We have had an enjoyable debate. As someone who takes part in such debates only intermittently, I always learn a great deal from colleagues on both sides of the House. Over Whitsuntide, I travelled to Serbia, Macedonia and Albania. While the legacy of communism is not hard to find in eastern Europe, it is always encouraging and illuminating to see what has survived despite it. The reason for my visit was to celebrate the activities of a remarkable group of young people whom I have come to know in recent years. They come from many different countries in the Balkans, but they share a determination to go into public life with integrity in lands where trust, honesty and integrity have been heavy casualties in a dictatorship of fear. Working together, and mostly sharing a belief that the principles of Jesus Christ form an opportunity to come together and not divide, whatever ones religious background, they have slowly begun to emerge in more senior positions in politics, business and the media in their own countries. That has been the result of great commitment and dedication. At the third Balkan gathering in Belgrade, more than
150 people came together to celebrate the fact that the human spirit could not be crushed, and that faith and principle had been reduced only temporarily by repression and corruption. As with apartheid, the agony is not that dictatorship failsit always doesbut that it succeeds all too well in damaging mind and soul, leaving a moral and material vacuum that takes time to fill.
The countries that I am talking about are on their way. They boast busy capitals, where young people enjoy cafés, bars and restaurants. The atmosphere is open and modern but, under the surface, all three countries are poor. Unemployment is at around 35 to 40 per cent., and foreign investment is low. Politics is fiercely contested but democraticthe recent referendum to detach Montenegro from Serbia rested on a knife edge. The forthcoming election in Macedonia will be close, but is likely that a centre-right Government will be returned. A Government of similar colour was returned in Albania last year, after losing power for eight years. That is an example of the sort of turn-and-turn-about politics of which this House would be proud.
Infrastructure is poor. Roads, services and transport links need investment, and professionals are poorly rewarded. A teacher in Albania, for example, will work for €240 a monthnot an uncommon salary for a public-sector professional.
Old socialist attitudes die hard. An excellent private university in Skopje struggles with a Government who are not impressed with its initiative, but students pay and flow through the doors for quality teaching. A private company is told by the Government to employ people full-time, even if the contracts are not there to support such a work force. People want domestic economic reform along lines very familiar to Conservative Members, but they fear that it is happening all too slowly.
The worst damage has been done by the corrupt nature of government and its impact on trust and integrity. Public confidence is low, so too many talented and qualified people believe that their future can lie only outside their own land. Those who work abroadand 1 million out of 4 million Albanians do sosend their remittances home and make a vital contribution.
Those people, both in government and out of it, who are working to combat the trend, need our full support. I met Ministers and politicians in every country determined to make a difference. So let us salute Samuel and his team in Belgrade for their faith in their country, and for their determination to fire people with a desire to stay and work for a brighter future
Let us also acknowledge the work of Vilma Trajkovska in Macedonia. She is the widow of a reforming president who was a key architect of the agreement that brought peace between Macedonia and Kosovo in 2001, yet who tragically died in a air crash three years later. Madam Trajkovska now heads an international foundation established in her husbands memory, and continues his work of defusing conflict and building a modern Balkans.
Finally, let us hear it for Arian and Dorian, two young men from different political parties in Albania. They work tirelessly in a sceptical environment to
bridge gaps and divides in a land where the word opponent normally means enemy.
One further theme unites all those people, and virtually all the political parties in their countriesthe importance of joining the EU. It is very easy, in the democratic security of these islands, to forget the EUs political origins. We find little need to recall the shattered remnants of continental Europe, but we were never occupied. The legacy of a century or sometimes more of racial, ethnic and nationalistic conflict is the reality of everyday memory for millions of people in continental Europe. The EUs political impact as a force for stability, a yardstick for advancement and a barrier to all that ever happening again should never be discounted. There are very few members of the Better Off Out brigade in the western Balkans.
It cannot be doubted that the EU has been a major force in securing democracy and the rule of law in many countries that were new to those freedoms. We have seen the EUs effectiveness in the last quarter century in the Mediterranean, we have seen it in the new members from central and eastern Europe since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and we see it now in the Balkans and Turkey. Enlargement has been a triumphant success.
EU membership is a sign that you are a decent trustworthy member of international society.
Hear, hear. He repeated the comments in his excellent speech from the Front Bench this afternoon. It is easy to be blind to the faults of the EU when one comes from where the Balkan countries are coming from, but perhaps they see a truth in the existence of the EU that bears our being reminded of it. Equally, however, the EU has now got to step up to the plate. If the EU does not reform and deliver, it will risk letting down all those people who are pinning so many hopes on it.
