will give them. We do not intend to
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indulge in scaremongering about loss of veto or about introducing the constitutional treaty by the back door, neither of which is true.

Co-operation in this field can be vital. For instance, it was the European arrest warrant, which was agreed two years ago, that helped to ensure the speedy return to the United Kingdom of one of the suspects following the events of 21 July. In this area, as so often, it is solving the problems that matters more than gesture politics or grandstanding.

Similarly, I do not believe in gesture politics when it comes to transparency. I am sorry to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz), who asked me about transparency, is not in his place. There is no doubt that opening up every aspect of Council deliberations, as is being proposed, may give a veneer of greater democracy and efficiency, but having spent seven of the past nine years in Councils which legislate, my firm belief is that it would simply mean backroom deals done away from the cameras, an EU that is less—rather than more—open, and potentially less effective as well, which would certainly be disadvantageous.

John Bercow (Buckingham) (Con): The right hon. Lady spoke about terrorism and about the need for the European Union to be effective. Given that the Government of Burma are guilty of state terrorism and massive human rights abuses, including rape as a weapon of war, compulsory relocation, the use of child soldiers and the use of human minesweepers, does she agree that this is a scandalous state of affairs, and that it is time that the French stopped putting the pursuit of filthy lucre before democratic values, and that we got a decent and robust common policy that might bring about change in that benighted country?

Margaret Beckett: I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. There is no doubt that there is a terrible situation in Burma, and that it is incumbent on us all to do everything we can to put pressure on the Burmese Government. However, the subject is unlikely to come up at this weekend’s Council, although no doubt there will be occasions to pursue it in the future. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that whenever there are, I will endeavour to do so.

John Bercow: Have a word with Chirac in the margins.

Margaret Beckett: On the status of the constitutional treaty—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. I am sorry to interrupt the right hon. Lady. May I say to the hon. Member for Buckingham (John Bercow) that I still live in hope that we will get his interventions down to a more compact form, but when he tries to supplement them from a sedentary position, that is going a little too far?

Margaret Beckett: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

On the status of the constitutional treaty, we do not believe that now is the time for the European Council to take a definitive decision. There was a clear
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consensus last June that a period of reflection was needed. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston asked me about that. The ongoing national debates on the future of Europe show that there is no clear consensus on the constitutional treaty. It seems to us that the European Council should respect that diversity of opinion and agree to extend the period of reflection.

With regard to enlargement, this European Council was due to take a decision on whether Bulgaria and Romania should accede to the Union in 2007 as scheduled or whether to delay accession until 2008. The Commission has now recommended deferring that decision until October, given its concerns about the readiness of both countries. There will be a report from the Commission in October. However, we expect that the topic of enlargement may still be raised at the European Council. Here, as in the debate on the future of Europe, the United Kingdom’s position has always been very clear, and I am pleased to acknowledge that it has received full support from both sides of the House.

There is no better example of how the European Union can bring tangible benefits to its citizens than through successive waves of enlargement. Those benefits have been most obvious in the countries acceding. They have gained both greater economic growth and greater political stability. That was true back in the 1980s when countries such as Spain and Greece emerged from dictatorship, and it was true in 2003 when the 10 new member states stepped out from the shadow of communist totalitarianism.

Existing member states have benefited too. Our peace and security have been enhanced by that spreading stability and by the spreading of the rule of law to an ever-wider circle of neighbours. As we have seen from the most recent wave of enlargement, it has opened up new markets and given us access to much needed skilled labour. Any enlargement has to be managed carefully. It must take into account a number of factors, including the ability of the European Union to absorb new member states, as the European Council acknowledged at Copenhagen in 1993.

Mr. Todd: Will my right hon. Friend draw the attention of her colleagues to the success that the United Kingdom has had in taking a more open approach to new members joining the European Union and the migration of labour that has been achieved with that, very much to the benefit of this country’s economy, by contrast with performance elsewhere?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is right. I am not carrying all the details in my head at this moment, but he may like to know that a number of member states are reconsidering the decision that they made, and there may be another four or five that will open up to varying degrees to further movement of members of the work force.

While the capacity to absorb new member states must be considered, the accession negotiation process must be implemented rigorously and all candidates must meet EU standards, but the European Union
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should not use either of these perfectly valid concerns as a pretext to renege on existing commitments on enlargement, and it would be quite wrong for any changes to the EU’s policy to rule out the possibility of future, further enlargements.

