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4.17 pm

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South) (Lab/Co-op): When the right hon. and learned Member for Devizes (Mr. Ancram) was speaking—unfortunately, he is not in the Chamber at present—he talked about a conspiracy in terms of stopping the debate and the period of reflection in this country. He referred to a conspiracy in the media and in the Government, but if he was being fair, he should also have referred to a conspiracy on the Opposition Benches.

All Opposition parties have done very little to engage in a real debate about Europe, because the issues involved have become very difficult for all parties. I am not going to comment on the remarks made by the putative sister party of the Conservatives—the ODS, the civic platform in the Czech Republic—which referred to the position adopted by the Polish putative sister party of the Conservatives as being dangerous and populist. Instead, I want to discuss the nature of the ongoing internal debates in each of the parties in our country. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) pointed out, what we have not had in the past year—the Government are largely responsible for this, but the Opposition also bear a significant responsibility—is real reflection and discussion. We now have another year. The Foreign Secretary told the Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday about there being a further year for further reflection. I hope that in the coming year, we can have a real discussion in this country about the options and the way forward. Many of us assumed, a year ago, that the constitutional treaty was dead, but recently the Foreign Minister of Finland, Erkki Tuomioja, said—

Mr. Davidson: My hon. Friend made that up.

Mike Gapes: No, that is his name. If my hon. Friend cannot pronounce it, he can call him Erkki. Mr. Tuomioja said the other day that it was wrong—and everybody agrees—to call it a constitution. We have already been reminded of the absurd remarks by former French President Giscard d’Estaing that somehow France has not decided because only 55 per cent. of the people voted no. Presumably, in his view of democracy, 101 per cent. would have to vote no before a decision could be reached. That attitude reflects a problem with engagement with reality that is found in many countries.

At the same time, we have to face the fact that 15 countries have ratified the treaty, either through parliamentary mechanisms or referendums, and another four or five—potentially more—could do so. Therefore, the issue is not going away and in 2009 or thereabouts we will have to confront it seriously. That might coincide with the next general election, so all the parties will have to get out of the comfort zone in
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which they are at present, because nothing is happening. I would be grateful if, when my right hon. Friend responds to the debate—as he is well qualified to do, because of his great expertise and experience in these matters—he can tell us how the debate can be taken forward in this country in the coming months.

We also need to confront the potential further enlargement of the EU. The question of Croatia is the most straightforward, but Macedonia is also a possibility. Therefore, we need to think about what will happen with the rest of the Balkans. One of the few positive things in the Balkans is the aspiration of everybody there almost to recreate Yugoslavia within the European Union. The way forward to ending the nationalistic conflicts and divisions is to get the people back together, and allow free movement of people, by bringing them into the European family. If we put up barriers to the Balkan countries, we could face serious difficulties, including conflict, in Bosnia-Herzegovina and with the Serbia-Kosovo issue, which has already been mentioned. If the latter is not resolved, it could become very difficult in a few months’ time, because the Kosovars believe that they will get independence and the Serbs are adamantly opposed. There is no possibility of any significant shift in those positions at present.

We also face the problem of definition of the Europe of the future. What will be the ultimate borders of an enlarged European Union? People have talked about the absorptive capacity of the existing institutions, but the Polish Government have argued that Belarus and Ukraine should be in the EU. That means that we need to think not only about that capacity, but about the potential borders of the EU. We have seen demonstrations in the Crimea and tensions between Ukraine and Russia. I attended a meeting in the European Parliament two weeks ago at which Members of the European Parliament and representatives from national Parliaments in the Baltic states denounced the Foreign Minister of Austria, Mrs. Plassnik, because the Austrian presidency had not raised strongly enough with the Russians the territorial disputes between Estonia and Russia that predate Estonia’s accession. I was never aware that the Estonians, in the process of negotiating the acquis and joining the EU, raised territorial issues with Russia as something that the EU should resolve. Nevertheless, problems will occur if such matters are not handled carefully. For example, another difficulty will arise if—or rather, when—Romania joins the EU. A few months ago, a senior Romanian politician told me that 20 per cent. of Moldovan citizens already had Romanian passports. Moldova is not in the EU and is not close to joining it, for all sorts of reasons.