Even those who are interested in reform and reconstruction of the EU can now feel some greater optimism for its future. For many years, a cautious and moderate centre-right Conservative voice has warned of the worst faults of the EU, imploring it to wake up to a wider world, stop the endless self-analysis of institutions and accept that the blueprint of the 1950s, dealing with the challenges of that time, may not be the only way forward. My right hon. Friends recent speech also had much of that spot on. He said:
Britain is well placed to lead and challenge some orthodoxies of recent decades that are now so clearly failing. We must replace the habits of heavy regulation and rigidity with freedom and flexibility.
The new Chancellor of Germany has made some recent speeches that indicate how far centre-right thinking is moving in answer to the familiar and tedious sclerosis of the EU. She understands the need to ask fundamental questionssomething we would do. I am slightly surprised that some of her remarks have not been referred to earlier. In the Bundestag on 11 May this year, in a debate on the European Union, she said:
The truth must be looked in the eye, for it is in part sobering indeed. Many citizens criticize Europe for its tendency to
overregulate and doubt that Europe can tackle the problems of the futureunemployment and low economic growth. In brief, it must be said that Europe is not valued as highly by the Europeans as its history would perhaps give reason to believe.
We must, and I am deeply convinced of this, critically review the state of the European project. We must put the people at the centre and answer their questions. What does Europe mean for my job, for my prosperity, for my social security when I fall ill or grow old? Does Europe make things easier, better or does it put a brake on them, put obstacles in their way? I believe that we should not avoid these questions. We should answer them directly, giving specific, concrete replies.
In my opinion, our task now is no more and no less than to add a new rationale to the historical reasons for the foundation of the European Union.
Mr. Cash: I am listening to my hon. Friend with great interest. I, too, have been following what Angela Merkel has been saying. Does he recognise thatwith respect both to those admirable young people he referred to at the beginning of his speech, who are looking for a new world within the European framework, and to Angela Merkel and the German peoplethey need to be prepared to have a radical rethink of the European Union to get it back to the democratic principles and the idea of nation states in association with one another, as I and others have advocated? That is the way to move forward to satisfy their requirements and to address the sort of sentiments expressed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague).
Alistair Burt: I am not sure how far I can commit the Chancellor of Germany to following all of my hon. Friends agenda. I hope to reassure him, and colleagues on these Benches and in the House in general, that some of the caution that has been expressed about the progress of the European Union over the yearswhen it has been perfectly obvious that it has been failing and not deliveringhas been picked up by the Chancellor of one of Europes most important states. That is a start. It is progress. The sort of things that Angela Merkel says should be welcomed by anybody in the House, but particularly by my colleagues on the Front Bench.
It is our task to cooperate actively on the Lisbon Strategy. It is important to examine where Europe has bound its own hands, where its policies are inimical to growth.
Demonstrating a real commitment to free trade means demonstrating that we accept competition, that we want open markets, that we are not isolationist and protectionist, although such tendencies do exist. It means demonstrating that globalisation is a challenge we are meeting head-on. That is easy enough to say, but the difficulties begin when action is called for.
I cannot think of many Conservative leaders who would have been disturbed or concerned about saying
exactly the same thing. Tremendous progress is being made in Europe when someone of Angela Merkels stature is dealing with just that matter.
Secondly, we have promised to cut down on red tape. That, too, is easily said, but putting it into practice is a different matter. We want to learn from other countries in Europe that have pioneered ways of measuring regulatory impact.
I reckon that that applies to us. Such pressure would not have been in place but for my Front-Bench colleagues and othersI include as part of that the force of light sitting behind me, my hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash)and the way in which we have tackled regulation over many years. The German Chancellor has also said:
I expressly support the Commission, in particular the President of the Commission and Vice-President ... who have both said that dismantling bureaucracy is the order of the day. We can cut 25 per cent. of all bureaucracy, not just here at home, but throughout Europe.
Of course, those are just words, but unlike with the Prime Minister, whose challenging rallying call to the European Parliamentmy right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorks referred to that earlierwas not followed up by real conviction or the delivery of change, I think that the sentiments of Mrs. Merkel mean that we can expect action. For a long time, Conservative Members have been looking for a serious partner who understands, as we do, not only the importance of the origins of the European Union and the need to maintain it, but the imperative of renewing it and meeting new challenges. The EU needs to continue to be an answer to the problems of Europe, not a contributor to new ones. In the German Chancellor, we may have found such an ally.
Alistair Burt: There are, of course, blind spots. The hon. Gentleman raised the EPP. I have not come here to discuss the Conservative partys domestic arrangements and disagreement among friends, but given that my hon. Friend the Member for Stone rose to similar bait, I do not think that it will cause any harm if I say a little about the matter, and I do not think that I will be letting any secrets out of the bag.