I have spoken about the need for an effective European Union. That is just as true outside Europe’s borders as within them. The European Council will discuss a paper from Commission President Barroso on greater coherence on the EU’s external policies. It will contain proposals to improve internal Commission co-ordination, to develop co-operation between member states, the Commission, the high representative and the Council, and to enhance the visibility and accountability of the European Union’s external actions.

On specific aspects of external relations, we expect discussion of the middle east to take place. I will be discussing the peace process with my colleagues over dinner on Thursday night. I know that many Members of the House have a particular interest in that area and intend to use this debate as an opportunity to discuss some of the pressing problems in that region.

Mr. Greg Hands (Hammersmith and Fulham) (Con): Are the foreign relations problems under discussion likely to include the situation in Uzbekistan, given the fact that the EU arms embargo and visa bans are both set to expire in October? Surely the time is right now to discuss their extension, which would be widely welcomed.

Margaret Beckett: The hon. Gentleman raises an interesting point. I do not anticipate that the issues of Uzbekistan are likely to be on the European Council agenda. As he will have observed, it is a fairly full agenda, but I am sure those issues will be on the agenda of the General Affairs Council before the next European Council meeting takes place.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op) rose—

John Bercow rose—

Margaret Beckett: I had better give way to the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee.

Mike Gapes: My right hon. Friend mentioned the discussions on the middle east. Can she give us an indication whether the temporary implementation mechanism for assistance to the Palestinian people is likely to make any significant progress in the next few days, given the acute political crisis, the crisis of violence and the humanitarian needs of the people in Palestine?

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend’s timing is, as ever, impeccable. I was about to turn to exactly that issue. I very much hope that those discussions will make progress over the next few days. As he and the House will know, the Commission is leading the development of the temporary international mechanism to help support the basic needs of the Palestinian people, and the UK is working with the Commission to try and get the mechanism set up
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urgently. My hon. Friend and the House will appreciate that there is a great deal of technical work to do, to make sure that the mechanism is accountable and transparent so that we can all know exactly where the money is going. As a result, the details of what it will support and how it will work are still under discussion. When that has been finalised, I will of course report on these matters to the House.

John Bercow: I understand the constraints of this weekend’s agenda. Given that the Minister used the words “accountability” and “transparency”, what is wrong with public excoriation of EU member states which prop up regimes that abuse human rights? What is wrong with that tactic?

Margaret Beckett: If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I do not intend at this stage to enter into a theoretical discussion about the circumstances in which member states may or may not criticise each other’s courses of action, especially as I am almost at the end of my speech and conscious of how many other hon. Members wish to speak. I simply say to him that he has made a very important point about the position in Burma and he knows that the Government share his concern for that unhappy country.

Iran will be probably be a main topic of the Council discussions. The Council is also likely, so far as we can judge, to hear a report on how discussions with the Iranian Government are taking place, and it will be conscious of the importance of achieving success in that arena.

The EU needs to continue to play an active role in all these matters. Returning to the middle east peace process and the issues surrounding it, the Prime Minister, the Chancellor and I met Prime Minister Olmert on Monday and Tuesday and discussed with him how to take the peace process forward. We have no wish to go down any path other than that of a negotiated settlement, and we agreed with Prime Minister Olmert that that should be our primary objective. However, the process has to advance, and if it proves impossible to proceed on that basis, which we all must hope does not happen, then other ways will need to be considered. Let me be clear that, as our Prime Minister himself set out, not least in his press conference, it is our task in the international community, the UK, the EU and the broader Quartet to do everything that we can to ensure that there is the best possible chance for a negotiated settlement.

Both cases—Iran and the middle east peace process—are striking examples of how joint European action can make a real difference to peace and stability beyond Europe’s borders, and in so doing enhance security and stability within those borders.

Much of what this Government and the people of this country want to achieve can be achieved only by working with and through the European Union.

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): Will the right hon. Lady give way?

Margaret Beckett: I would have given way earlier but I am on my final sentence, so the hon. Gentleman will have to forgive me.

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It is for that reason that we will continue to press for the European Union to be as effective as possible in tackling the challenges that face our citizens and in delivering the real benefits that they expect; and we will continue to play an effective role on behalf of Britain’s goals and to maintain our influence in the European Union.