A very interesting article talked about the consequences of the referendum in Montenegro and the growth of new states in Europe, but the frozen conflict in Moldova and Transnistria continues. If we are to enlarge the EU, therefore, we must also think about the strategic and political implications for Europe’s borders.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson) spoke about the need to consider the EU’s defence capability and collective security. He was right to do so, but other questions arise. For example, if there is a conflict between neighbouring EU states, at what point does the EU collectively become engaged? We need to consider such
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matters when we think about the future of Europe, but there is either a conspiracy of silence or people get obsessed with the constitutional minutiae. As the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Mr. Vara) put it, people do not want to mention the war or the Maastricht treaty because to do so would raise embarrassing questions about our own past beliefs.

All hon. Members have an embarrassing past when it comes to Europe—

Ms Gisela Stuart: Speak for yourself.

Mike Gapes: All right, all of us bar my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) have an embarrassing past when it comes to Europe. I freely admit that I campaigned for a no vote in 1975 and I was totally wrong to do so. However, whatever our approach in the past, it is time for many hon. Members to recognise that the EU of today is a magnet to very many people in very many countries. That is the Europe that we have to deal with.

Mr. Vara: I just want to clarify that I did not say that some subjects were no-go areas in discussions about the future of Europe. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that.

Mike Gapes: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman will intervene again to say where he stands in respect of the Maastricht treaty, but he does not seem to want to.

A few weeks ago, the Foreign Affairs Committee visited China. Everyone talks about China and India now, but there is little recognition of the enormity of the changes taking place in Asia as a whole. Massive foreign investment is going into Vietnam and Indonesia, and there is massive economic growth in various countries in the region. The 21st century could belong to Asia, and we Europeans will have to think carefully about the consequences.

That is why it is so vital that we achieve agreement in the Doha round negotiations, and adopt a constructive approach to global trade and economic issues. It will be to the detriment of all us if we do not, but it will be especially hard on Britain. We are a global trading nation, with a global reach and involvement. The European Commissioner responsible for the Doha round talks is Mr. Mandelson, but he and the rest of the Commission must be far more flexible and imaginative. They need to make progress on agriculture policy, as does the US: without that, we face disaster in the negotiations.

I shall conclude with a consideration of the EU’s role in diplomacy. The way in which the British, French and German Governments, the EU three, have worked with regard to Iran—and Mr. Solana’s role—has been very positive. That could not have happened without someone—a figure in the EU—with the authority to play the role that he has been playing. Whatever that person is called, if we are going to work collectively and effectively, we need to have someone to play that co-ordinating role in the European Union.

We also need to look to the middle east issues and the engagement of the EU in support of the democratic process with regard to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. If a referendum is to be held in the Palestinian territories, I hope that the European Union can find ways to assist the monitoring and the validation of that result, because it is important for the
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future of peace and security in that region that we are able to take politics forward and get away from the violence and the current terrible human rights issues.

4.30 pm

Mr. Robert Walter (North Dorset) (Con): We were warned at the beginning of the debate that we were the same old anoraks, saying the same old things every six months on the subject of the European Council meeting, as if we were unaware of the agenda of that meeting. However, we have heard some quite interesting new thoughts and fresh ideas in this debate. We have not all been rehearsing the same old ideas—certainly not so far—although occasionally we have tended to go back and refer to thoughts on the constitution.

The hon. Member for Ilford, South (Mike Gapes), the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, may have misunderstood the French language in his reference to Giscard d’Estaing, who acknowledged that 55 per cent. of the French people had voted against the constitution, but said that that did not mean that France was against the constitution. That rather reminds me of a headline in Le Figaro a couple of months ago which said that Dominique de Villepin spoke to France, but Nicolas Sarkozy spoke with the people of France. That reflects a nuance or difference in the minds of the French political elite as to what constitutes France.