It is no secret that I voted in the final ballot for my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Cameron) as leader of the Conservative party. I voted for him knowing of his commitment to withdraw from the European Peoples party-European Democrats group. I also voted for him although we had had a conversation in which I told him that I would not have made such a commitment and that I was not a fan of it. I am not so much of a hypocrite as to say something in the Chamber about the EPP-ED that would be patently ridiculous and contrary to everything that hon. Members know about me.
However, the matter is of no consequence because the decision is not mine, but that of the leader of the party and the leader of our group in Europe.
I am passionate about Europe, and my friendships and relationships with people in the Christian Democratic Union go back some 20 years. However, those relationships and friendships will be maintained, irrespective of the relationships of groups in the European Parliament. Important though the matter is, it is not nearly as important as doing my job in opposition of removing an arrogant, deceitful, ineffective, time-expired and useless Government. Nothing that Conservative Members do in relation to Europe will get in the way of that, so Labour Members can take no comfort from any discussions that we might have about whom we sit with in the European Parliament.
Let me return to the blind spots. I was not referring to Mrs. Merkels membership of the EPP as a blind spot because, of course, I do not think that it is a blind spot. However, we do not think identically to Mrs. Merkel and the CDU. For example, the constitution as it is drawn will not be an answer. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone is right, as are many hon. Members, that the constitution will not work. The hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart) has done superb work on the constitution and her comments about it are elucidating, honest and refreshing. She knows, as the rest of us do, not only that the constitution is not an answer, but that Europe will continue to blunder on until we find an answer to the fundamental fudge. What must we do and support collectively, and what must we do on our own as nation states to draw distinctions and identify differences? Whatever it may be called, that issue has still not been sorted out, and until it is, the arrangements will not work. Whether there are six, 12, 25, 27 or 32 members, the issue must be sorted out, and we must all find a mechanism for that to be done.
Let me identify another blind spot on which I should like to hear from the Minister in due course. I should like the German presidency of the EU to take development and aid issues more seriously than appears likely at present. Those issues were rightly moved up the agenda under the UK presidency, and an ever-shrinking world continues to demand that we recognise the need to attack world poverty and injustice through a judicious balance of aid, trade and capacity-building.
It is rumoured that the forthcoming summit of the G8 and the German presidency of the EU may not maintain interest in international development issues. It is most likely that Germany will concentrate on economic and intellectual property, but that may provide openings. Perhaps the Minister will let me know what the Government are doing to ensure that development issues are a specific focus for Germany in 2007, so that the Gleneagles commitments can be built on. That may mean holding Government to account for promises that they have made, or pressing them on new promises.
If development is not to be a focus in itself, how will we seek to use any agenda that Chancellor Merkel sets out to press for progress on commitments to developing countries? It would be a shame if we went back on everything that has been achieved, and I hope
that we shall be able to make progress. Given the effectiveness of the Department for International Development, I, along with a number of my colleagues, still feel that the EU may not always be the best vehicle for dealing with the amount of aid that is involved. I should welcome any comfort that the Minister can offer.
As others have said today, the main thing is to recognise that, as the European Union stands at a crossroads once againit seems to do that during most weeksthere are real causes for optimism, provided that the EU continues to listen to the moderate centre-right voices of reform that have been so consistently championed by Conservative Members. My right hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, YorksI am delighted to see that he has returned to the Chambersaid in his speech on Europe the other week:
I am a firm believer that Britains place is in the European Union, a strong player in Europe, not at the margins. But that does not mean that we should abandon our critical faculties in examining the EUs predicament.
I entirely agree. I am sure that when my right hon. Friend comes to exercise his critical faculties in examining the EUs predicament, he will see the force of what Angela Merkel is achieving in Germany. I am sure that he will urge the Government to recognise that there are valuable opportunities for reform and progress, and that in driving forward reform and progress in Germany, Angela Merkel is giving a lesson that the Government, in their indolence, would do well to follow.
The debate has been very good-natured, as such debates usually are. I had expected a degree of consensus on the idea that the constitution was dead, just as joining the euro was dead, until my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, East (Keith Vaz) let the cat out of the bag by acting as an outrider for the European Unionas he often doesand suggesting that the whole point of a pause for reflection in this country was that it was a pause to persuade.
The issue is how we take forward the proposals that were agreed in the constitution.
I think that the idea that the pause is all about working out how we proceed with the constitution is fundamentally inappropriate, but it is shared by many of our European partners. The outgoing Austrian President, Chancellor Wolfgang SchÃ1/4ssel, has said
I can well imagine a referendum that takes place simultaneously in all EU states. The constitution would be accepted if the majority of the European population and the majority of states approves it.