1.42 pm

Mr. William Hague (Richmond, Yorks) (Con): I begin by welcoming the Foreign Secretary to her first full-scale debate in the House as Foreign Secretary, although we have had a chance to congratulate her before. Let me say on behalf of all Members in all parties that we wish her well in her post, because many of the matters that she has to deal with, such as the middle eastern issues that she mentioned and the difficulties with Iran, go far beyond party politics and the scope of this debate. There will be many crises during which we will all look to her to act in the national interest, and I wish her well in doing so.

In her role, the Foreign Secretary will be able to look forward to the traditional six-monthly debates before European Council meetings. She will notice that it is also traditional for the same Members to attend them and make a speech that is 95 per cent. the same as the one that they made on the previous occasion. I will try to break out of that a little bit this time, as no doubt will other hon. Members. It is very important that we have such debates before European Council meetings, but it leads one to reflect that there may be additional ways whereby parliamentary scrutiny of Government policy at European Councils could be improved. I hope that the Government will want to consider those in future.

The Foreign Secretary has already discussed European matters at a Select Committee meeting yesterday, after which the press referred to her ability to say a great deal without saying very much—probably an essential attribute of a Foreign Secretary. It was noted in the press that when she was asked whether European issues required Cabinet representation in their own right, she uttered an immediate and abrupt no—a very straightforward answer. That perhaps helps to explain the oddity of the fact that the Minister for Europe gave a speech about Europe at the Centre for European Reform just three hours ago, before the commencement of this debate. His objective, so far as one can discover, was to restart the debate in this country about the European Union. I say, “so far as one can discover”, because even two hours ago the Foreign Office website was not immune from the wave of public apathy that greeted his speech, so I have not yet been able to examine it in detail.

Once again the Government are talking about restarting the debate on the European Union. Only two years ago, the Prime Minister stood at the Dispatch Box and said of Europe:

Since then, he has made hardly any speeches about Europe and has tried to resist debating it at all, apart from one other speech at the European Parliament that I will come to in a moment.

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Angus Robertson: On restarting the European debate, people living in fishing communities around the country have been interested to learn that the Conservative party, which shamefully took us into the common fisheries policy, has now reneged on its policy to withdraw from it and is content to stay within it. Is that part of the new Tory approach in Scotland—vote Tory and get a Labour Government?

Mr. Hague: I am not aware of any such approach. The common fisheries policy has failed economically and environmentally; we are very clear about that, as is the hon. Gentleman. We have long sought more local and national control in fisheries policy and agricultural policies. In our policy review, we will want to look closely at ways of achieving policies that encourage sustainable fishing, do not place excessive burdens on taxpayers, and enrich and protect the environment. We have not come to any conclusion about that, but we will of course do so before the next general election. Other parties should be engaged in that process instead of being content not to try to change such a failing policy.

Keith Vaz: Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Hague: If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, I should like to develop my opening remarks a little.

It is rather a shame that the former Leader of the House, who is now Minister for Europe, chose to restart the debate on Europe somewhere else—neither in our debate nor sufficiently in advance of it that hon. Members have had a chance to digest and analyse his speech. If that is revealing, the content, so far as it is possible to discern it, was a little more so. He said—I agree with him about this—that people in Britain have come to associate Europe with “obscure constitutional arrangements”. He also refused to rule out the revival of the European constitution. I must warn him that in doing so, he is taking a different path from the former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), who has pretty much said in this House that the European constitution is dead. In fact, the last time that he was asked about it by my hon. Friends on the Front Bench, he said:

He went on to say that it is in “in limbo”. Whatever theological contortions that may have led him into, it is apparent to all that one cannot be in limbo without being dead. While he did not like to put it bluntly, his message was pretty clear. The deeply flawed constitution—a centralising, integrationist treaty whose time has truly passed—could not be revived, as the Dutch Foreign Minister has stated categorically. It is a pity that Ministers do not have the courage to say that bluntly.

Chris Bryant: On a theological matter, I should like to point out to the right hon. Gentleman that limbo was mostly reserved for those who had never been born.

Mr. Hague: I will not take too many lessons on morality from someone who thought that auctioning off the Hutton report was a good idea.

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