I want to refer to some thoughts that have been rehearsed by other Members about transparency and scrutiny in the European Union. I also want to look a little at our relationships with our neighbours outside the Union—particularly Norway and Turkey—and to concentrate some of my remarks on an issue that the Foreign Secretary did not talk about: European security and defence policy. I mentioned in an earlier intervention that the European Union took the decision in April to launch a new military mission to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which will take place next month, surrounding the elections there.

I was amazed—a number of other Members have referred to this and the Foreign Secretary did respond—that there appeared to be some backtracking on something that was even in the constitution. I am talking about the idea that we should have greater transparency in Council of Ministers meetings and European Council meetings. The Foreign Secretary gave the regrettable impression that the Council of Ministers, which is, after all, a legislative body, even if it is not a Parliament—it does not always discuss legislation; sometimes it has reflective debates, rather like today’s debate—should for ever and a day continue to hold its deliberations in private and in secret. If we are going to scrutinise effectively and re-engage effectively with the peoples of Europe, we have to have greater transparency in the meetings of the Council of Ministers.

I criticised the provisions of the constitution during previous debates because they seemed to suggest that cameras would be allowed in only for the vote. The debate would thus take place, with the cameras then coming in to record how Ministers were voting. It is suggested that if we replicated that in the House, we would take the cameras out of the Chamber and put
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them in the Division Lobby, which would allow us to hold our debates in private.

Chris Bryant: They should be in the Division Lobby as well.

Mr. Walter: The Division lists are published fairly soon after we have all trooped through the Lobby.

Parliamentary scrutiny should be on the agenda of the European Council meeting, given the absence of any progress that we will ever make on the constitutional treaty. I was intrigued by the comments of the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East (Mr. Hood), the Chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, about his visit to Finland last week. I was also in Finland last week, although I was with not his Committee, but another parliamentary group. I had a meeting with the Chairman of the Grand Committee of the Finnish Parliament. That Committee is very large and meets every Friday to hear the positions that Finnish Ministers will be taking prior to Council meetings. The Committee then deliberates on whether it agrees with those positions and if it disagrees, it calls the Ministers back so that there can be further discussion. The great effectiveness of the Committee perhaps reflects the fact that Finland has a coalition Government, but we could none the less take an interest in that procedure.

I was interested to hear that the Grand Committee meets every Friday, including when the Parliament is in recess. If there is a Council of Ministers meeting during a recess, the Ministers who are representing Finland at the meeting are called before the Committee to present their positions.

Mr. Hood: May I invite the hon. Gentleman to reflect on what he learned in Finland? The same thing is often said about the Folketing Committee in Denmark. From our perspective, that Committee is not scrutinising its Government, but is part of the legislative process. If a Committee in our Parliament was mandating a Minister to go to the Council, it would be part of the legislative process, rather than carrying out scrutiny.

Mr. Walter: I accept the subtle difference that the hon. Gentleman makes. None the less, if we are to re-engage with the British people on where we are going in Europe and the decisions that Ministers take in the name of the British people, we might have something to learn from the rigorous procedure that takes place in Finland.

Ms Gisela Stuart: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is not just a subtle difference between mandating and scrutiny roles? One of the disadvantages of mandating Ministers is that when those Ministers go to the Council, their voting position is known, so their colleagues simply take them as part of the equation regarding building a blocking minority and those Ministers are thus not players in the negotiations, which can be quite a drawback at the European level.

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Mr. Walter: I accept that point. We must examine the matter in different ways to take account of our traditions and practices. However, as I said in response to the hon. Member for Lanark and Hamilton, East, that does not mean that we cannot learn something from the Finnish procedure in practice.

According to a movement that has existed in this country for some time in certain quarters, we could somehow establish a different relationship with the European Union. The example of Norway is often cited. I was encouraged by the robust confirmation and reinforcement of our commitment to Britain’s EU membership that we heard from my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague). I do not think that this country can have any role in some kind of semi-detached or associate relationship.

Norway is one of the Scandinavian countries that I visited. The Norwegian Parliament and Government have a better record on implementation of EU directives than most EU member states. The House of Commons Library kindly provided me with some data. The European Commission has an implementation report score card based on the percentage of directives that have not been implemented by EU member states and members of the European economic area. Norway has failed to implement l per cent. of directives. The Commission’s target allows a country to have a non-implementation record of up to 1.5 per cent. The United Kingdom has failed to implement 2.5 per cent. of directives. Our non-implementation record is 2.5 times worse than that of Norway, which is not even a member of the EU but implements its directives none the less, sometimes with some enthusiasm.

I do not know whether those who suggest that a Norwegian relationship would be advantageous to this country are thinking of the fact that Norway is a signatory to the Schengen acquis, and therefore has open borders with the rest of the EU and no border controls in relation to the EU and its member states. Its only border controls relate to states outside the EU, states that are not party to the Schengen agreement—including the United Kingdom—and its own territory of Svarlbad, or Spitzbergen, for those with older atlases.

The other point about Norway is that it makes budget contributions to the European Union. Over the coming year it will contribute some €33 million, which is a fair amount of money for quite a small country. Norway’s contribution works out at about €50 a head, while that of the United Kingdom is only €76 a head. The financial benefit of our moving to a “Norwegian position” would amount to about €26 a head. I would not be prepared to make a saving of that order if it meant sacrificing our position in the EU in terms of control and government.

Along with Turkey, Norway is also one of the major contributors to the European security and defence policy. Accounts of EU missions in connection with the ESDP often reveal Norway and Turkey, which are not members of the EU, to be major contributors of troops and finance. For example, I think that Norway has more than 1,000 troops committed to Operation Altea in Bosnia, which is the largest of the EU’s military operations.

I hope that the Minister for Europe will be able to respond to my next point. On 27 April, the Council of Ministers took the decision, through a joint action, to
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send troops to the Democratic Republic of the Congo. Theoretically, this should have been the first test of the EU battlegroup concept. However, there has been a sad failure to test the concept despite the fact that the European Council took a decision in 2004 to create 13 battlegroups with about 1,500 troops each. They would provide the rapid reaction force capability that we are also sadly lacking or getting anywhere near to achieving. Four of the 13 battlegroups would be made up of members from a single nation and the other nine would be multinational and also include members from non-EU states such as Norway. The plan was to have the interim operational capacity of the battlegroups up and running in 2005, but we have still not got that, and they were supposed to come to full operational capacity in 2007. We are only six months away from that, but have just missed the first opportunity to test the battlegroup concept.

Mr. Ben Wallace (Lancaster and Wyre) (Con): Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the fundamental failures of the grand plan for such military deployments is that other EU member states have consistently failed to invest in lift capability, defence forces and defence research? None of the plans can be put into action without going to NATO to provide the lift capability that is necessary for deployment. The plan is just something on a bit of paper.

Mr. Walter: My hon. Friend is absolutely right, but I remind him that the concept of the battlegroups was for them to be within the NATO architecture. My point is that they have failed the first test. Germany is at the top of the roster in the current cycle for battlegroup deployment yet even it is unable to fulfil the commitment to providing 1,500 troops for a battlegroup formation in a German-led mission to the Congo. As a result, the Congo mission has had to be put together under existing procedures. Although it is German led in the sense that Germany has the lead role and operational control is in Potsdam, the commander will be a French general and the group will be made up of 500 German troops, 500 French troops and 500 from other European nations. The United Kingdom has had to plead overstretch, so we will offer only one officer for the headquarters in Potsdam, although we will make a financial contribution of about €3 million towards the administrative costs of the venture.

If we are to increase the number of EU military missions and the 13 battlegroups in operation, we must come to terms with what is required. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster and Wyre (Mr. Wallace) made the point very well: we cannot have a commitment on paper by European nations to participate in such exercises if they cannot actually fulfil their commitment to service the battlegroups.

The Maastricht treaty was mentioned earlier, and it is worth reminding the House that the whole process is a second pillar, intergovernmental process. As an intergovernmental process, it should also be subject to the scrutiny of national parliamentarians and, at the European level, to European inter-parliamentary scrutiny.

The former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. Member for Blackburn (Mr. Straw), said in a statement last year:

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